For a season premiere and 100th episode anniversary, Mercy was a surprisingly restrained outing for The Walking Dead, favouring cryptic teases and narrative ambiguity over any shock moments or explicit character cullings. In fact, it felt awkwardly scattershot in its pacing, thanks to an unpredictable chronology (more on that later) and some unconventional cliffhangers, but the episode has certainly left plenty of questions as we head into this brand new season. Here’s nine of the biggest head scratchers (with spoilers) that came to my mind after watching Mercy, beginning with the most intriguing conundrum of the lot...
1. So is that Old Man Rick or not?!
The premiere certainly didn’t hang about when it came to addressing that time jump tease from the season trailer, which sees a grey and bearded Rick waking up in a pristine house to his happy family, as some sort of party is being prepared for outside. However, we still don’t really know when this scene is taking place, or if it’s even real. Firstly, why does Rick look so much older when both Michonne and Carl appear to have barely aged a day?
Plus, the entire scene is dripped in a white, radiant filter that makes it look suspiciously ethereal, almost as though it were a dream. Indeed, present day Rick even mentions to Maggie that he’s been “thinking about tomorrow” an awful lot as they prepare for the final fight against Negan. Is this just what he imagines a future Alexandria will look like once the Saviours have been dealt with? Make believe or not, this season still has a lot to answer about its use of flash forwards so far, which brings me to my next question...
2. What was that second, even more ambiguous time jump all about?
There were three different time periods shown in Mercy - the present day attack on The Saviours, the Old Man Rick scene, and a small handful of brief cutaways focusing on Rick, who appears to be shellshocked as a stainglass sign hangs overhead. We don’t see anything beyond this close-up, but at one point he whispers “My Mercy prevails over my wrath” to himself, which holds a lot of implications. For starters, it’s a quote from the Quran, which isn’t the first time the religious book is referenced in the episode (the survivor that Carl runs into near the beginning also quotes from it).
More generally, it seems to be touching on Rick’s inner conflict between survival and compassion, and these spoken words suggests that his compassionate side might have finally won. It’s a different story with present day Rick, though - notice how he immediately starts firing at that same unarmed stranger before Carl can even talk to him. So what’s changed his mind since then? My only guess is that this scene takes place right after something major has happened, but the show is holding back on the details for now.
3. Why did Rick take a photo of Negan?
“It’s not about me.” These are the words Rick keeps telling himself throughout the events of the episode: a simple reminder that this fight isn’t his own personal contest with Negan, but a war to secure a better future for everyone. Even Negan wonders whether Rick is putting his people on the front line just to prove who has the biggest… well, you heard him the first time, but Alexandria’s leader insists it’s nothing to do with that.
You have to wonder, then, why Rick would decide to whip out a Polaroid in the middle of a heated firefight just to capture a humiliating picture of Negan on his knees and fearing for his life. Perhaps this is just Rick playing Negan at his own game of manipulation, undercutting his theatrical superiority complex with an embarrassing piece of visual blackmail. Alternatively, despite his new motto, Rick may well still be trying to make this about himself, personally attempting to put Negan in his place and prove himself the alpha male against his biggest foe yet.
4. Where were the rest of the Saviours and the Heapsters?
At the end of season 7, we saw Negan give a rallying speech to a formidable army of Saviours, who looked more than willing and ready to fight, armed to the teeth with weapons. In Mercy, the only Saviours we see are a few guards, a patrol of cars (all of whom get blown to smithereens by Daryl’s trap), and Negan’s inner circle of leaders. Where was the rest of his army to defend Sanctuary from Rick’s attack? More importantly, how was Negan so unprepared for all of this? Surely he knew Rick would be coming for him, and his entire strategy so far has revolved around staying two steps ahead of the competition at all times.
In addition, the Heapsters, Jadis’ garbage-dwelling army, were nowhere to be seen, despite co-operating with Negan and betraying Rick at the end of the last season. Now that they have a stake in the fight, it’s rational to wonder why they weren’t there to help Negan out, as I doubt Rick plans to let them off the hook once he’s finished with the Saviours.
