With every new season of The Walking Dead comes the misguided hope that the show will learn from its past missteps and deliver a compelling episode of television. Tonight, “Mercy,” the show’s 100th episode did nothing of the sort.
After spending its six-month off-season teasing the upcoming “All Out War,” which pits Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and the Saviors against the alliance between Alexandria, The Hilltop, and The Kingdom, tonight’s episode was a jumbled mess of shouted exposition and muddled firefights that have come to define the show, appropriately marking its artless stumbling into the eighth season.
It started off with images from some vaguely-defined point in the future, and sprinkled throughout the hour-plus runtime it was revealed to be a slightly-older Rick (Andrew Lincoln) laying quietly in his bed, before hobbling around his home with the use of a cane. He chats with Michonne (Danai Gurira), and listens to his excited child (presumably Judith) talk about the giant owl she made in anticipation of a parade.
Though it may be a quaint glimpse into a better future that lay in store for Rick and his family, it also preemptively siphoned out any tension that may have been allowed to brew under the surface, signifying that the show’s central character not only survives this season’s war, but so do those closest to him. Granted, it could be some kind of elaborate fantasy (one that includes a Weird Al soundtrack), but The Walking Dead has never been one to subvert expectations or offer up more than what it presents on the surface.
Timeline fuckery aside, the bulk of the runtime is spent with Rick, Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Ezekiel (Khary Payton), each leaders of their own faction, meeting Negan at the gates of Sanctuary, once again delivering him an ultimatum and reasserting that they are, in fact, at war. Negan scoffs at the idea (despite the fact that season seven ended with him telling his fellow Saviors that they’re going to war), and tells him that he’s not interested in a dick-measuring contest.
He does bring out Gregory (Xander Berkeley), who reminds those from the Hilltop that the group stands with Negan, and he’ll exile anyone who goes against him — just in case you needed a quick reminder that he’s the absolute worst.
Meanwhile, the alliance opens fire while a mobile home fitted with armor and explosives rolls through the gate, clearing the way for a horde of zombies that have been carefully led to the Sanctuary by Daryl (Norman Reedus). At that point, the episode ends in as much of a blurred cacophony as the prior season ended, though Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) sees Gregory running around confused, and rather than retreat, decides to try and help him. Which, of course, leads to Gregory stealing the car and leaving Gabriel to fend for himself among the fire and undead. (Once more for the people in the back — Gregory is the absolute worst).
In a panic, Gabriel finds shelter inside a small trailer, only to learn quickly that Negan has (somehow) also made his way inside, ending the episode with The Walking Dead’s time-honored tradition of trying to make up for a subpar installment with a tension-inducing cliffhanger.
Fittingly “Mercy’s” final shot takes an overhead look at the trailer, surrounded by a seemingly endless swarm of zombies, echoing the final shot of the first episode which found Rick trapped inside a tank in downtown Atlanta. While it wasn’t the only callback to the show’s pilot, it was the one that seemed to smack of desperation, harkening back to the days when the show was compelling for its own sake, rather than an exhausted premise being endlessly drug out and padded for runtime to keep it going. Proving once again that The Walking Dead is itself, first and foremost, a zombie show, rather than a show about zombies.