'Mercy' is a solid season opener, teasing fans with a potential return to form for the show.
The Walking Dead – the show that once wore the crown for shocking and exciting plots, engaging and loveable characters and gruesome, but inspired visual design – is back for an eighth season, with showrunner Scott Gimple promising all-out war between our group of heroes led by the ever-charismatic Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and the cruel, vindictive Saviors, led by Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s obnoxious Negan. It’s a promise that tantalises long-time audiences with a return to form after a mediocre-at-best, blisteringly-awful at-worst seventh season that dragged its heels like a moody teenager across sixteen padded, monotonous episodes.
Can the show reclaim the glory of its earlier seasons? Will Rick and the gang survive? But most importantly, is this year’s season opener, ‘Mercy’, any good? Mercifully, it is.
The episode doesn’t kick straight into the action, but there’s a sense of palpable tension and build-up to the montage of shots showing characters both old and new preparing for battle. Rick’s back to his troop-inspiring, rugged best in the episode, and its hard not to share in the enthusiasm of his soldiers as he gives a momentous rallying speech, intercut throughout the episode to keep up the momentum. If there was anything season seven did well it was building up the Saviors to be a considerable threat, and whilst this episode depicts a decisive initial victory for Rick and co in the war, the danger posed by Negan and his men is never forgotten, with shots of diverging groups assaulting different bases of operations in order to clear the path for the major assault. Said assault is inspired, featuring a huge horde of walkers and a breadcrumb trail of explosions; even more delectable a prospect when you remember how other groups have previously used walkers to assault Rick’s group. Rick is clearly willing to fight dirty to win this war, as shown many times throughout the episode, but oddly the writers seem to be offering his merciless tactics as a moral quandary, with Carl’s encounter at a gas station with a seemingly-innocent random serving to offer a stark contrast between father and son.
But, this just doesn’t land. For starters, Carl has shown time and again that he is willing to go to a dark place in order to protect people he cares about; even going so far as to propose worse courses of action than Rick; making him a moral compass now is completely-redundant. Furthermore, I don’t think there’s a single member of the audience that doesn’t want to see Negan take a bullet between the eyes, so portraying Rick as a murderous avenger for trying to kill him when he was cowering behind a truck in the assault was a somewhat-pointless endeavour. Glenn and Abraham’s deaths still happened, guys. The episode is also intercut with dreamlike ‘flashforwards’ to a world after the war has been won, and Rick is a much older man who walks around with a cane. Without spoiling the comic books at all, these visions do correspond with later issues, implying that they intend to go the direct adaptation route. However, their ambiguous nature and ethereal qualities suggest something slightly-amiss, and with more subtle flashforwards in the episode also depicting a horrified, red-eyed Rick, its safe to say that the road to peace will not be a bloodless one.
There’s just enough action in this episode to make it a fitting follow-up to last season’s finale battle, and Gimple has assured fans that the entire season will feature breakneck action pacing, but only time will tell whether these claims hold water. But ‘Mercy’ is a promising start to the season, harkening back to better days whilst still confidently-providing something new. However, if season seven’s all-time low ratings are anything to go by, the show is anything but secure, and has to truly prove itself this year in order to safeguard it from going the same way as its titular zombie hordes.
The Walking Dead airs on Mondays on FOX in the UK.