The cast and crew are hoping the 100th episode is how The Walking Dead gets its groove back. Andrew Lincoln has called season 8 his “favorite season in a long time,” a season that brings “the swagger and the mojo back,” and one that’s “reminiscent of seasons 1-4.” This is exactly what fans want to hear after the slow, slow slog that was season 7. (The group’s main mission in the second half was to acquire guns, and what happens in the season finale? They. Lose. Their. Guns!) But it’s also something we’ve heard before with previous seasons that never paid off that hype.
The show’s recent panel at New York Comic Con became a time to air some of those frustrations. Moderator Chris Hardwick would ask the cast a question and, in many cases, the actors would have to sit and smile for a bit as they’d be drowned out by fans shouting their own comments. Lennie James was musing about Morgan’s hesitation to become violent when one audience member shouted, “Just do it!” And before Austin Amelio could get a word in about Dwight, another fan bellowed, “I hate that guy.”
When we finally pick up with Rick Grimes in “Mercy,” we do get a sense that the old Rick (and the Old Man Rick) is back. He’s more militarized, more brutal, and he’s ready to relinquish his command of the group once this is all done — and thank God for that because he’s not exactly the best strategist. While we shouldn’t start judging this season as the best yet, the opening makes one thing perfectly clear, and it’s something else the cast members have been saying ad nauseam: The gang is ready for war.
It’s difficult, however, to discern when some of the moments glimpsed before the credits take place. We can figure that Rick’s rousing speech to the troops is happening in real time. The same goes for Daryl’s secret arrow relays with Dwight, and Carol and Tara tracking a herd of walkers. (Side note: Did you catch that drawing of a flower on the side of the overpass next to Carol? Is it, like Daryl once said of the Cherokee Rose, a sign of hope for these dark times?) The same goes for the montage of Hilltoppers assembling their armored cars, the blacksmiths forging weapons, and the assembling of all three rebel colonies before the fight.
But there are also moments like the scene of Rick standing over Glenn and Abraham’s grave at the Hilltop (also likely in the present), and a quick close-up of Rick’s eyes, red from crying, that flashes on screen after he and Ezekiel address their army. We get another piece of this scene further on in the episode, and we see a stained-glass panel dangling above him. He seems to be wearing the same shirt he had on at the start of the attack, so one would think this is a flash-forward to signal that their plans don’t go exactly as planned.
Then there’s the one that fans have been hoping to decipher: Old Man Rick. We see a full-bearded Rick wake in a bed at the start of the episode and more snippets are revealed throughout the hour. It’s a vision of some kind — perhaps of the future, perhaps of an alternate reality where there’s peace instead of war, perhaps of a dream sequence. Whatever the case, it’s of Rick limping around his home in Alexandria. Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” is playing in the background, while Michonne and Carl are playing hooky. They turned off Rick’s alarm so he could sleep in. The final moments of the episode bring another extension of this scene, where we see a more grown-up Judith run to her dad to say a giant owl has been built for the party. Michonne remarks that the people are “taking this festival very seriously.” They walk outside to reveal a freshly built stone house across the street as Alexandria is readying for a celebration.
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It’s reminiscent of a moment from issue #127 of the Walking Dead comic series. (Spoiler warning for anyone who wants to skip the remainder of this paragraph.) A time jump brings readers two years after the war with Negan, and Rick is similarly hobbling around with an injured leg. That’s not to say the Old Man Rick scene on the show is also a time jump because, frankly, that’d be so un-Walking Dead-like. The war with Negan hasn’t even begun and a flash-forward would spoil who survives it all, whereas the powers that be have lined their pockets by letting fans dangle — sometimes to the point of narrative frustration.
On this scene, executive producer Scott M. Gimple said we’ll know what it all means about halfway through the season.
When we snap back to the present, Carl rides up to a gas station to get more fuel, but he hears a voice: a man nervously rambling about how he was shot at and needs help. It’s a scene that was meant as a “shot-for-shot” remake of the very first scene on the show: Rick, also looking for gas, stumbles on a zombie child in bunny slippers. Carl finds, instead, a young Middle Eastern man hoping for at least some food. From a distance, Rick fires shots in the air to scare him off, thinking he could be one of Negan’s spies. Carl stands before him as the man Rick once was: sympathetic towards others, willing to forgive, willing to assist. His father, however, is more suspicious, more feral, and merciless. Maggie had mentioned in her speech to the Hilltop that as long as they hold on to “hope” in each other, the world is theirs. But with this attitude, Carl doesn’t see enough hope to go around.
(Carl’s one line here, by the way, marks a long-running pet peeve of mine. “There’s not gonna be enough, Dad.” “Enough what?” “Hope.” I hate it. Hate what? I hate it when characters assume others know what their incomplete sentences mean and are then forced to explain themselves — when it would’ve been faster for everyone to just say what they mean in the first place.)
The action picks up further as the group continues preparations for the ensuing battle. There’s a list of lookouts for the Sanctuary, and they take turns taking out the men guarding them. Morgan, for one, is no longer held back by his monk philosophy. He brutally plunges his staff straight through the chest of a Savior. (Imagine how much force must’ve been needed to do that.)
As Father Gabriel is reminding Rick at Alexandria how this whole fight isn’t just about him, Daryl rides to meet Carol, Tara, and Morgan on the highway, where they’re waiting for the herd to arrive and hope Tara’s calculations on their movements are accurate. They are — at least, they are “good enough.” Everything seems in place as Rick kisses Judith and Michonne goodbye. “This is the end of it,” he tells Carl, who’s left as the man in charge.
