Last season of The Walking Dead ended with Rick joining forces with the Kingdom and Maggie’s Hilltop crew to take on Negan. And to give credit where it’s due, that’s pretty much right where the season eight premiere picks up. After hemming and hawing and looking tortured for what felt like decades, Rick has decided to once again be a man of action, and “Mercy” has him taking the fight directly to the Saviors, with explosive and successful results. It’s a relief to have characters on the show decide to do a thing and then just do it, instead of spending hours building up to a moment that can’t help but fail to live up to expectations.

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Judged solely on its merits as an action set-piece, the assault on Negan’s stronghold is decent. It works best in pieces, as we watch various people doing various things to prepare, like Tara and Carol hanging out on an overpass timing the movements of a zombie herd, or the checklist of guard outposts being taken out with ruthless efficiency. The actual confrontation suffers from a lack of scope, but the core concept—luring a herd of walkers to the compound and then blowing shit up to let them inside—isn’t bad. It might even be thematically relevant; Rick and his group will ultimately win out against Negan’s forces because they’ve learned to adapt to the world at hand, using the living dead as a resource against their enemy.

That’s stretching a bit, though. For the most part, “Mercy” seems content to revisit the same themes the show has always been about: what it takes to survive in a post-apocalyptic world, and whether or not it’s possible to have hope for the future when your present is so unrelentingly grim. Rick is in one of his more optimistic moods, and at several points, the episode cuts to what appears to be a vision of his possible future; his beard is longer (and whiter), and Judith is a bit older, but Carl and Michonne are still around, and everything is lovely and peaceful and filmed through a haze.

Cut to the present, and Rick is assuring everyone that they’re just going to do what needs to be done, without shame or hate. Rick being Rick, he also sics a walker on a wounded patrol guard. He’s trying to be good, but there are limits. It’s hard to blame him, given what the show has become. The good people are unquestionably good, the bad people are all more or less monsters. Gregory, the closest we have to a gray mark, completes his turn to full heel, first threatening a meaningless exile for the Hilltop folk who side with Rick, then stealing Gabriel’s car when the father makes the mistake of trying to save his. Xander Berkeley manages to find some nuance in the creep’s cowardly scrambling, but there’s only so much you can do with cliche.

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Honestly, the episode doesn’t particularly need moral ambiguity. Good versus evil would be perfectly acceptable at this point in the run, and last season worked hard to establish Negan as the be-all and end-all of psychopaths, a controlling, brutal dictator with a sadistic streak and just enough sense of humor to keep him from being tedious. That sort of worked at times, but it’s getting harder and harder for The Walking Dead to build any stakes at all. The Negan we see here acts more or less like Negan always acts, but without any force to back him up. There’s some brief tension that he might have seen Rick’s play coming, but his big move is to bring out Gregory. The guy who beats people to death with a baseball bat is now relying on others to do his dirty work?

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That’s always been a problem with the character, of course. He vacillates between terrifying power and comical ineptitude as the writing demands, and the strings are so obvious that he’s lost what little impact he might once have had. There’s nothing unusual or inherently wrong about Rick winning one for a change; the problem comes when the writers have worked so hard to build up his enemy that almost any victory would feel like a cheat. This week, the good guys come out ahead. Next week, Negan will probably do something horrible. There’s a natural storytelling rhythm buried in there somewhere, but it’s been so mishandled at this point that it’s more seesaw than plot.

Rick’s plan goes off more or less without a hitch, give or take a religious man, but Negan survives. The end finds him and Gabriel trapped in a trailer with a herd of zombies outside, and I’m sure bad things will happen to the nice man who wanted to help people. It’s hard to feel anything but pity for Jeffrey Dean Morgan at this point. I’m sure he’s well paid, but there’s not enough money in the world to make that “shittin’ pants” dialogue worth regurgitating. (I mean, there is, but I doubt he’s making it.)

As usual, the acting is wildly uneven, but the hour looks (and sounds) swell. The gore is as well-realized as ever even if it does look like so much gooey wallpaper by now, and the production team has gotten very good at telling stories that almost certainly don’t deserve their effort. But in the interest of starting a new season off on a positive note, the status quo has changed, and that in and of itself is almost certainly for the good. As to what happens next, well, I’m pretty sure Rick won’t be shaving anytime soon. So there’s that.

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Stray observations

  • Weird Al’s “Another One Rides The Bus” is playing throughout Rick’s visions of the future. It’s a very odd choice that doesn’t seem in character for any of the people involved. I appreciate any attempt to add levity to this show, but the efforts need at least a little context to work. Otherwise it’s just distracting. (Also, good luck getting that song out of your head.)
  • I couldn’t identify the other part of Rick’s visions, the considerably less happy bit with him red-eyed under a pane of stained glass hanging from a tree. If this is a reference to an earlier episode, I didn’t make the connection. Maybe it’s a vision of a different future, one decidedly less optimistic.

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  • Sad to say, King Ezekiel’s shtick is finally starting to wear thin on me.
  • How many Saviors are there? I realize we’re never going to get an exact count, but the way this played out, it looked like there were maybe five people left in the compound after the patrol went out to get ambushed.
  • Oh right, Carl had a storyline. He left some food for a guy who Rick ran off, which I guess gives us hope for the future.

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