Review: The Walking Dead 8×01, “Mercy”

In the years leading up to Negan and beyond, The Walking Dead has been a real mixed bag. For every step in the right direction, there always seems to be strange choices from the writers that manage to hold things back. This in mind, the season 8 premiere was displeasing. However, I did try to find some good in it. For all the senseless editing choices involving the flash-forwards/flashbacks/dreams (or whatever), there was a single through line that made sense. Rick Grimes wants to get stuff done. “Mercy” reminded us of what Rick’s forces needed to do and quickly too action, as opposed to making us wait around. For that, I can at least commend the episode for moving things along.

Honestly, the only real way to evaluate this episode is by discounting the dreamy sequences that show an older Rick (not to mention the even weirder, disoriented red-eye Rick). This episode mainly puts focus on Rick’s plan to attack the sanctuary, which is made up of a lot of cool little bits. Guards are taken out with brutal efficiency. Carol and Tara do some measurements of the movements of a zombie herd. Daryl and Dwight communicate through notes on crossbow bolts. It’s a level of process that works for this show, as it doesn’t involve too much monologuing.

Of course, we do still get the monologues. Rick is even joined by Ezekiel and Maggie to talk about how far they have all come, how this will be the last great fight and how tomorrow holds a real future. Given how the show is quick to remind us of its nihilistic core, these optimistic bellows are fine, but it won’t be surprising to see some terrible stuff happen to some major and minor characters in the weeks to come. Still, The Walking Dead loves to have characters openly state their purpose before the action gets underway.

The action does come quickly though, which works as far as seeing a show like The Walking Dead delivering on elaborate action scenes. If the minimum requirement for liking this series revolves around seeing two determined groups shooting at each other, with the addition of an occasional zombie attack, “Mercy” must have been riveting. The season premieres for this series do tend to go big on the action, but with that in mind, some strange turns in the plot kept upsetting the flow of things.

Negan, for example, feels all over the place. For the most part, his dialogue is what we expect. There is a lot of bravado and swearing with a level of menace that comes with a smile. That’s all well and good. It’s the point where the show doesn’t find a way to sell him as a threat that is troublesome. The saviors are hardly a presence, as we only see them getting stabbed one by one or blown up, aside from the 4 or 5 standing around Negan, while he talks at Rick. Then there’s Negan’s plan to get at Rick by way of Gregory, which was just baffling. Here’s a guy who menaces everyone with a baseball bat and just as he’s launching into a speech that looks like Rick may lose the upper hand, Negan brings out wormy Xander Berkley.

I find this frustrating because Jeffrey Dean Morgan is clearly having a ball as this ultimate evil, but the show seems to have no real way of selling him as anything more than a big mouth who can only get the better of Rick when the writers need Rick to be taken down a notch. That’s not the case this week, as Rick’s plan goes off without a hitch, except for a lost preacher. Don’t worry though; I’m sure Negan will take good care of Gabriel as we head into the next episode assuming Negan will magically be back in the lead again.

It’s a mishandling of tension, as I want to buy into the war and as much as I appreciated seeing Rick and his crew roll up on Negan’s Sanctuary right away, I was left wondering why they couldn’t finish the job this week. Yes, dramatic tension for this series is the answer, but with the stakes so unclear, there wasn’t much of a reason to have this drawn out beyond knowing how ratings work. When Negan stands in front of a bunch of people whose primary goal is to kill the leader, it just makes me wonder how this wasn’t worked out more effectively.

On the plus side, we did get to see Daryl blow up a bunch of stuff while riding a motorcycle. It’s not much, and I question how the walker horde was able to keep up so quickly with a man on a motorcycle, but it showed us the side of the story focused on the organization and understanding of the world that Rick’s group has. I may not have much faith in this series’ handle on its big bad currently, but I am always happy to see the core group function together and not have to talk about their motivations in such a grand manner.

Whatever’s coming next should at least be interesting. With this season starting right off with war, there’s no use to seeing everyone go and chill out back at their homes. The Walking Dead may drag its feet every so often, but it does break from established settings to get things going again. I can’t quite say I look forward to what horrible thing Negan does next, but I at least hope it makes more sense than his logic this week. “Mercy” isn’t the soundest premiere for this series but if the ball is rolling, I at least still want to be moving with it.

Dead Bits:

  • Welcome to my weekly reviews of The Walking Dead. I’ve been reviewing this show on various sites for years, but you can find most of the past episode reviews starting Here.
  • Zombie Kill of the Week: I suppose Daryl gets the win for lining up his shot on one of the exploding boxes and vaporizing a walker in the process.
  • Being an avid reader of the comics, I do have an idea of where the grey beard Rick stuff is heading, but I’ll be curious how this show wants to continue incorporating it. That said, this seems more like a way to shake up readers expectations, possibly to the detriment of those who only watch the show.
  • Coral’s Corner: In a very random subplot, Carl goes to get gas, encounters a random guy, who is quickly shoed off by Rick. “I shot above his head,” says Rick, showing his son that he’s not entirely over the edge. Carl comes back later to leave food for the guy. Fin.
  • Morgan is done playing nice this season.
  • I still contend that Gregory is one of the best characters ever on this show.
  • Negan must have a very interesting closet when it comes to pants.
  • Thanks for reading and feel free to hear what I and a few other fans of the show have to say about the series on The Walking Dead TV Podcast.
Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks,, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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