After seasons 7’s ridiculously emotional premiere that had me sobbing behind a cushion on the sofa, it was almost inevitable that the rest of the season wouldn’t quite live up to Negan’s game of ‘eenie, miney, mo’. Instead of getting into the thick of the battle between Negan and his saviours vs the rest of the world, it managed to string out a whole load of nothing for 17 episodes. But The Walking Dead season 8 premiere, Mercy, is definitely doing its best to prove that there’s a change in the tides for the show, promising major action and a whole lot of drama even from the opening moments.
It feels like every small event in the last season has been building to this very episode and we’re finally going to get some payoff for sticking with Rick and co. Part of that is down to the sudden sense of determination from the combined survivor groups. Gone is the timid Rick who bowed to Negan, instead his strength as a leader has returned, bolstered by the partnerships he’s forged with Maggie - now of the Hilltop - and the continuously theatrical King Ezekiel.
Rather than sobbing over their losses or talking about why they need to take on Negan, the premiere takes a little time for silence before all the shooting and the zombies - sorry, Walkers. The silence is for the missing members of Rick’s crew, as, after all, this season starts not long after the events of the last one, and the episode is careful to acknowledge that, even if only to mark the major shift in tone and focus. And after the ‘woe is me’ monotony of season 7, it all feels very refreshing.
After that, the premiere really gets into things, fast. Through a series of montages and clever elongated camera shots, it manages to create more tension and pace in the first 20 minutes than all the episodes of season 7 combined. We move from long shots of a brand new zombie horde - because there’s an unceasing supply of these things apparently - to seeing the gang putting their multifaceted plan in place before the inevitable Negan confrontation. It feels as though it’s all been a long time coming.
At last, this is the “All Out War” we’ve been promised for so long, and it doesn’t leave us hanging in the slightest, delving straight into the action rather than stringing everything out over a few episodes. Despite my initial concerns that a time jump would leave the whole Negan scenario hanging unresolved, the episode carries the story forward with some pace, dropping us in the middle of Rick’s plan, even if we don’t always quite know what the next steps will be.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a time jump though. There are moments where we flick to a grey-haired Rick in a future idyll, serving as a promise that there’s a potential paradise in wait if they achieve their goal of taking down Negan. It’s a nice idea, and it mirrors the comics, but in reality such a plot device takes away from the pace otherwise created in this episode. Take note AMC, the end game is always clear; it doesn’t need to be spelled out.
I’m not entirely convinced the script is as strong as it could be either. There are moments where lines feel out of place and ridiculously redundant. That’s particularly true when you see a selection of random, never-seen-before side characters getting geared up for the fight, where snippets of dialogue seem pointless and empty. It’s something The Walking Dead has been guilty of for some time, and I’d hoped things would be a little tighter this time around.
Thankfully because the focus of this premiere episode is about action rather than words, there’s not much cheese to endure. Yes, there might be a ‘who’s dick is bigger’ exchange between Rick and Negan that’ll make most viewers cringe and yell ‘Get on with it!’ into the ether, but AMC manages to prove that it’s still adept at providing moments of horror, of tension and of strange optimism all in close proximity. This is very much The Walking Dead back on form, or at least promising as much.