Rick strikes first against Negan, fighting for a future worth living and inspiring those who choose to follow him.
[WARNING - This review contains SPOILERS for The Walking Dead season 8 premiere.]
The Walking Dead is back and with it comes war. After spending much of season 7 on the brink of war, as tensions grew and tempers flared, the season 8 premiere brings the brewing conflict to a head. Rick has united the people of Alexandria with those from The Hilltop and The Kingdom, forming a coalition that's ready, come what may, to face Negan and The Saviors.
This monumental 100th episode of The Walking Dead, 'Mercy' signals a shift in Rick's approach. No longer is he just reacting to Negan's cruelty but taking a proactive role in bringing about his downfall. That's the thrust of Rick's whole plan, but there's a fine line between accomplishing that goal and seeking revenge - a distinction Father Gabriel makes sure to remind Rick of in a tense moment. But now that Rick and his allies have made the first move, there's no turning back. This outright act of aggression on the part of Rick and his fellow survivors against The Saviors cannot be overlooked; and once Negan has regained control of The Sanctuary and rallies his own army, the all out war will be on.
While this season 8 premiere spends a good amount of its time setting the stage for the survivors' attack on The Sanctuary, 'Mercy' is more deeply concerned with examining Rick's role as a leader. There are three communities, each with their own person in charge, but it is Rick who's positioned as the inspiring, rallying figure of this resistance. It is to that point which Gabriel refers to when he first speaks with Rick, mentioning how it always starts with just one person. Rick brushes that observation aside, insisting that all of this - gesturing to the gathered forces, their renewed sense of rebellion, and what it is they're about to do - isn't about him but rather the future that they are trying to build.
The exchange mirrors a similar one from the comics between Jesus and Rick in which Jesus outlines why it is he's chosen to follow Rick. Unlike Negan - a leader who earns loyalty through fear, who demands that his followers worship him, driven only by his ego - Jesus explains that Rick leads by example, inspiring those who follow him with a promise of a better life, of a better future that they can all build together. It's a stark contrast between the two leaders and one The Walking Dead season 8 is sure to also explore, setting up a similar destiny for Rick through his ultimate decision to stick to the plan and leave his vengeance for another day. Rick is fighting not just to win, but to make the world a better place for those who'll come after him.
That future is what we can presume is shown in Rick's strange, hallucinatory visions. The premiere doesn't seem to offer much in the way of clues as to just how these scenes fall in with the timeline of the episode or if they're even real - the same goes for the scenes of Rick looking teary-eyed and mumbling about his "mercy overcoming his wrath" - but they do work in tandem with this theme of Rick being able to put the good of the group before his own vendettas. His dreams for a peaceful future and his act of mercy are just further evidence of his strength as a leader; one who is just and fair and exactly that one person with whom change can really begin.
It's also worth pointing out that Rick himself makes mention of wanting to follow Maggie, saying to her that once they've finished with Negan, "I'm following you." The moment is a sweet one between the two characters, with Maggie obviously flattered by Rick's confidence in her, but don't expect Rick to just settle into a quiet, responsibility-free lifestyle once this war is over. No matter the outcome, Rick will remain a man people choose to follow and that isn't a calling he's very likely to ignore.
For the immediate future, however, Rick's preemptive strike on The Sanctuary appears to have given them a real advantage, with the survivors moving on to attack The Savior's various outposts instead of immediately retreating back to their home communities. Hopefully, they can keep the momentum in their favor, but it wouldd be foolish to count their winning of this battle as any indication they can win the war. Negan is sure to strike back harder than ever before, meaning Rick will need to be prepared for an onslaught - one that is sure to come with casualties.
Speaking of, the only casualty of tonight's premiere - of note, anyhow, quite a few lookouts lost their lives in this episode - was Rick's "conscience", Father Gabriel. He learns the hard lesson that no good deed goes unpunished when Gregory strands him, quickly finding himself trapped between a herd of walkers and Negan. Gabriel's fate is left for a future episode, but even his abduction doesn't distract Rick from the mission - with him reiterating to Daryl that defeating Negan means more than any one of them. It means ensuring that those who survive will have a chance at a future worth living.
The Walking Dead season 8 continues next Sunday with 'The Damned' at 9pm/10c on AMC.