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.