Josh Jackson and Jim Vorel review each week’s episode of The Walking Dead in a series of letters
For all our complaints about how things wrapped up the past couple of years, The Walking Dead knows how to kick off a season. For the eighth year in a row, the opening episode was full of energy, drama and lots and lots of zombies. Alexandria, the Kingdom and the Hilltop are united—with speeches from Rick, Ezekiel and Maggie to prove it. Rick has a plan that involves some nifty set pieces, and it’s gratifying to see the good guys get a rare win.
Driving vehicles that aspire to grow up to be extras in the next Mad Max sequel, our heroes have laid siege to the Sanctuary, but only after Daryl and Rick have assassinated all the lookouts, thanks to intel from their man on the inside, Dwight. Meanwhile, Carol, Daryl, Tara and Morgan have attracted a herd of walkers to the Sanctuary’s doorstep. It’s a solid plan that shows when the oppressed all rise up together, they can beat their oppressors.
That said, some of the frustrations we had with the show last season were back in full force. I can’t have been the only one screaming at my TV for someone to simply shoot Negan, who just walked outside fully exposed so he can monologue a bit too. You have the villain and four of his lieutenants facing a siege of protected, armed people who’ve been pushed beyond their breaking point. Surely someone brought a rifle with a scope? Or an automatic rifle that they’ve tried to aim? Rick Grimes suddenly became Rark Grames once he started spraying bullets aimlessly above everyone’s heads.
In addition to the Attack on The Sanctuary, we saw glimpses of two periods in the future, one shows a distraught Grimes presumably in the near future after some portion of the highly involved plan falls apart. And then much further in the future where a graying Grimes lives with his family in an Alexandria stable enough to hold a festival. Jim, I’m curious what you made of either of these and their connection to his revenge on Negan.
There wasn’t much time for human interest or character development except to continue the redemption of Father Gabriel Stokes, who once locked his congregation out of his church, dooming them to get eaten by walkers. Gabriel is not only Rick’s gun-toting confidante, but he risks his life to save the man who sold his people out to Negan, Gregory. Of course, Gregory betrays him, too, leaving Gabriel to seek refuge in the same trailer where Negan is hiding.
So Jim, what did you think of “Mercy,” the 100th episode of The Walking Dead? Did it feel big enough to hold that distinction, as well as the Season 8 opener? What’s going to happen in that dark trailer with Negan, Gabriel and Lucille? Did you need your shitting pants? Negan says you’re gonna? And, most importantly, where in the zombie apocalypse does one find a pair of shitting pants?
You should know by now, Josh, that the most powerful force in The Walking Dead universe isn’t a virus, or a bullet, but the sheer force of narrative convention. You can’t simply shoot Negan when he strolls out onto the ledge to monologue within range of dozens of rifles. The mere fact that Negan is the show’s current Big Bad gives him incomparable plot armor—the very foundations of this universe will contort themselves into a Möbius strip in order to protect him from death. The steadiest sharpshooter around will automatically become Spazzy McGee when placed in front of Negan, for no other reason than the fact that the plot demands it. That’s just how it’s going to be throughout the entirety of season 8, and we might as well accept it now.
...or must we? I must admit, I am thoroughly flummoxed by the visions of the future that peppered tonight’s episode, “Mercy.” As someone who has read the majority of the comics (past the current point in the television show), it’s extremely difficult to tell whether the show is currently yanking my chain. Reading your Walking Dead reviews last season with Shane, I was sometimes frustrated that Shane’s lack of familiarity with the comic source material often made him think that major events and plot points would be wrapped up considerably quicker than I knew they would be. Negan and the war between the Grimes Gang and the Saviors, for instance—halfway through last season, Shane seemed to expect that entire conflict to be wrapped up by the end of season 7. I knew better, and fully expected that whole season to be spent as build-up to the conflict—not that I’m endorsing the act of stringing things along for so long to get there. But when they’re so desperate to fill time that they have to fill episodes with strange-talking junkyard Beyond Thunderdome rejects, you know they’re working hard to get to the end of season 7 without progressing the plot much.