5. What’s the plan from here?
Come the end of the episode, the gang are seen headed towards the satellite dish compound that started this whole war in the first place, after they first attacked it in season 6. The first phase of Rick’s plan appears to have been successfully executed for the most part, then, but it’s still unclear how things are expected to play out from here.
Were the group attempting to completely wipe out the Saviours at The Sanctuary, or just put them on the back foot while they take out the rest of their outposts? And what about little ol' Eugene? There wasn’t much leeway given for Sanctuary dwellers like him, who were with Negan not because they agreed with him, but for the sake of self-preservation. Then there’s the matter of Dwight. I want more information about Rick’s goals in this war, and how he intends to finish the job.
6. Are zombies really that punctual?
To the surprise of no one, it turns out that the escapades of Morgan, Carol, Daryl, and Tara make for some of the best Walking Dead adventures since that time the gang met Jesus. They’re a super effective team of fighters, and Tara’s there to provide the comic relief against the silent, stoic sentiments of her three partners. That humour was on display during a particularly interesting moment in the episode, as the foursome stood upon the highway, awaiting the arrival of something.
“Any second now”, says Tara as she looks at her watch, but nothing appears. There’s some sighing and nervous glances, before, only a few seconds later than expected, a huge herd of walkers stumbles into view. Did they really expect those Walkers to be exactly on time, right to the second? Are survivors of the apocalypse now so familiar with walker behaviour that they can pinpoint their movement trajectory with scientific levels of accuracy? I mean, what metric do they use - shuffles per hour?
7. Is Rick planning to step down as leader?
There are two moments in the episode that prompt me to ask this question. The first is as the attack crew departs Alexandria, and Carl and Michonne stay behind to see them out. Carl is frustrated that he won’t be there to help in the fight, but Michonne cheers him up with an interesting proposition: “I’ll show you how to defend this place.” Later on, as Hilltop, Alexandria and The Kingdom meet before the showdown, Rick is caught whispering something in Maggie’s ear: “After this, I’m following you.”
I could be wrong, but it seems as though The Walking Dead is putting the pieces in place for an upcoming power transition - one which sees Carl put in charge of Alexandria and Maggie as the new leader of Hilltop. The episode also uses the scene with the Quran-quoting stranger to reveal the contrast between Carl and Rick’s competing worldviews, with the former still capable of showing empathy despite his father’s world-weary paranoia. Is the show trying to demonstrate how Carl’s leadership style might differ from his dad’s? Is the Ricktatorship coming to an end? And what does this mean for his status as the de facto protagonist of the show?
8. What’s going to happen to Gabriel?
Poor, poor Gabriel. He was the character who showed the most heroism in this entire episode, and what does he receive as his reward? Being stuck in a blown up caravan with a pissed off Negan, surrounded by hordes of hungry undead. We can only speculate what Negan intends to do with his new camping buddy, but I’m sure it’s nothing good.
The most likely scenario is torture, as I expect the leader of the Saviours has some questions about Rick’s plan, and Gabriel is a perfect source for the answers he’s looking for. Another unresolved thread related to this is the fate of Gregory, who responded to Gabriel’s kindness by stealing his car and shamelessly leaving him behind, with nary a hint of regret. If he returns to Hilltop, it’s unlikely he’ll be met to a warm reception...
9. Why did Rosita stay behind at Alexandria?
It’s fair to say that Rosita hasn’t been having too much fun over the last two seasons. She’s been dumped, forced to watch her ex get bludgeoned to death, failed to kill Negan, inadvertently caused Olivia’s execution, and finally formed a bond with Sasha, only to witness her zombified corpse fall out of a coffin in last season’s finale. She’s probably not in the best of places, then, which might explain why she decided to sit this one out, despite her fervent desire to kill Negan.
The other possibility, of course, is that Rick explicitly banned her from coming, seeing as she’s proven herself prone to rash judgement on several occasions, and could be a liability when things get heated. We only saw one glimpse of her, sitting miserably on the porch, but that shot alone was enough to throw up a heap of questions about Rosita’s character arc moving forward.