A show reaching its 100th episode can be a gift and a curse. On one hand, hitting this milestone is proof that the writers and actors have created characters that resonate with a mass audience. On the other hand, when you produce that much quantity over the course of several years it’s hard to consistently maintain the quality. The Walking Dead finds itself at this crossroad with its 100th episode, “Mercy,” which also serves as the premiere of the AMC hit’s pivotal eighth season.
There’s no question that The Walking Dead is still popular: A whopping 17 million viewers tuned in to the start of season seven to find out who was at the receiving end of Negan’s barbwire bat, but the last chapter in Rick and Co.’s journey ended at a five-year finale low with only 11.3 million viewers. Most shows would kill for numbers like that but when it comes to TWD that’s a significant drop and cause for concern. So the 100th episode presents an opportunity to either breathe new life into the series or continue its downward spiral.
While the premiere doesn’t rank up there with some of The Walking Dead’s best season openers, “Mercy” does maintain the status quo and—for better or for worse—reintroduces the cocksure Rick Grimes that fans have come to love. In fact, it was the uncharacteristic timidness of the show’s protagonist throughout much of season seven that turned most people off. It’s understandable that for Negan to establish his my-way-or-the-highway dominance he had to psychologically break Rick down but suffering through week after week of our hero sniffling through scenes was its own form or torture. Not just because it hurt to see your favorite characters getting punked over and over, but the monotony of it all made for lackluster storytelling. One of the season’s only saving graces were the captivating monologues and one-liners by Negan, but this also represented the major problem with season seven.
From the very beginning it was established that The Walking Dead is Rick Grimes’ story, but that dynamic shifted drastically last season. Negan was not only the new alpha male of the series, but when one of his cronies first told Daryl, Sasha, and Abraham that “your property now belongs to Negan” that must have also included the show too. As much as I enjoy Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s performance as the charismatic antagonist, people tune in to see Rick and Co.’s journey not Negan’s. Sure, a one-off episode here or there like the amazing two-part backstory of the Governor in season four (“Live Bait,” “Dead Weight”) is great, but a full season-long detour through Saviors land was a bit off-putting.
I want to see the Grimes gang get their swagger back as much as the next fanboy/fangirl, but I also want it to be believable.
By time we get to episode 100, though, things are back to normal with Rick in beast mode, making bold promises about taking Negan out. He has a plan, tons of guns, and a large group of allies. It all sounds good, but we’ve been here before. The first time the Grimes gang took on the Saviors they successfully slaughtered the members of Negan’s outpost, but they had no clue that there were several others and essentially started a fight they couldn’t win. This time in addition to more backup, which includes members of the Hilltop and Kingdom, they also have Dwight operating as a double agent inside the Sanctuary.
Although things go mostly according to plan, the million-dollar question still remains: How the hell did we get here? Like I said earlier, Rick was broken. In Negan’s own eloquent words, he figuratively slid his dick down Rick’s throat and Rick thanked him for it. That’s not a position that someone just magically gets out of. But somehow by last year’s midseason finale—that’s eight episodes—Rick gets a battery in his back and starts plotting a cross-community uprising. It’s like the psychological warfare he endured—that included watching two of his friends get their brains brutally bashed in with a bat and frantically weeping when Negan threatened to kill someone else if Rick didn't chop off Carl's arm—never happened. I want to see the Grimes gang get their swagger back as much as the next fanboy/fangirl, but I also want it to be believable.
The season eight premiere also contains portions that seem disconnected from reality. There’s no clear breakdown of how much time has passed since last year’s finale, but it doesn’t seem long enough for Rick to have forgotten what happened throughout the front half of last season. I mean, Judith, who has been a baby since season three, had a growth spurt overnight and looks big enough to grab a gun and join in the battle, but yet Maggie still doesn’t have a visible baby bump.
Continuity issues aside, “Mercy” succeeds in re-centering the series on our core cast of characters—although some of them can’t seem to learn from their mistakes. Even after Gregory is revealed to be more of a spineless snake than we already knew him to be, Father Gabriel, who’s bossed up considerably since we first met him, puts his neck on the line for Gregory, who leaves Gabriel to die at the very first opportunity. It’s poor judgment calls like this that constantly make you shake your fist at the screen, but 100 episodes in I guess it’s a good sign that we still feel anything at all for a show that fluctuates between frustrating at its worst and fun at its best.