Season 8 of ‘The Walking Dead’ arrives with a lot riding on it. The premiere is both the show’s milestone 100th episode and, perhaps more importantly, it’s the first episode back after a particularly disappointing season. Has the zombie series gotten its mojo back?
The show’s writers and producers sure want to push that impression. Throughout the premiere, Rick and the Alexandrians have a positively cocky attitude that they’re back in charge and that they’re about to make quick work of the war with Negan. Rick gives a rallying speech to his assembled forces declaring that, “The future is ours! The world is ours!” and vows to kill Negan himself before the end of the day. Considering how these characters spent most of last season oppressed under Negan’s boot, this change in tone is much appreciated. For a time, viewers might even anticipate that this could play out like the immensely satisfying Season 5 premiere, which brought the Terminus storyline to an abrupt, unexpected end. Unfortunately, the writers don’t have the conviction to actually follow through with these promises.
Much of the episode is devoted to setup as we watch the Alexandrians prepare for the siege on the Savior compound known as the Sanctuary. Rick leads a convoy of cars with metal sheets welded to their sides as armor, while Daryl, Morgan, Carol and Tara pick off individual Saviors along the route and lure a huge horde of Walkers in the direction of the compound. This is intercut with strange, unexplained scenes of Rick standing over two graves, and also with a dreamlike vision of an older, bearded Rick surrounded by family and friends as a Weird Al song plays during a community festival. It’s unclear whether these are flash-forwards or just Rick’s fantasy.
Also, Carl encounters a crazy babbling man while searching for gas. Rick scares the guy off, but Carl returns later to leave some cans of food with an apology note. That doesn’t lead anywhere this week, but I’m sure we’ll see more of it later.
Rick and his troops, which include Maggie and Ezekiel leading forces from the Hilltop and the Kingdom, arrive and form an offensive line in front of the Sanctuary. Rick then fires a few shots into the air to call out Negan. Indeed, Negan steps out onto a balcony along with his top lieutenants: Simon, Gavin, Eugene, a woman named Regina, and Dwight (who’s secretly working with the Alexandrians). Negan seems surprised that Rick had the balls to strike so soon and so directly, but, cocksure as ever, blusters about how Rick has made a huge mistake and is about to feel a world of hurt. His bragging leaves the impression that perhaps he’s just led Rick into another trap, but Rick can’t be sure whether he’s bluffing.
Frustratingly, Rick has plenty of opportunities to take out Negan as he stands unguarded on the balcony, but doesn’t take a shot. Instead, he offers the lieutenants a deal that they can walk away if they turn on Negan and surrender. None of them does. (Dwight must be biding his time.) In response, Negan drags out Gregory (Xander Berkeley), who announces that the Hilltop stands with Negan and orders his people to go home. Of course, the people from the Hilltop never cared much for Gregory to begin with. When Jesus calls out that the Hilltop stands with Maggie, not with Gregory, a fed-up Simon shoves the useless Gregory down some stairs.
Rick then declares that he’s going to count down from 10 for the Saviors to surrender, but gets antsy and starts shooting at 7. His army opens fire on the building. Unfortunately, none of them even tries to aim at anything in particular, so Negan and all his lieutenants duck inside unharmed. If this is Rick’s strategy, it seems pretty half-assed.
Riding his motorcycle and blowing stuff up along the way, Daryl leads the Walker horde directly to the Sanctuary. Gabriel breaches the gate with the motorhome, which Rick blows up as soon as Gabriel hops out, leaving a huge opening in the fence. Rick then calls for his people to pull back and let the Walkers do the work for them. (This part of the plan is much smarter, admittedly.) On the way out, Gabriel takes pity on Gregory and runs over to help him, only for douchebag Gregory to ditch him in the middle of a zombie herd and steal his car.
As Walkers overrun the Sanctuary, the Alexandrians stand by and wait, planning to mop up whatever’s left of the Saviors after the zombies are done with them. Fighting for his life, Gabriel runs inside a trailer sitting in the middle of the courtyard. As soon as he closes the door, a voice laughs from the darkness, “I hope you got your shittin’ pants on.” Of course, it’s Negan, pleased as punch to have a hostage even while an immense mob of Walkers converge on the trailer.
I went into it expecting the premiere to be a two-hour episode and was surprised to find it only a few minutes longer than usual. The ‘Talking Dead’ episode afterwards was twice as long, which strikes me as odd and backwards, to say the least. In a way, I actually appreciate the leanness of the episode, which could have been dragged out much more painfully. Sadly, it still feels padded with the pointless and confusing flash-forward/fantasy scenes.
Overall, it’s a decent start to the season. However, we’ve seen much more epic battles than this in the past, and the realization that this is just Round 1 in what will be a prolonged war with Negan is damned frustrating. (The preview for the rest of the season already revealed that Negan gets out of the trailer alive.) Rick had numerous opportunities to kill Negan this episode – or to let others, such as Dwight, do it for him. That he doesn’t act on them feels very contrived. For that matter, why doesn’t Gabriel just turn and unload on Negan right away in the last scene? If he’s out of bullets, that should have been made clear before he ran into the trailer still clutching his gun.
I’d also like to know what happened to all the other Saviors. The Sanctuary was previously shown as a thriving community with hundreds of residents and much more fortified defenses. Here, it’s down to basically six people with a flimsy gate. And how did Negan not at all expect or prepare for this attack, given that Rick already declared war and kicked his ass once in the last episode?
In other words, the new premiere seems like an improvement over last season in some ways, but still suffers from dumb writing and inconsistent character behavior.