One episode was provided for review.
For any show that’s been on the air for as long as The Walking Dead has, one of the most difficult things to do is to continue to stay relevant and raise the stakes season after season. Even great shows can fall flat with age, and while the zombie epic’s seventh season was one of the most divisive and controversial in recent memory, it was anything but flat, mostly thanks to a villain so insidious that he rattled the show’s fanbase to the core and sent ripples throughout pop culture as a whole.
How do you top Negan? There are few – if any – characters in television history nastier, more despicable and more charismatic than this grinning, greaser asshat. He’s an unmitigated force of nature, and while some fans found his unique brand of bludgeoning and barbarism too unsavory to watch (season 7 saw a significant decline in ratings), the bottom line is that the show would be far less interesting without him.
Thankfully, the big-mouthed bastard is as alive and cocksure as ever at the outset of the show’s eighth season, which kicks off on Sunday, October 22nd with the provocatively, aptly titled episode “Mercy.” After suffering at the hands of his tyranny throughout the entirety last season, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and the rest of the survivors are finally regrouped and reinvigorated, ass-kicker mode reengaged, ready to wage “all out war” (the three words plastered in big, bold letters on every season 8 promo) on Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and the Saviors.
One of the most initially striking things about the premiere is the show’s shift to a more optimistic tone; it’s exhilarating to watch the good guys find their fire again, making preparations for a massive, all-out attack on Negan’s main compound. The losses of Glenn (Steven Yeun), Abraham (Michael Cudlitz), and Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) last season were devastating, but The Walking Dead does a good job of reminding us of just how many awesome characters – new and old – are still alive and kicking. Rick’s giving hopeful hoo-rah speeches, Tara’s (Alanna Masterson) chomping on Red Vines, Carol’s (Melissa McBride) rejoined the good fight, and Daryl’s (Norman Reedus) shooting jugs of gasoline with a pistol while riding his motorcycle, looking like the baddest man on earth – all feels right again in the world of TWD, at least as right as things can feel in a dog-eat-dog, post-zombie-apocalypse.
For those repulsed and deflated by the horrific deaths and methodical storytelling of last season, “Mercy” is the perfect remedy – its brisk pacing, big action, and focus on the camaraderie between the Alexandria, Hilltop, and Kingdom survivors makes for super entertaining television which makes you feel good without trivializing the drama. It’s easy to forget that this show can actually be a lot of fun, and in most cases that means watching our favorite survivors work as a team to wreck shop and take out the baddies. That teamwork is what “Mercy” is all about, and it’s rousing stuff to say the least.
The episode offers more than popcorn-movie thrills and chills, however. Balancing out the mayhem is an understated, poignant father-son moment between Rick and Carl, who seems to be headed in a fascinating new direction this season. Those much-buzzed-about glimpses of what appears to be future Rick (his buzzcut and big beard suggest as much) from the season 8 trailer are implemented in a clever way throughout the episode, acting as cinematic rushes of emotion that could hint at what’s in store for Rick down the line.
Lincoln seems to have recaptured the character’s spark, which was all but dwindled throughout last season. This was done intentionally to serve his story, of course, but let’s face it – watching Rick grovel and shake under Negan’s filthy boot was a serious bummer. The show has revolved around Rick since its inception, and the fact that Lincoln finds new layers of richness within the character each season is remarkable. There are dozens of incredibly talented actors on the show putting on brilliant performances, and Lincoln never ever gets outclassed or overshadowed.
And there couldn’t be a better onscreen partner for Lincoln than Morgan, who’s as brash and punch-able as ever in “Mercy.” After watching an entire season of Negan terrorizing Rick and co., it’s sheer joy to finally see the bat-swinging bully on the back foot. I, for one, thought the way the showrunners introduced Negan to us a little over a season ago – as sadistic as it was -was a bold move that gave The Walking Dead a much-needed jolt of forward momentum. Now, the stakes have never felt higher, and for a seven-year-old series, that’s truly a rarity.