It’s only fitting that The Walking Dead’s 100th episode — the show’s season eight premiere, “Mercy” — would be a dead-on encapsulation of the zombie series so far.
The hour starts out promisingly enough, cross-cutting between timelines to reveal the preparations for a big battle, the build-up to the battle itself, and then the recovery period months or even years later. (Rick suddenly has a whole lot of gray in his beard.) It boasts a technically complicated, ambitious midsection that made me say, more than once, “Can they pull this off?” And then it just sorta evaporates by the end, spinning its wheels so fruitlessly that it atomizes.
“Mercy” is not a very good episode of television — I really wanted to limit this review to a single sentence, “The Walking Dead’s 100th episode isn’t very good, just like the show,” but my editor said no — but it contains just enough moments to make you think it might turn a corner. They compel you to keep watching, which only increases the level of disappointment when it doesn’t deliver. Suddenly, The Walking Dead seems as if it’s outlived its moment, as if it got stuck somewhere in 2015 and left us all to sail on by, waving.
While “Mercy” is probably a better episode of The Walking Dead than most of the show’s (truly enervating) seventh season, it also underlines how futile it is to care about the series any more now that it’s succumbed to the gravitational pull of Negan.
Theoretically interesting moments and character beats — like, say, Maggie embracing her new role as the leader of the Hilltop community — are crushed beneath the heel of the Negan story, which has dragged on so long, with so obvious a conclusion, that even the show has leapt ahead to assure us that, yes, Rick, Michonne, and probably most of the others are going to survive this current struggle. (You could argue these flash-forwards are a dream sequence, but c’mon.)
The Walking Dead has never been a great show, but it used to be one I did enjoy watching. It was always a little too eager to cater to its most bloodthirsty fans, but it threw in plenty of material for those of us who were more interested in the story of building a community in the post-apocalypse. Now, it’s just a show about spilling blood, which is fine and all but never as compelling as the writers want it to be.
Consider just how long The Walking Dead has spent on this accursed Negan storyline — most of the sixth season, all of the seventh, and now at least part of the eighth. And then consider how little sense Negan’s character makes within the context of television; on the show, he’s played charismatically by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, in a way that only serves to underline how he’s just one dude, not the supernatural entity he could seem to be in the source comics (where I already didn’t like him). But the show bet heavily that what viewers wanted, most of all, was to see Negan lay waste to several regular characters, to say nothing of the self-confidence possessed by those whose lives were spared.
And thus season eight begins with an episode about the opening salvo in the war against Negan, an episode that seems to go out of its way to obscure the characters’ plans for waging said war. It gets around to more or less explaining them eventually, but for too long it leaves us furrowing our brows, because the only way The Walking Dead knows how to tell stories anymore is to pointlessly extend them, decompress them to the point where what would have been single scenes in earlier seasons now fill entire episodes, and then jostle the timeline for no particular reason. The concluding “inspirational” speech from Rick mostly made me say, “Wait, why is this happening now?”
It doesn’t matter how good the action sequences are — and there are some good ones in “Mercy” — if I don’t give a shit. Which means that finally, at long last, after sticking with The Walking Dead through good times and bad, after complaining about it but continuing to watch, after occasionally loving it, after wishing it would be better, I have won victory over myself. I no longer give a shit. Maybe you still do. I’ll see you somewhere down the road, when you, too, realize that nothing about this show is headed anywhere interesting.