The premier episode of the 8th season of AMC’s post-apocalyptic horror series and cultural phenomenon The Walking Dead has, relatively speaking, kept a much lower profile than its Season 7 counterpart. That infamous episode was rife with months of drama about who would die at the hands of arch-villain Negan. That execution – which took the lives of heroes Glenn and Abraham – initiated a season-long escalation of tensions between Negan’s Saviors and the band of heroes led by Rick Grimes. Those tensions inevitably erupted by Season’s end and left us with the promise of a cataclysmic, prolonged war between the show’s various factions.
This conflict – based upon the All Out War story arc of The Walking Dead comic book – is ugly, brutal, and full of moral compromises. But does it make for good television?
It is a very good sign when a series moving into its eighth year can still deliver the nail-biting suspense to which its viewers are accustomed. The Walking Dead’s season premier, entitled Mercy, certainly does so. The war begins, but does so with scenes filmed using open shots of silent camera work interspersed with rousing speeches. It also utilizes the anachronic order of events that have come to define some of the most tense episodes of the series. Then there are those enigmatic shots of an elderly Rick Grimes hinted at in the season 8 trailer. They begin appearing here too, adding a carefully-orchestrated degree of confusion to the already bewildering events. We do not learn what this storyline from the future might mean, but its seeming happiness is intercut with shots of a present-day Rick looking frightened and defeated point to something ominous for our hero. The atmosphere of dread and anxiety doesn’t operate in the same way as the frightening opening of season 7, but is its own entity.
With season 8 the series is clearly trying to show that it continues to evolve and develop rather than trying to repeat the successes of the past or rest on its laurels. There are too many storylines and events happening in Mercy to address each one individually, but the way they come together takes what could have been a straightforward war story and turns it into something surreal and nearly hallucinatory. The war is there and it’s only going to escalate, but the tale is told in a way that only The Walking Dead could and it makes this epic tale of retribution uniquely its own. The story of The Walking Dead has grown to include dozens of characters and at least five major factions, but the way this episode is filmed keeps it deeply personal among the individual characters involved.
Does season 8 of The Walking Dead feel like it will be as important and powerful as season 7? It’s too early to say, but it feels like the people behind the show believe that it will, and belief in something goes a long way toward making it happen: a sentiment that Rick Grimes himself would be proud of.