After a season spent under Negan’s boot heels, Rick’s group is ready to fight back. They’ve combined with the folks from the Hilltop and the Kingdom to form a ragtag army, and they are preparing to take the fight to Negan and the Saviors. It’s about to get real, y’all.

In the season 8 premiere, we find a completely different tone from the despair and defeat of season 7. The atmosphere is expectant, though the action plods along at a shuffling, walker-like pace. You get the feeling, though, that this is a stage-setting episode. We’re seeing all the behind the scenes stuff: people arming themselves, Rick visiting the graves of his fallen friends, strangers making plans to go into battle together. We get a sense of both the anticipation and the tedium involved in preparing for war.

The Walking Dead Season 8 premiere, Rick, Ezekiel, Maggie

Motivational Speeches

Rick addresses the assembled would-be warriors from Alexandria, the Hilltop, and the Kingdom. It’s like an All Star Tour of the zombie apocalypse as he, Ezekiel, and Maggie face the crowd. If there were working cell phones, this would be the moment to start livestreaming. He tells them, “The bigger world is ours by right.” And it almost sounds a bit Negan-ish until he starts talking about peace and fairness and common ground. He tells the people there will be no celebration in the killing that is sure to ensue, but there is no shame, either. Those who oppose this vision of a newer, fairer world will be ended. It’s both inspiring and squirmy because we know what happens when Rick starts beating his chest and declaring victory before the fight has been fought. *coughGlennandAbecough*

Mysterious Moments That Will Likely Be Significant Later

First of all, there’s the weird, flash-forward vision of beardy but meticulously groomed older Rick. We keep seeing flowers on a bedside table. A cane leaning against the wall. An old alarm clock. And Weird Al Yankovic’s “Another One Rides The Bus” in the background. As the episode progresses, we keep getting snippets of this scene, interspersed with cuts to a red-eyed Rick who seems to be in the current time. More on this later.

There’s also a scene where Carl is scavenging for gas amid the husks of abandoned cars and he starts hearing a disembodied voice pleading for help, maybe just some food. The voice says his mother always said, “Whatever you have of good, spend it on the traveler.” He goes on to explain, “My mom says that helping the traveler, the one without a home, that’s everything.” All the while, Carl is creeping about, gun drawn, trying to find the speaker. The stranger quotes the Koran: “May my mercy prevail over my wrath.” Just before Carl draws a bead on him. Before Carl can act, however, Rick chases the man off, firing above his head. Carl regards Rick skeptically. Rick emphasizes the fact that he fired OVER the guy’s head. “If he isn’t one of them, I hope he makes it,” he says. Carl walks off, telling Rick that there won’t be enough hope. Which is the choice that will come back to haunt them? The decision not to help the traveler or the decision not to kill him?

Also, what’s up with the Polaroid Rick snaps and drops as they’re retreating from the Sanctuary?

The Rick and Gabriel Dynamic

I’ve made no secret of my hatred for Father Wussbucket, but it appears that Gabriel is starting to grow some testicles. (Hey, I turned around on Carl, so anything is possible.) As the preparations for the attack continue, Gabriel and Rick have an interesting conversation. “One person brought it to this,” Rick says. “It always starts with one person,” Gabriel replies. Rick, catching the edge in Gabriel’s voice, says, “This isn’t about me.” “Yes,” says Gabriel mildly. “You made it like that.” Is it just me or is Gabriel being kinda bitchy? His point is taken, though not by Rick: it’s not just one person who has brought about this inevitable confrontation. It’s one person on each side. One person is Negan and the other person is someone whose name rhymes with “brick.”

The Walking Dead Season 8 premiere Richonne Rick Michonne

Torches Being Passed

Rick kisses Judith and Michonne goodbye. He hugs Carl, puts the hat on his head (hello, callback to season 1), and says, “This is the end of it.” As they watch him leave, Carl tells Michonne he knows she wanted to go with Rick. Michonne tells Carl that she will help him defend this place. Carl is taken aback. “Help me?” “Oh, yeah,” she replies. “This is your show now.” WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? It better not mean what it could very well mean. But this is The Walking Dead, so it totally could. Anyway. Carl shakes his head, but Michonne says, “It’s okay. You’ll see.” It’s like a benediction.

The other torch-passing moment is when Rick is talking to Maggie about the future. Which, let’s be real – Maggie is literally carrying the future inside her. She winks as she says, “They say you can wage war through the second trimester.” It’s a page out of What to Expect When You’re Expecting in the Apocalypse. She also reminds us of how far she’s come when she says, “I been fighting since the farm. Can’t stop now.” Rick asks, “What about tomorrow?” Maggie asks if he’s been thinking about what that will look like and Rick says, indeed, he has, and he doesn’t think he can wait for it. “Just one more fight,” Maggie promises. “And I’m gonna be there, at least for the first part.” Rick tells Maggie the Hilltop is lucky to have her. Maggie says she learned how to be a leader from Rick. And then he says, “Good, because after tomorrow, I’m following you.” It doesn’t get more torch-passy than that.

