‘The Walking Dead’ Season 8 Premiere: The War To Come

The Walking Dead returned this week with “Mercy,” which is not only the eighth season premiere but the 100th episode of the series. Fittingly, the episode exemplifies the best and worst of the series with its stop-and-go action; its heavy-handed, post-apocalyptic jingoism; its intermittent entertainment value; and yes, its cliffhangers. The 100th episode is a lot of sound and fury, signifying little, but as always, it leaves us wanting more.
The All Out War that will dominate the eighth season looks to be one long battle of attrition, and the opening episode is chockfull of familiar returning characters as well as a host of barely recognizable and completely unfamiliar redshirts, who will likely make up the lion’s share of losses this season. In the opening scene, we see Rick Grimes, doing his best John Wayne, delivering a bombastic speech straight out of a Michael Bay movie (the only thing missing is an American flag waving in the background). 

We’re meant to believe that this will be Rick’s last speech as the General of Alexandria, and there are suggestions — subtle and not so subtle — that he’s ready to hand the reins over to someone else, like Maggie, who is leading The Hilltop, or Carl, who is holding the fort down in Alexandria along with the ailing Michonne and Rosita (whose screen time will likely be limited in the first few episodes). 

“The Future is ours, the world is ours,” Rick insists. “It’s ours by right,” he adds, though he gives little to support that declaration. The world is as much Negan’s as it is Rick’s, and as always, we are reminded that there’s not that much separating the two men save for their personality differences. The Walking Dead does not dabble in politics (although, politicians certainly dabble in The Walking Dead), but the show has provided interesting case studies in leadership styles over the course of seven seasons.
What’s so interesting about the War between Rick and Negan is that there’s little distinction between Negan’s command of The Saviors and Grimes’ Ricktatorship, save for the fact that Rick is a more likable guy, although no more compassionate, as he demonstrates in chasing away a hungry Muslim man early in the episode. 

It is Rick, after all, who started the war by preemptively killing many of Negan’s men in cold blood as they slept. Rick can hardly claim the moral high ground, a point Eugene made last season after he switched sides. They’re both killers; it’s just that Negan twirls his mustache before he murders, while Rick will pause for a moment, as though checking in with his conscience, before gunning a man down from point-blank range.

“It’s not about me,” Rick tells both Daryl and Gabriel at different points in the episode. But it is, as Gabriel reminds him, although later in the episode Gabriel uses the phrase almost as a weapon against Rick when he has Negan pinned down. “It’s not about you,” Gabriel tells him, pulling him away before he can gun down Negan. Though Rick does give lip service to Maggie’s role as future leader, it’s hard to imagine he will ever fully give it up. Even in the confrontation with the hungry Muslim man, Rick won’t accede his wary paranoia to Carl’s compassion.
Interestingly, late in the episode, Negan attempts to exploit the differences in their personal leadership styles. The main action in the episode sees Rick and his alliances amass a gigantic zombie horde and direct it to Negan’s compound (a plan strikingly similar to the one Troy executed upon Broken Jaw Ranch in this season of Fear the Walking Dead). 

Before the horde arrives, however, Rick breaks through the fence of the compound and surrounds it. Negan, however, is unmoved. “I’m not exactly feeling a reason to throw lead at each other,” Negan says. “I care about my people. I don’t want to march them right into the line of fire because I want to play ‘my dick is bigger than yours’ … I’m certainly not going to let my people die over that sh*t.”
For a brief moment, it’s almost as if Negan is the bigger man. He reminds us, as he began to illustrate late in season seven that, for all his monologuing, it’s “not about Negan.” It’s about “carving out a place in the world” for his people. The difference is, Negan, like Donald Trump, rules through fear and the promise of personal enrichment; Rick, like Obama, leads with inspirational speeches and the promise of a better future. They both, however, possess a strict George W. Bush “You’re either with us or against us” mentality.
The Hilltop’s nominal leader, Gregory, ultimately puts those two leadership styles to the test. While surrounded by Rick and his people, Negan drags out Gregory, who tells The Hilltoppers that if they choose to fight against Negan, they will lose their homes. “We stand with Negan,” he says, attempting to use fear to keep them in line. No, Jesus replies. “We stand with Maggie.” Inspirational speeches: 1; Fear: O.

Ultimately, the action plays out as one might expect from the first chapter in a 16-part war. After luring the zombie horde to the Savior compound, Rick and Co. escape, save for Gabriel. Gabriel’s good intentions get the best of him when he tries to save Gregory, who cowardly steals Gabriel’s car and drives away. 

Gabriel ultimately is left to fend for himself as the zombies surround the compound. He escapes inside a trailer, where he’s left trapped inside with… Negan. Why Gabriel doesn’t use the machine gun in his hand to dispatch with Negan is a mystery, but I guess there wouldn’t be anything left to do with the rest of the season if he did.
Meanwhile, while Gabriel and Negan’s lives are left in the balance, members of The Kingdom begin to invade another Savior outpost. There, however, a Savior tosses a grenade, and their fates at the end of the episode are left undetermined by the cloud of dust the explosion kicks up.
Clearly understanding that the All Out War by itself cannot successfully hold the viewers’ attention all season long, Scott Gimple also introduces a number of timelines to keep us on our toes. The present timeline sees the All Out War unfold. Meanwhile, as expected, there is a time jump timeline. Roughly three to four years in the future, we see old-man Rick hobbled, but otherwise healthy. He’s happy and at home with Michonne, Carl, and Judith, who looks kindergarten age now. It’s clear that Alexandria won the war, as the community has been beautifully rebuilt.
There’s a third timeline, too, one we will call the “intermediate timeline.” It’s hard to say exactly when it is, but judging by the defeated look on Rick’s face, I’d guess that it’s the low point of the All Out War, the moment when it appears that all is lost, the moment right before Rick gathers all his remaining strength and makes his final push. Based on the line he delivers (see below), it’s probably when he’s confronted with the decision to capture or kill Negan.
Until then? Expect a lot of back and forth, a huge body count among the redshirts, and the occasional major and minor character death.

Additional Notes
— I am not referring to the hungry man as a Muslim indiscriminately. When Carl stumbles upon him, we hear him say, “Have mercy prevail over my wrath,” which is the last line that Rick also delivers in the intermediate timeline. That line? It comes straight from the Koran, and the character is believed to be Siddiq from the comic books. Again, the line goes to Rick’s leadership style. 

He tends to let his anger and fear get the best of him, as he did with the Muslim man. Here, in a likely showdown with Negan, he’s pleading with himself to take Morgan’s approach and spare Negan’s life. (The increasingly diverse show could also benefit from the addition of a sympathetic Muslim character.)
— In case it wasn’t completely obvious from the wooden soldier in the seventh season finale, Dwight has officially switched sides and he is working with Daryl. That being the case, it wasn’t very nice of Rick to leave Dwight with the Saviors as the zombie horde approached.
— How loaded was that smile Ezekiel gave Carol? There is definitely something brewing there.
— As though reminding viewers that she’s not that far along in her pregnancy, Maggie tells Rick that she “can wage war through the second trimester.” She says she’ll be there for “at least the first part,” which suggests that they know from the very beginning that it will be a lengthy war.
— It sure didn’t have to be a lengthy war. Rick mentions in his opening speech that there’s only one person that has to die: Negan. In addition to Gabriel’s easy chance to kill him in the trailer, when Negan was surrounded by about 50 gun-wielding Alexandrians, it sure seemed like they all had a clean shot on him. Instead of letting him monologue for five minutes, it would have behooved them to take the easy shot.