The Walking Dead: Season 8, Episode 1 – Mercy

“Those who use, and take, and kill, to carve out the world and make it theirs alone – we end them!”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

OK, I know I let the last half of The Walking Dead’s last season slide by without writing a word about it. It wasn’t that it was terrible; it’s just that it wasn’t terribly good, either. Let’s face it, there’s only so many times you can see the guys encountering a new bunch of survivors being terrorised by Negan before it starts getting a bit repetitive. If it had been dreadful, it would have been interesting to write about; if it had been good, it would have been interesting to write about. As it was… meh.

Still, the show’s back for its 8th season. AMC aren’t going to let their cash cow die, even if the show about zombies has become something of a zombie itself. The season premiere is also a milestone (if not a millstone) for the production team – it’s the show’s 100th episode. That leads to a certain amount of expectation, and to be fair, that’s always hard to live up to.

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Nonetheless, the production team threw their best people at it – the ep was written by showrunner Scott Gimple himself, and directed by exec producer Greg Nicotero, who also does the makeup effects and has shown himself a dab hand at directing before. And what we ended up with was… workmanlike without being especially stunning. Yes, it did feel an improvement on the last half-season that the gang were actually doing something about Negan and the Saviors; but somehow it didn’t impress the way previous season openers have. Think of Carol single-handedly destroying Terminus for a good comparison.

In many ways, it followed a familiar pattern – which might sum up the show’s problem these days. After angstily tormenting himself for episode after episode, Rick (yet again) rallied the troops with a stirring speech, before the battle begins in earnest. This was (presumably deliberately) reminiscent of the speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V before the king leads his army to victory at Agincourt. In case you didn’t notice, King Ezekiel chimed in by actually quoting said speech, albeit with the bit about ‘brothers’ amended to add ‘sister’ as a nod to Maggie.

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Starting out with Shakespeare gives a writer a lot to live up to, so it’s a bit audacious. But there was some interesting stuff going on here, particularly with the plot structure. As Gimple’s script built up to the battle, he kept leaping back/forward to other events which plainly will play into the main narrative. The show’s done this before, often to very good effect, but usually wraps the plot threads together at the end of each individual ep. Here, we were left with no answers as to what the little cutaways were all about, and as a result it felt more confusing than enlightening. Imagine watching only the first half of Pulp Fiction.

So the meat of the battle was crosscut variously with Rick in closeup looking none too well, and a nice nod to the show’s very first scene as Carl recreated his dad’s careful picking around a deserted gas station. As yet, there’s no clue whether these events are before or after the oncoming storm – but the other frequent cutaway, of old-age Rick with a frankly hilarious beard and grey hairdo, wasn’t all that clear either. It might be the future… or it might be some kind of fevered hallucination on Rick’s part. Though if I was going to imagine old age, I’d imagine it with rather more convincing facial hair.

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Tricksy narrative structure aside, it’s fair to say that it was the much-anticipated confrontation with Negan that fans were really salivating for. Perhaps for the first time in the show’s history, Rick’s meticulous advance planning actually seemed effective. The armoured cars and trucks were well thought out, and he even managed to enlist the aid of an easily diverted herd of Walkers in the way that he so singularly failed at a couple of years ago.

And yet for all that clever strategizing, when Rick’s Rabble finally rolled up to the Savior Sanctuary Negan stood right there in the open bantering with them and nobody shot him. I get that Rick wanted to give the others a chance to surrender (even Eugene, somewhat implausibly), but there was plenty of opportunity to take out the head of the serpent and end it right there, just as Rick stated earlier. Yes, it’s hard to aim precisely with an automatic rifle like the one Rick was brandishing, but did nobody in his plucky band of rebels have a sniper rifle?

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It’s possible this might be because of Rick’s earlier conviction that he has to be the one to end Negan. “It’s not about me,” he muttered to Father Gabriel before the battle, and Gabriel reminded him of it later; but plainly the showrunners don’t agree. That’s a shame, as the show has gathered a great ensemble of characters, who often shine on their own, but can’t seem to let go of the need to have a nominal hero figure.

Said ensemble were out in force, with the inevitable result that most of them got few (or no) lines. Still, after so many eps last season of them being scattered hither and yon in different communities, it was welcome to see them united – and symbolic of the hope that’s gripping them all. Carol’s plainly overcome her troublesome conscience (for now anyway), and the hitherto pacifistic Morgan seems to have wholly embraced his darker side in light of recent events. Gabriel appears to have taken on the ‘group conscience’ role formerly occupied by Dale/Hershel/Deanna, which to me is less interesting than when he was a nervy wreck.

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The rest were true to form without much in the way of development; but then that’s not what the ep was about, really. No, we came for the battle, and ominous foreshadowings of things to come could go hang. And there was some effective spectacle, what with the exchange of gunfire, the exploding RV, and the herd of Walkers. But again, I found myself comparing it to previous battles against the likes of the Governor and his tank, and finding it somehow lacking.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan, chewing all the available scenery as usual, remains the show’s ace in the hole as Negan – so in that sense at least, it’s just as well nobody shot him. It wasn’t much of a surprise to find him in that caravan with the understandably nervous Gabriel at the ep’s climax, as ever using all the week’s available quota of the word ‘shit’. The show’s going to need him if it can’t come up with anything particularly new.

Gore of the week

It’s maybe symptomatic of the way the show seems to have lost its teeth that, even with a great big battle and a herd of Walkers, there was no gore involving the living – principally because, unusually in this show, they all got to stay that way. Well, the ones we knew, anyway.

Still, with makeup supremo Greg Nicotero directing, it was no surprise that we got some truly memorable Walkers. From the partially disassembled wretches chained to the Sanctuary fence:

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…to the burn victim roped to an electricity substation:

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to the various wriggling chunks in the aftermath of the RV explosion:

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… it was clear that, at least where zombies are concerned, the show’s still got an impressive imagination.

Overall, this ep satisfied without actually thrilling. I’m not sure what to think about the flashbacks/flashforwards, and their lack of resolution. Perhaps they’ll be tied up in the next ep, or perhaps Scott Gimple is trying a long game of eking them out through the season. That could work (it was a very effective device in season 2 of Breaking Bad), but I remain unconvinced. While this was definitely an improvement on the increasingly formulaic previous half-season, it still felt like we’d been here before, and better.

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