Someday, The Walking Dead will end. Sure, with this premise, the folks in charge could theoretically cycle through cast members like Saturday Night Live and go on into eternity. But the practical reality is that, as the show begins its eighth season, it’s likely closer to its end than its beginning.
But it’s hard to imagine what that ending will look like. Comic book creator Robert Kirkman famously declared that his story could go on forever and that he had no clear ending in mind. The recent Robot Chicken special poking fun at the show envisioned a relatively normal future where society has been rebuilt and there’s a Walker Museum devoted to the struggle of the series (with a nice “historical game of telephone” vibe). Others have speculated about who might survive to the end, whether anyone will find a cure, and how a new civilization comes to fruition. Still, there’s no obvious place for this story to end, no clear way to reach a series-length measure of catharsis.
“Mercy,” nevertheless, dares to dream about what the future, that belabored “tomorrow,” will look like. It shows us a gray-bearded Rick, cane in hand, limping through a loving home inhabited by Michonne, Carl, and Judith. There’s a gauzy hue over these images; one that, contrasted with edited-in images of a red-eyed Rick gazing out at the middle distance, suggests this may be as much a fantasy as it is a vision of things to come.
It’s a nice vision though, one where there’s a big festival to plan and everyone seems safe and content enough to have a pleasant, humdrum existence filled with silenced alarm clocks and Weird Al parodies. There’s still gold to be mined from The Walking Dead franchise, which suggests that, despite slipping ratings, the show isn’t likely to depart the airwaves anytime soon. And yet, the Season 8 premiere sets up the impending clash with Negan as “the last fight” before things settle down and Rick has the chance to live out the life of a contented old man we see glimpses of here.
The meat of “Mercy,” however, centers on our heroes preparing for that clash, and then bringing the fight to The Saviors’ doorstep. As is almost always the case with The Walking Dead, those scenes of prepping for the next big struggle work best when they’re not laden with the show’s clunky, grandiose dialogue. The forces of Alexandria under Rick, The Hilltop under Maggie, The Kingdom under Ezekiel, have finally united and are ready to strike back at Negan and his brutes. But before that can happen, Rick has to offer a clunky halftime speech, lolling out the usual platitudes about what the assembled combatants are fighting for in the familiar, halting tones of his standard-issue motivational speaking appearances.
But the episode fares better when it devotes itself to showing that preparation rather than holding the audience’s hand through the loudly-announced themes of the episode. Watching the current coalition of the willing exert their will on unsuspecting Savior lookouts, while locales are crossed off Rick’s handwritten list, is a thrilling little sequence. As a viewer, it’s hard not to value competence in our heroes, and seeing the team be so good at what they do, even if what they’re doing isn’t exactly good, can’t help but rouse some cheer.
It all builds to a standoff between Rick’s coalition and The Saviors at The Sanctuary, made all the more tense by teasingly-placed act breaks. The season-by-season pacing of The Walking Dead has always been a little odd, with season premieres needing something big but rarely feeling like the beginning of a story, and season finales feeling similarly interstitial. “Mercy” is no exception. The face-to-face confrontation between Rick and Negan offered here feels like a culmination of the theatrics from last season, but it also feels like a mere middle chapter in a larger story, partly meant to kick off the events of this season, but partly meant simply to provide some scenery-chewing and explosions to grab the jaded audience’s attentions after another year of the same old same old.
But it’s a good stand-off. Rick is all business and grunts and ultimatums, which is about his speed. He rolls up in cars decked out in aluminum siding, brandishing firearms and setting out a mobile layer of defense for him and his compatriots. He calls out to the Savior lieutenants we’re familiar with (plus Eugene!) and gives them one chance to surrender before it’s showtime.
Naturally, Negan responds with his usual joie de vivre, taunting Rick about the size of his reproductive organs, issuing his own leering threats, and generally continuing to be the embodiment of toxic masculinity wrapped in a jaunty scarf. It’s a clash of personalities with enough tension to hold the moment, even if you know things will inevitably erupt in gunfire sooner or later.
And they do. But it’s not another pointless firefight even if Rick and company do more immediate damage to Negan’s window repair fund than they do to any of their actual adversaries. That strategy is part of a deliberate plan, which involves the crew at The Saviors’ hideout blowing up an RV to breach The Sanctuary’s forward defenses, and then having the all-star crew of Carol, Daryl, Morgan, and Tara lure a massive horde of walkers right onto Negan’s doorstep. It’s a clever plan for once (even if it feels like Rick could have clipped Negan plenty of times while they were jawing at one another) which sews chaos directly at The Saviors’ home base. And it brings with it the necessary quotient of action and tension and excitement.
Eventually, those explosions give way to a more heavy-handed underlining of the theme of the episode — “it’s not about you.” The Walking Dead has never been anything but full-throated in what it’s trying to say, but it’s at least a laudable tack to take as the show seems to be contemplating its endgame. As much as the fight in “Mercy” is framed as a one-on-one confrontation with Rick and Negan as figureheads, there’s at least lip service to the idea that this is a broader struggle, one between those who believe the world needs to get bigger and more inclusive, and those who believe they have the right to carve it up for themselves.
It leads to our heroes considering the next generation, and how the better world the current generation hoping to create, will one day become theirs. That comes in the form of Michonne trying to nudge Carl to take responsibility. It comes from Rick at least nominally passing the torch to Maggie. It comes in broader notions that Rick and Morgan and Carol are stewards in the midst of this bloody interregnum, ready to settle the last of their scores so that the world can return to something approaching normalcy, and the next batch of leaders can emerge, hopefully less stained and scarred from the harsh transition.
There’s hope for that here, and not just in Rick’s bleary-eyed fantasy. “Mercy” sees Carl scoping out a decaying gas station in search of fuel, and finding another young man much like himself. That young man asks for a bit of kindness and forbearance, or at least a bit of food. Before Carl can react or fully decide what he wants to do about the situation, Rick shoots his gun in the air and scares the kid off, laden with the (half-legitimate) paranoia about who might be working for Negan. Carl, however, still has enough altruism in him to return to that same spot later with a couple of cans of grub and a note of apology.
Maybe that’s where The Walking Dead ends when it’s time to close up shop. Too many folks have been too battered by the state of the world as it stands now. Rick, Carol, and Morgan have each tried to give this life up, to end their parts in this cycle. But each time, they’re drawn back. There is work to be done, even if that work cannot help but hollow them out, and each of them stays stone-faced and resolute through most of this week’s proceedings.
But there might be a light at the tunnel, one where the zombie disease is not yet cured, where there are still threats that lurk on the horizon, but where the vision that Rick so clunkily outlines here takes hold. It’s a vision of people coming together forge something beyond working for points and deciding who owns and who owes.
But it’s a vision that’s going to have to be lived out by Maggie and Carl and the rest of the younger contingent of this budding new society that has a chance to see it through. Maybe the best end for The Walking Dead is simply one where the sort of Mercy shown by Carl can go on unabated, where life is still hard, but not brutal, where the world doesn’t need Rick Grimes anymore.