WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the Season 8 premiere of The Walking Dead, "Mercy," which as of publication has not yet aired on the west coast, and for The Walking Dead comic series.
Tonight The Walking Dead unleashed a double-header of an episode on the world. "Mercy" was not only the Season 8 premiere, it was the series' 100th episode. Those are two very different animals -- season premieres employ a little extra flair to reward audiences for slogging through long hiatuses, all the while setting up a new season. Historically, centennial episodes are known for celebrating the series as a whole as a way of acknowledging the incredible achievement of producing 100 episodes of television -- especially on cable. That's a lot to ask of an hour of television without it running the risk of becoming bloated and uneven. Luckily, "Mercy" manages delivers on both action and self-reflection without getting in its own way.
As for the action, Season 8 doesn't waste any time jumping into "All Out War." Team Rick's devised a ruthless and sophisticated plan to gut their enemies and end the war as quickly and decisively as possible. Broadly, they knock out Negan's lookouts, divert the herd to the Sanctuary and break down their gates, letting thousands of walkers in the stronghold. That really, really doesn't do justice to what was an incredibly satisfying, zombie apocalypt-esque Ocean's Eleven, but you get the picture.
There's plenty of fan service to go around -- Daryl leads the herd off course by riding his hog through the Georgia countryside, setting off roadside bombs. A traitorous Gregory informs Rick's forces that anyone from the Hilltop caught fighting will be expelled from the community, and everyone ignores him. And, when Rick's at Negan's door, he gives the despot's lieutenants a chance to defect and counts down from 10... only to stop at seven and open fire. The Walking Dead doesn't do triumph very often, but when it does (and when its earned), it's so, so sweet.
But the slower moments in the episode are just as effective as the explosive ones -- mostly because it's in those that the episode connects itself to the rest of the series the way a 100th episode should. At New York Comic Con, franchise creator Robert Kirkman and executive producer Greg Nicotero announced that "Mercy" would include several winks to the series as a whole, and most obvious of these was the shot-for-shot recreation of the pilot's opening sequence. Rick surveys an abandoned gas station, offering the audience their first look at what the apocalypse has wrought. Makeshift camps are abandoned, corpses rot in their cars and a "No Gas" sign dangles from one of the empty pumps. Years later, his son drives up to the same station and surveys the same abandoned campsites and corpses -- all showing their age just as he is.
But, instead of coming across a walker, he finds a lost man who's so desperate with hunger, he just starts begging for mercy and quoting the Qu'ran. Before Carl can make contact, Rick arrives and chases the man off. There's a possibility he could be a Savior spy (a big possibility when you consider Dwight), so Rick hopes the guy survives, but he's not taking any chances. Carl points out that hope isn't enough anymore, and we get a sense of how well the show's grown into itself.
"Days Gone Bye" neatly laid out the series's primary conflict -- Rick works with Morgan to survive and leaves the father and son with the promise that they'll meet up again and continue partnership they started. When we get our first glimpse of post-apocalyptic Shane, he's refusing to let Laurie post signs along I-85 warning people away from Atlanta. Essentially, he survives at the expense of others. Fast-forward seven seasons, and that same conflict is still playing out, but the scale has grown exponentially.
Before the onset of battle, Rick gives a speech that joyfully informs them that no matter what happens that day, because of what they've built and what they've done, they've already won. They've gone from trying disparately to survive on their own to having built communities that cooperate in order to survive. At this point, the idea is so big that, regardless of his power, Negan will have a much, much harder time breaking them than they think he will.
It's the way "Mercy" pays homage to the past while paving the way to the future that makes it both a great premiere and a 100th episode. However, the actual flash-forwards that have whetted audience palates are the only low-point. The infamous shot of "Old Man Rick" at the end of Season 8's trailer has had the internet in a tizzy since it premiered this past July at Comic Con International in San Diego. Not only did we get a shot of a grey-bearded Rick this week, we learned that he lives in an newly idyllic Alexandria playing happy homemaker with Michonne, Carl and Judith.
Fans of the comic may insist that the show is tacitly confirming its intention to move toward the "A New Beginning" storyline. But, as Robert Kirkman has often reminded, the show and the comics are two separate entities. It could be that this dreamlike vision of a heavenly future is simply the delusion of a defeated Rick -- or a victorious Rick who loses much more than he hopes to in the ensuing battle. It's intriguing, but in an episode where time jumps all over the place more than usual, it felt contrived and kind of frustrating. It's either a fake out or a giant spoiler, and perhaps could've been placed a little later in the season.
But that's a minor gripe in an otherwise stellar season opener. The only real problem now is that everyone we like is happy and victorious (well, except for Gabriel), so we should all be utterly terrified for Negan's revenge.