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The Walking Dead S8E01: Mercy

Throughout last night’s season 8 premiere of The Walking Dead we were given peaks into the Talking Dead setup at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. This was a special occasion as directors, producers, and almost the entire cast both past and present joined host Chris Hardwick to celebrate this, the shows 100th episode. Thankfully for all involved, the episode carried its weight and delivered a solid mix of suspense, action, and plot layout to set the stages for ‘All Out War’ this season.

One of my critiques in looking forward to this season was Greg Nicotero’s ability to direct an episode packed with action. The season 5 premiere aside, and with full acknowledgement of his great skill in filming character-centric episodes, I have not been impressed with his direction during large scale fight sequences. While this episode didn’t quite reach a large scale fight, Nicotero did succeed in laying out a coherent battle strategy for Rick & Co. while maintaining a point of view that didn’t leave the audience wondering what they were looking at, and what was happening. Kudos for that.

Little to no digging is needed to identify the primary theme of this episode, and likely the remainder of this season; faith in one another. The episode begins with Rick, Ezekiel, and Maggie giving a pep-talk before they implement their plan to basically besiege the Sanctuary with a horde of walkers. In that speech Rick speaks of how they’ve already won and this world is theirs by right. He emphasizes how they are a peaceful people, but if someone comes along trying to take the world for themselves, they will put them down. Ezekiel gives his usual Kingly speech in old-English, but Maggie brings it back to faith in one another. This is why they’re stronger. This is why they’ll win. They fight for each other, not for a tyrant, and their faith in one another will see them through until the end.

The narrative of “putting down” someone who would have the world to themselves is the justification for attacking Negan; he’s cruel and greedy and he deserves it. There is an heir of vengeance involved given the deaths of Glenn and Abraham at Negan’s hand, but it would seem that wrath is a more apt description. So we have in the same speech calls to wrath and war, and calls to faith. These aren’t inherently contradictory, but the way in which they’re executed can cause them to be. In a terrific moment of contrast the show cuts to Carl on a fuel run, coming across a gas station not to dissimilar from the one Rick came across in the very first episode of the show. A man who appeared to be a lone traveler engages Carl in discussion and pleads for mercy, recalling the time his mother taught him that charity toward the traveler is one of the highest goods we can do. He’s asking for mercy, and even cites a line from the Quran in hopes of invoking it in Carl. But before Carl could judge the man’s intentions, Rick chased him off with gunfire. Were this two seasons ago, this is exactly the type of person to whom the three questions would’ve been asked. At that time, the hope of rebuilding thrived. Now, that hope is on hold, and Carl calls him out on it.

Carl: “That’s not gonna be enough, dad”

Rick: “Enough what?”

Carl: “Hope”

This is the tightrope the show will walk this season; the balance between hope and vengeance, between mercy and wrath. The fact that this scene immediately follows the pre-battle speech is important in examining what there is to hope for now. If they’re just scaring everyone away, no longer reaching out and offering peace and safety, then why fight? The implication is that fighting just to win isn’t enough. You have to know why you’re fighting, and that has to involve a hope that must not be lost among the bloodshed.

An interesting wrench thrown into this episode was an apparent time-jump to Rick as an old(er) man, waking up in relative peace to Michonne planning a festival and his now much older daughter enjoying the day. Audiences are left to wonder if this is the future reality, or if Rick is imagining this. That peaceful scenery is pitted against Rick in a sweat with bloodshot eyes, appearing as if he’s in some sort of despair. In those scenes we hear Rick say, “My mercy prevails over my wrath”. Entertainment Weekly has an interview with Andrew Lincoln wherein he speculates that this line and those scenes are intended to be abstract…

Don’t buy it, folks!

This line from Rick is a KEY element to the future of the show. Remember it, remember how you feel about it now, and remember how mercy and faithfulness balance out against vengeance and wrath in every episode you watch this season. I can almost guarantee that merely a cursory viewing, without full consideration of real-world choices in battle and what killing does to the human soul, will leave you angry and frustrated by the end of this season. Remember the wrath Rick is showing right now. Remember his feelings towards Negan and his promise to kill him. All of us will be asked to weigh mercy against wrath.

My Rating: B+

I’m sure readers of the comics can identify exactly where this is going and even point to specific lines in this episode that allude to some of those places in which we will arrive. Even in this episode it was clear what was happening long before it happened. Despite that, the show did a great job of adding elements to make it it’s own take on the source material and giving our characters some dialogue that enhanced that feeling of individuality. That plus the meticulous detail shown in the stages of the battle strategy, something we didn’t get much of at this point in the comics, was a great touch.

Written by Gene Gosewehr

Gene Gosewehr (@WizrdofGoz), former creator and admin of Let There Be Movies, is now a writer and editor at Reel World Theology and a contributor to A Clear Lens, a blog and podcast on Christian worldview and apologetics. He is a deacon and preacher at his local congregation, as well as a husband and father of three.