The closing credits of The Walking Dead's season premiere dedicates the episode to George Romero, who died this past summer at age 77, after essentially inventing the post-apocalyptic zombie genre with his cult classic Night of the Living Dead and its myriad sequels, reboots and rip-offs. And yet just about everything that happened in the hour leading up to that little tip o' the cap to the master was a reminder of how much this show has moved beyond Romero. What started as a epic riff on the Dead movies has become … well, something else entirely.
Consider the opening minutes of the episode in question, titled "Mercy." Writer Scott M. Gimple and director Greg Nicotero launch the new season with a hard turn into the artsy, assembling an impressionistic montage meant to update the audience on what's happened since the Season One finale – and to hint at what might come next.
Given that everything's all jumbled in those first five minutes, it's worth taking a moment to break down what we actually see, which falls into three different categories:
1. Rick rallies the troops with a speech about how the world belongs to the righteous and sociable, not the killers. He's followed by Ezekiel and then Maggie, who agree that it's better to build a community than to live governed by fear.
2. Around the area, the various colonists prepare to battle the Saviors. The Hilltoppers literally beat plowshares into swords; out on the highway, Carol and Tara are timing the migration patterns of the undead. Back at the Sanctuary, Dwight and Dwayne are sending intel back and forth via arrows.
3. In two possible glimpses of the future, we see two very different versions of Rick. One's standing by two freshly dug graves, and one's lazing contentedly around his house while Weird Al Yankovic's "Another One Rides the Bus" (no, really) plays in the next room.
The latter vignettes – both of which we circle back to a few times later – may be flash-forwards, or may represent two diverging paths for our heroes. This coming imbroglio with the Saviors could cost Rick two people very dear to him … or could end with him living a life of mellow domesticity, scored to classic parodies of old Queen songs.
After the opener, the episode settles down to cover roughly one eventful day in the life of the survivors, in what seems to be a few months after last season's explosive Safe Zone stand-off. Michonne's healed-up, baby Judith has grown into a toddler and the good-guy allies have apparently scavenged every remaining piece of sheet-metal in northern Virginia to turn their various cars, trucks and vans into badass armored-vehicle, all-out-war machines.
The biggest development that the premiere tries to sell, however, is that Rick has evolved as a leader, one who actively trying to keep his ego out of his decisions. "This isn't about me," he insists to Father Gabriel; the man of the cloth responds, in the voice of someone who's heard this way too many times, "Yes, it isn't … you made it like that." The problem is that there'll always be one part of this conflict with the Saviors that Rick takes personally. Over and over, he's promised to kill Negan, and that remains the linchpin of his strategy – no matter the risk to him or his people.
In an unusual bit of restraint, "Mercy" holds the villain back until halfway through its running-time, when the man with the bat suddenly bounds out of his Sanctuary bunker with a flourish, saying,"Well shit, I'm sorry, I was in a meeting." Though this chapter ends with a couple of big shootouts, its money scene comes right in the middle, with Negan and Rick barking threats at each other. The Saviors' kingpin tries to shut his adversary down by insisting "my dick is bigger than yours," then reveals that he has Gregory on his side. But when Jesus publicly rebukes his former boss – shouting, "The Hilltop stands with Maggie" – that ends any hope that the Colonists will "go back to separating wheat and shit."
With the overtures out of the way, the action commences in earnest and those preparations we saw in the intro come into play. Booby-traps are triggered. Zombies are weaponized. Remote outposts that Morgan previously scouted become fresh trenches on an expanding battlefield. "I hope you got your shittin' pants on," Negan sneers at Gabriel when the two get trapped together at the end of the episode, amid a barrage of bullets, bombs and walkers. But even the Lucille-wielding super-villain would have to admit that this melee – which is impressively epic and thrilling to watch, by the way – doesn't go his way. Our team has planned, and planed well. He's still counting on his swagger to win the day.
Yet even as The Walking Dead busies itself with the bloody squabbles between the Saviors and the Alexandrian coalition, it has its eyes trained far ahead. One of the slightest but potentially most significant subplots this week involves Carl encountering a seemingly harmless stranger during one of his scouting runs, and returning to that same location later with food. That impulse to help someone he doesn't know marks a big change in mentality for a kid who once seemed to be on a path to becoming a murderous psycho. And it may indicate a change in mentality for this show, too.
“Mercy" is the 100th episode of The Walking Dead, and arrives as the series is at something of a crossroads. Ratings and buzz have declined. After years of characters hopping from location to location, enemy to enemy, they've been settled in one place and one plot-line for so long that even hardcore fans are growing weary.
Romero's films were classics in part because they were finite, which allowed their pessimistic take on human nature to pack more of a punch. But that level of bitter cynicism is hard to sustain for 16 hours a year. So TWD begins its new season by balancing pessimism and hope – somewhere between the cemetery and Weird Al. "If we start tomorrow right now, no matter what comes next, we've won," Rick says in his pre-battle pep rally. And even if he eventually ends up burying loved ones, that doesn't mean he was wrong.