Season 8, then, I’ve expected to be fairly straightforward in terms of its description: This is “The War” we’ve been waiting for. You don’t conduct a war on a season of TV and wrap it up in a few episodes, only to move on to another major plotline for the rest of a season. Even in a show that has made the concept of the “mid-season finale” into an excuse to cliffhanger twice a season rather than one, I don’t think this war with the Saviors can get wrapped up in eight episodes. I’ve been operating entirely under the assumption that we’ll be spending our time moving chess pieces with Negan until the end of season 8, when maybe, maybe the show will be able to bring itself to kill him off. Maybe.
But these visions of the future throw a big wrench into those expectations. Why, Josh, would you show your audience glimpses of a post-Negan, post-Saviors utopia that Rick and his family are living in? Are we meant to interpret these as dreams, or fantasy, which is why they’re wreathed in ethereal, gauzy lighting? Does the suggestion of their existence not rob the entire war of much of its suspense and dramatic potential? We’ve already seen Rick, Carl and Michonne in this future timeline, after all—if we’re supposed to buy these events as the future of our characters, it’s a truly bizarre choice to confirm BEFORE the war that all three of those characters survive it. For a series whose sole suspenseful angle has become the prediction of which characters will live and which will die, it certainly complicates things.
When this episode wasn’t getting all Days of Future Past on us, I actually enjoyed some of the exchanges between members of the group you subjectively referred to as “the good guys.” In particular, Rick’s conversation with Maggie feels portentous—it is clear that he has grown weary of his role as a de facto leader in both wartime and peacetime when he tells her that “after this is over, I follow you.” Our Rick is tired. He wants to grow his beard, shuffle around on his cane and worry about crops once again, completing a long transformation into Hershel 2.0. He’s also run pretty short on empathy—look at him cut free that zombie to allow it to messily consume the Savior he knifed in the gut. Old Rick wouldn’t have bothered with such a petty (and messy) revenge.
I admit, I have no idea what the next phase in this war is supposed to be. Having the fortress of one’s enemy completely surrounded as the dead attempt to claw their way in seems like a good tactical position to be in, but I have no doubt that Rick and Co. will find a way to squander whatever advantage they may have in short order, allowing The Saviors to regroup and strike them where they least expect. And when that happens, not even Morgan’s vaguely sharpened stick will be able to dissuade them.
A few questions for you:
- Is it just me, or does it seem like the older members of this crew have become a bit relegated to the background as of late? I feel disconnected as an audience member from what is going on in the mind of a Daryl, or an Aaron, or a Carol as we embark on this war. I can only hope that Carol in particular has come to a decision in terms of her alternating desires to fight or run off to live the hermit life. If the group has ever needed the Carol who saved them all from being eaten alive at Terminus, that time is now.
- Are you expecting, as I am, for this conflict to be the primary focus of season 8 in its entirety? Or do you think they’d ever actually have the guts to move the story forward in time so dramatically as they’ve suggested in the flash-forwards? Eight episodes from now, could we really be following Old Man Rick around a thriving Alexandria? That doesn’t seem as inherently profitable an enterprise as milking the Negan character for one more full season.
- The most obvious possible question: On first glance, which of our protagonists is in the most danger of not surviving season 8? You know, besides Gabriel.
As Rick mentioned when rallying the troops, Jesus talked about Rick’s world getting a whole lot bigger. That’s meant more characters getting less screen time. Daryl, Carol and Eugene all got their moments last season. They may get more in-depth moments later this season, but right now they’re soldiers, and Daryl’s role mostly seems to be hunter of Negan’s men and herder of zombies. Carol is reluctant badass. And Eugene is just waiting for a gory death with a side of possible mini-redemption. Aaron never really rose above supporting role or maybe “also starring,” though he’s listed with the main cast.
