Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Walking Dead Review Season 8, Episode 1: ‘Mercy’

(Photo Credit: AMC)
The Walking Dead
Season 8 Premiere

It’s been a long offseason, but The Walking Dead is finally back, with its season 8 premiere and 100th episode, “Mercy.” For most of its one hundred episodes, The Walking Dead has been a long and winding road of death and moral decay. But, even when faced with the tragedy of this utilitarian, post-apocalyptic world, where the loss of a loved one is as natural as a hot Georgia summer, our survivors have generally found themselves, more or less, in the driver’s seat, navigating their way, with relative ease, past flesh-eating walkers, flesh-eating humans, and even some early encounters with the Saviors. All of this changed, though, with the introduction of Negan, the one person who finally managed to out-man and out-gun our heroes, while more importantly becoming the first major antagonist to truly break Rick’s will. The season seven premiere, and the brutal deaths of Glenn and Abraham, shook Rick to his core- his once steadfast belief that the new world would be the group’s for the taking, utterly broken. However, the back-half of last season saw Rick slowly regain his swagger, as he circled the wagons, fortified his ranks, and led a march to war against Negan and the Saviors.

It almost, *almost*, seemed all for naught, though, when the tables once again turned on the group, in the season seven finale. Double crossed by the Scavengers, and surrounded by Saviors on all sides, Rick found himself right back where he was at the beginning of the season- forced to his knees, and at the mercy of Negan and Lucille. But, as the saying goes- it’s never over until the CGI tiger leaps out of nowhere and mauls a bad guy’s face off. Call it plot armor, call it a deus ex machina, but whatever you do, don’t call it bad TV. The Walking Dead has built its brand on these roller coaster climaxes that may ultimately fail a simple sanity check, but never cease to entertain. The Kingdom and the Hilltop arriving to save Alexandria, at the very last second, is right up there with some of the show’s most thrilling moments. Besides the tangible and strategic gains this victory provided, there was also a sense of symbolic victory, as Rick finally rediscovered his inner badass; and, in true Rick Grimes fashion, stood up to Negan, even in the face of insurmountable odds.

(Photo Credit: AMC)
The exact amount of time that’s passed, since the battle for Alexandria, isn’t specified; but the season eight premiere appears to pick up within a few days of last year’s finale. Despite the amount of preparation that seems to be going on, we don’t get a major time jump like the one between seasons six and seven, where several weeks were spent planning to redirect the mega herd. There’s not a whole lot of significance to this story-wise, other than the absence of Michonne and Rosita. Both stay behind, in Alexandria, to recover from the injuries they suffered at the end of last season- in Michonne’s case, multiple blows to the head from her fight with a Scavenger, and for Rosita, a perpetually frozen resting bitch face. Very sad, indeed.

Most of the premiere is dedicated to the execution of a multi-faceted, though ill-explained, assault on the Sanctuary. The lead-up is cool- the armored cars, the Daryl-induced explosions, the trademark Rick Grimes get pumped speech- but, we never get a solid, or even cursory, explanation of what’s going on; neither a complete summary, nor a composite picture made up of the accounts from different characters at separate stages of the plan. I guess this lack of background information is more realistic, and pushes us right into the action. In “real life,” these “characters” would never waste time recapping the who, what, and why, when they’re already right in the middle of something they’ve spent days planning. But, exposition is a thing for a reason, and this episode would have benefitted from a bit more guidance through the plot.

(Photo Credit: AMC)
What makes “Mercy” even more confusing is the interspersed flashbacks, flashfowards, and possible dream sequences. Aside from maybe the last fifteen minutes, most of this episode is spent jumping quickly between different locations in the present, to different locations in the past and possible future. The Walking Dead has experimented with this kind of non-linear storytelling before, specifically in the season six premiere, when the flashbacks had to be shown in black and white because they were too hard to distinguish from events in the present, which were in color. While I admire this alternative kind of episode structure, I don’t know if it works particularly well with an episode like “Mercy,” that’s so action driven and dependent on being able to tell which sequence of events happens when, and how it affects the overall plot. And, I don’t even necessarily mind the use of a well-timed flashback. Especially for a show like The Walking Dead, where so much can happen to characters off-screen. Unfortunately, the creative ambitions of the writers manage to make an already hard-to-follow story even more convoluted.

It’s pretty clear that the writers got so caught up in all of the 100th episode hype, that making “Mercy” a unique experience, rather than just a good, solid episode, took precedence. There are so many basic, yet crucial, elements left out, in favor of Weird Al Yankovic songs and close-ups of Rick’s face. For instance, where are all the other Saviors? This entire onslaught of walkers is unleashed on the Sanctuary, and there’s not a single shot of the carnage. And, I get it. Walker scenes require a lot of resources to produce and film. But, it’s hard to get a feel of just how successful and significant this weaponization of a massive walker herd is, if we don’t get to see the full results. For all we know, Rick spent all this time planning an attack on the windows of an empty building.

(Photo Credit: AMC)
I still want to get to know the Saviors, too. There hasn’t been enough character development for any of them, outside of Negan and Dwight. I feel like a show like Game of Thrones would never waste precious, precious screen time on an ambiguous dream sequence. With such a robust story, every GoT scene needs to advance character development, character development that, in turn, drives the narrative forward. In a Game of Thrones episode like “Mercy,” where two sides are about to face off in an epic showdown, characters from both factions would be examined beforehand, so that viewers can identify the series-wide stakes that are at play.

But, the only stakes we ever really get in The Walking Dead is who the next bad guy to kill is. And, maybe that’s ultimately the problem. The Walking Dead is based on a comic book- not exactly the kind of source material that literary storytelling and subtle character development are usually drawn from. These kinds of graphic novels are broken down into “arcs,” and each arc is characterized by the main antagonist the group faces. By definition, the only way for the story to move forward is for the defeat of the current villain, and the predictable rise of the next. Now granted, Negan has been a slight departure from this, receiving the most character development since the Governor, and hanging around longer than any previous villain has. But, on an episode-per-episode basis, the general progression of the plot doesn’t feel all that different from what we’ve seen before. Just a little more stretched out, and slightly more nuanced.
(Photo Credit: AMC)

I think the most interesting part of this episode (other than the epic #RedMachete mini-series) is the gas station scene between Carl and the scared, lone traveler he encounters. Getting to see Carl interact with somebody besides the same four characters (Rick, Negan, Michonne, Enid), or do something besides the same four things (killing walkers, killing people, watching Judith, questioning his dad), could be the breath of fresh air this show needs. And really, that question of what kind of person you are, how you treat others, when the world goes to shit…isn’t that what The Walking Dead has always been about? It’s certainly the reason why I fell in love with this show in the first place, but it’s definitely something that’s been missing from recent seasons.

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