Be warned: a horde of spoilers lurk within this article from the start.
We were promised an all-out war, and an all-out war is at least partially what we got. After an uneven seventh season, The Walking Dead’s season 8 premiere (and landmark 100th episode) went to battle in audacious fashion, with Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) facing off. In the process, the show corrects the course of the last year, even just a little, and offering some intrigue for the future, too.
First, let’s address the grey, bearded elephant in the room. As glimpsed in that first trailer, a slightly bewildering opening montage bears witness to an older, grizzled-looking Rick, with crew cut hair and a thick beard, a walking cane not far away. Later visits to this vision of the future show Rick living a happy family life with Michonne (Danai Gurira), Carl (Chandler Riggs) and a slightly more grown-up Judith, in some sort of idyllic pastoral paradise. (The credits listed her as a six-year-old, which would suggest three or four years into the future.)
So, what are we to make of all this? Is it a flash-forward? A dream sequence? An optimistic fantasy? An alternate reality in the Walking Dead multiverse? A weird soft-focus flight of fancy, like that weird Glenn-and-Abraham dinner party from last season? Lincoln and the showrunners have promised answers soon; for now we’ll have to accept it as Rick’s promise of tomorrow, a hint of what post-Negan life could look like.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Back in what we can safely assume is reality, war is upon The Sanctuary, and we join our heroes in media res, with a classic bit of Rickliloquising. It wouldn’t be Walking Dead without Andrew Lincoln waffling on about how we’re all stronger together or somesuch – but in a sign of the new order of things, he’s joined on his St. Crispin’s Day soapbox by de facto Hilltop leader Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and actual Kingdom leader King Ezekiel (Khary Payton), the latter of whom offers a real St. Crispin’s Day speech and reminding us how fun the show can occasionally be when His Majesty is let loose.
And thus begins a very Walking Dead Battle of Agincourt. Like a heist movie, we’re not informed of the grand plan, so it all unfolds before our eyes with an exciting pace, a litany of surprises, and a few lovely action flourishes. We particularly like the arrow-delivered messages from Dwight (Austin Amelio), the Mad Max-esque battle vehicles, the lookout assassination montage, and best of all, Daryl, back on his motorbike, merrily setting off explosions around the Saviours’ compound. Sure, it’s a bit of fan service, but after the dour and uncompromisingly bleak season we were subjected to last time, it’s no small joy to see this show having a bit of explosive ebullience.
If it’s perhaps a shame that the ultimate stand-off doesn’t quite live up to Rick’s promise that “this ends today”, it’s forgivable – there are still another 15 episodes to go, and it’d be a bit of a boring season if the Negan storyline was done and dusted by chapter one. More importantly, it’s somewhat refreshing to see Rick undertake a well thought-out plan that actually works. The nice little cliffhanger of Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) stuck in a Portabin with only Negan for company keeps us chomping at the bit for more. Will we see Rick’s mercy ultimately prevail over his wrath? For the first time in a while, we’re intrigued to find out.
Highlight: Daryl embarking on his explosive moto-rampage.
Lowlight: Carl, wittering empty platitudes about “hope”.
Kill of the week: Morgan, impaling a Saviour with his big stick, reminding us again that his pacifism days are far behind him.
Quote of the week: “I hope you got your shitting pants on.” Another classic Neganism.
Zombie of the week: The disembodied head seen on the ground at The Sanctuary. Kudos, yet again, to the glorious prosthetics and make-up on show here – some of these walkers are gnarly.
MVP: Dwight is the surprise hero of the day – his valuable intel ensured a slick, successful operation.
The big question: What in the blue zombie blazes is Old Man Rick all about, then?
The Walking Dead airs on Sundays on AMC in the US and on Mondays on FOX in the UK.