As for whether this war will end quickly, very little in this show has been resolved more quickly than anyone thought. Rick and co. may have won the battle, but the war is in its infancy. There were a lot of people in the Sanctuary, and plenty of the Garbage People made it out of Alexandria alive at the end of last season. There are still a dozen of named Saviors excluding Dwight and all the cannon fodder and trash dump full of Scavengers. The only question is whether this is a half-season-long war or a season-long war. If the hazy flash-forward does nothing else, it gives me hope that this particular fight won’t extend into Season 9.
As for who gets to be neighbors with Future Rick, Morgan and Tara and probably the longest-serving character at risk. I don’t think we’ll lose any of the big five (Rick, Carl, Daryl, Carol, Michonne) or little Judith. I think Eugene and Gregory are most likely to die among characters not currently trapped in a dark trailer with Negan. There are dozens of named minor characters at this point, several of whom we’ll get to know briefly before they find a spot on Chris Hardwick’s couch for an exit interview. But I predict Morgan as the biggest death this season, which will inspire a new era of peace.
On the plus side, a season-long war between all the humans in suburban D.C. west of the Potomac could be just what the show needs to make it fun again. There was only so much all-powerful Negan I could take. But what about the walkers? Since Rick’s gang became efficient zombie-killing machines, it’s been harder to make the walkers seem much of a threat. Is the new horde they lured to the Sanctuary going to mean a bigger zombie threat this season? Will this be more of a three-sided war? And who’s your pick for the Walking Dead celebrity death watch?
I’m pretty sure we are long past the era of the Walkers ever being more than a tangential threat on this show. Case in point: I fully expect the Saviors to deal with the current infestation surrounding their HQ without losing a single named/recognizable character, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it more or less happens entirely off-screen. By the end of next week’s episode, they’ll have dealt with that problem and already be presenting entirely new threats to the Grimes Gang, mark my words.
As for the riddle of Future Rick, I’m beginning to think that this may be the show’s confusing way of acknowledging a future event from the comic books, without actually having to commit to it. Because an older, bearded, cane-walking Rick does eventually appear in the comics at one point, this could simply be the AMC show’s attempt to convey that outcome as one of several possible realities—daydreams or visions that our current Rick is experiencing. The more I think about it, the more I expect the story to NOT go in that direction. This would be fairly significant, as it would represent The Walking Dead’s official “leaving the source material behind” moment, similar to the last couple seasons of Game of Thrones. After the conclusion of season 8’s Negan storyline, we could potentially see The Walking Dead move into a storyline completely independent of anything Robert Kirkman has ever written … which is a prospect both intriguing and cynically concerning.
I do believe we’ll see a serious amount of character death this season. A lot of them feel vulnerable: Tara, Morgan, Gabriel and Eugene could all be easily lost, although Eugene’s death would almost certainly come after some kind of half-hearted, ineffectual attempt to take down Negan. Rosita, once healed, could also be destined for the grave. And I’m not so sure of the plot armor protecting some of what you called this show’s Big Five, because I can see Carol or Daryl being used as this seasons’s “big” protagonist death, if the writers can think of a send-off momentous enough for them after everything they’ve been through. That’s the most difficult part of killing off the likes of Daryl Dixon, after all—when you keep a battle-scarred character around long enough, it becomes harder and harder to write a scene “big enough” to justify their death. But the climactic battle of a war against Negan might just be the appropriate time to pull that trigger.
Who’s to say? Moreover, how many more seasons of The Walking Dead can we reasonably expect? For the first time in a while, I find myself wondering about an endgame for the series. Do they have it in them to truly go the happy ending route after the war with Negan is complete? Seeing as Season 9 has already been ordered, how could one possibly expect this? It’s easier to assume that as long as the show keeps bringing in a big viewership, there will always be new hurdles for the Grimes Gang to overcome—even if it’s a show that eventually leaves characters like Carol, or Daryl, or even Rick behind.
Until then, we’ll just have to see who survives the coming storm.
Please don’t die, Daryl Dixon.
Check back for more letters from Josh and Jim.