As Rick leads the convoy of cars out of Alexandria, we get a glimpse of Rosita, who’s also left behind — and she’s not too happy about it. She was shot in the season 7 finale, and we see a bandage on her chest. The real reason she’s probably not coming is because actress Christian Serratos gave birth on the first day of filming season 8. Gimple told EW she’ll be back in action “pretty soon,” but prefaced “there will be a notable sort of Rosita-lessness early on.”
The need for a surprise assault gives credence to more brutal forms of attack. Rick takes out another Sanctuary lookout by driving a blade into his gut. A walker is tied to a telephone pole close by, and when the Savior starts saying things like, “Your son is gonna die,” Rick cuts the chain lose and allows the walker to feast. Rick signals for the cars to approach, and they meet up with their Hilltop and Kingdom allies in an open field for the full Braveheart-style pep talk.
In a single shot, the camera weaves through the meet-and-greet until landing on Ezekiel, Jesus, Maggie, and Rick. While I live for those moments when the Shakespearian king proclaims, in a booming voice, “Yes, Jesus!” the more important moment comes when Rick whispers to Maggie how, after the war is waged, he’ll be following her. This moment brings to mind something Lincoln said, about how there’s “absolutely” a possibility for The Walking Dead to continue without Rick Grimes. Not saying this will happen. It certainly doesn’t this episode. But it’s something to consider.
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Meanwhile, Team Daryl is helping to lead the herd to the Sanctuary. As the dead approach on the highway, they retreat further down the road, while the camera lingers on a nearby car. Soon it explodes, directing the walkers in their direction. It also signals Negan’s Saviors, who drive out to investigate, unaware of the new trap the group is laying for them.
The cars, adorned with sheets of metal to block bullets, ride into the Sanctuary. Rick and the troops rush out and fire into the air to get the boss man’s attention. Negan strolls out with his generals — Dwight, Eugene, Simon, Gavin, and Regina — and swings his bat and ego around with some trash talk. But Rick serves it right back. The generals can walk away and be guaranteed safety, but not Negan. No, Negan is going to die by Rick’s hand if he has anything to say about it.
Negan, however, warns Rick may not have the numbers for this fight. That’s when Gregory emerges because of course he went to the Sanctuary. He threatens to oust any member of the Hilltop and their families from the colony if they don’t stand down, but they go unheeded because, as Jesus says, “The Hilltop stands with Maggie” now. Simon, annoyed over his faulty investment, shoves Gregory off the ledge, but their attention is soon drawn to smoke rising from the trees in the distance.
Barring the slight snag of a stray walker — which was quickly dealt with — the trap laid by Team Daryl triggered an explosion and left the Saviors out on patrol out of commission. Rick starts giving the generals a countdown to comply with his offer, but he opens fire when he gets to six and the assault begins. His forces miss Negan (he leaps for cover) and the generals (they rush inside), though they shoot out all the front-facing windows of the Sanctuary. Now it’s time for the next phase.
Carol hugs Daryl before going off with Morgan and Tara, leaving the crossbow-slinging renegade to lead the walker herd on his motorcycle by setting off a series of explosions. The forces at the Sanctuary start retreating before the dead make their way to them and to make room for their final blow. An armored RV rolls towards the gate, and when it reaches, Rick presses a detonator that causes the vehicle to explode, taking out the line of walkers guarding the fort.
Gabriel sees Rick firing at Negan, who has taken cover behind some debris, so he rushes back to remind him, again, that this fight isn’t about his personal vendetta. Rick rides out before the herd arrives and Gabriel is supposed to follow when he sees Gregory pleading for help. He rushes out to help, but Gregory is a coward. As soon as he sees the bullets are getting a little too close to his head, he sprints off and takes the car for himself, leaving Gabriel in the thick of the chaos.
Carl, blissfully separate from the hellfire, walks back to the gas station to leave a “sorry” note and some canned food for the man he saw earlier, who’s watching him from the bushes. Ezekiel’s forces rendezvous with Carol at a meeting spot, while Daryl goes to wait with Rick for Gabriel. Too much time has passed, however, and they have to leave him behind.
We don’t have to wait till next episode to learn their next move, though. Morgan and Tara are planning to assault another Savior outpost, as Daryl and Rick invade another. Ezekiel’s squad reaches an abandoned medical facility where a Savior takes cover behind a car. The man throws a grenade at a door, which has been muffling the sound of snarling walkers trapped inside. We have to put a pin in that as the action cuts back to the Sanctuary, where Gabriel finds refuge inside a construction trailer. Though the walkers are banging on the door to get inside, he finds he’s not alone. Negan emerges from the shadows and warns the good father is about to s— his pants.
The episode ends with a similar collection of scenes cut from various parts, as it was in the beginning. One of them shows the same Rick in front of the stained glass, uttering, “My mercy prevails over my wrath.” It’s a phrase from the Quran, which was mentioned earlier by the man Carl encounters at the gas station. He was nervous that Carl might think him hostile for making the Islamic reference, but now it’s providing a moment of reflection for Rick in this scene.
The last is of Rick hopping down from the back of a truck during the same rallying-the-troops speech. “I don’t want to wait for it anymore. You don’t either,” he says as if directly to the fans. Unlike last season, we don’t have to wonder when the war with Negan will finally come. It’s here, and at least that much brings us hope as we head into the uncertain future.