The Walking Dead Season 8 premiere Rick Maggie Andrew Lincoln Lauren Cohan

Mercy

The episode is named Mercy for a reason. In the post-apocalyptic world, mercy is both a deliberate choice to stay rooted in humanity and possibly a life-threatening mistake. Every time mercy is shown or denied, we wonder what that will cost our heroes. Rick shoots over the head of the traveler when he could have killed him, despite the fact that he could have been a spy for Negan. Later, he casually allows a walker to dine on the wounded Savior sentry who has been taunting him. Then at the Sanctuary, when his group faces Negan, he offers the lieutenants a chance to surrender, but only if they’ll do it right then. Rick’s relationship status with mercy: it’s complicated.

The Walking Dead Season 8 premiere Daryl Norman Reedus motocycle

Negan, Rick, and Pride

When Rick and the others finally arrive at the Sanctuary, after the meticulously-timed herding of a massive walker horde, setting of explosives, and cladding of vehicles, Negan saunters out nonchalantly, saying he’d been in a meeting. He blusters, telling Rick there’s no need for them to throw lead at each other and that he, Negan, cares about his people too much to let them die over what is essentially a dick-measuring contest (his is bigger, though). Rick just starts naming Negan’s lieutenants, proving that he knows all about each of them. Eugene tries to speak up but Rick cuts him off, “No. I know who you are.” He says they can live, but he can only guarantee that if they surrender right now. They don’t. Negan asks, “What about me, Rick?” Rick replies, “I told you. Twice. You know what’s going to happen.” Negan says he does, but Rick doesn’t. Why don’t they just get out a ruler and whip ‘em out?

When It Goes Down

To no one’s surprise, Gregory is at the Sanctuary. He urges all Hilltop residents to put down their arms and stand with Negan and the Saviors. Anyone who doesn’t will be cast out, and so will their families. But Maggie has clearly become the leader of the Hilltop, and her people are not about to leave her. We already know this, but it’s still a great moment when Jesus yells, “The Hilltop stands with Maggie!”

Explosions sound in the distance and Negan observes, “Sounds like shit is going down, Rick.” He doesn’t back down, though, so Rick has to count. He starts from ten but then at seven, he just starts firing. So does everyone else. The battle is on! Rick’s people set off an explosion in an RV and when the dust clears, the walker horde they’ve been driving toward the Sanctuary is upon them. Rick spots Negan and continues firing, but Gabriel goes back to him. “It’s not about you, right?” Reluctantly, Rick stops. Gabriel is right. (Holy shit, I can’t believe I just typed that.)

Gabriel is about to escape when he spots a disoriented Gregory in the yard. And then he stupidly decides to get out of his truck and save him. (Mercy or dumbness?) Gregory, of course, is still a shit-weasel, so he ends up running off with Gabriel’s truck, leaving the good father stranded amongst the walkers. Desperately, Gabriel takes shelter in a trailer. From the darkness, Negan says, “I hope you got your shittin’ pants on.”

Dammit. Of course.

Final Flash-Forward. Or Sideways. Or Whatever.

A little girl (Judith, one presumes) says to Rick, “Daddy, we made a big owl for the party!” Michonne says, “They are taking this festival extremely seriously.” Judith tells Rick the big owl is outside and Michonne says, “They’re gonna get you.” Rick says, “Never. Let’s go see. I’m not afraid of a big owl. How big is it?” Michonne smiles as Judith leads Rick outside. It’s an idyllic scene. Peaceful. People are gardening and there’s are a couple of picnic tables set up. Which looks a lot like the picnic table from that heartbreaking “last supper” scene from Season 7 where all the lost ones are sitting around with the living, laughing and eating and passing the food. You know, the one where we see Glenn and Maggie and their adorable hapa child? I know, I know. #TooSoon! Anyway, it freaks me out. Beside the table is an owl that sort of looks like it’s made from cloth draped over chicken wire. It resembles a totem.

Cut to present (or near future?) Rick, who is sweaty, disheveled, and red-eyed. He whispers, “My mercy prevails over my wrath.” Please Jeebus, let this not be his epitaph. I don’t trust this show ONE BIT.

Final scene: motivational speaker Rick. “I don’t want to wait for it anymore,” he tells the crowd. “You don’t either.” Sunlight is streaming everywhere. He says, “If we start tomorrow right now, no matter what comes next, we’ve won. We’ve already won.”

What do you think Rick means when he says he doesn’t want to wait? Any theories about the significance of the weird alternate future scenes? Should we stock up on shittin’ pants? More next week!

The Walking Dead Season 8 premiere Negan Jeffrey Dean Morgan

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