‘The Walking Dead’ Season 8 Premiere: Countdownus Interruptus

Hello! Longtime watcher, first-time reviewer Mark Trammell here. I’ll be your guide for the latest season of “The Walking Dead” and I’m super excited to be doing so. I’m practically a lifelong horror fan, and I’ve loved zombies since I first saw “Night of the Living Dead” on Elvira and wore out VHS copies (yep, I’m old) of “Dawn of the Dead” and “Day of the Dead” as a kid.

As such, I was thrilled to see the historic 100th episode of the show partially dedicated to none other than the King of the Zombies himself, Mr. George A. Romero, director of the aforementioned movies, among others. (Insert gratuitous plug for an article I wrote about Romero’s zombie flicks here.) The other dedication was to stuntman John Bernecker, who sadly died making the series.

Of course, Romero famously was not a fan of the show, blaming it for impeding his ability to get another zombie-themed film made, and dismissing it as a “soap opera with a zombie occasionally” (which isn’t entirely wrong), but let’s face it- there would be no “Walking Dead” without Romero. Indeed, 1985’s “Day of the Dead” famously launched FX guru/director Greg Nicotero’s career, as he served as both an actor and an assistant to the legendary Tom Savini on the film.

Nicotero, who directed the Season 8 premiere, “Mercy,” did both Romero and Bernecker proud with a stunt-filled extravaganza that didn’t skimp of the zombie action, picking up where the Season 7 finale “The First Day of the Rest of Your Life” left off. It also opened with a cool near-shot-for-shot homage to the pilot episode of the show, making for a neat full circle moment, along with a flash-forward sequence that also harkened back to the Season 1 premiere.

In the former, Carl (Chandler Riggs) did the honors, though dad Rick (Andrew Lincoln) wasn’t far behind, having gone through said motions in the first ever episode. Even the walker spotted by Carl in the background was an, ahem, dead ringer for the female zombie Rick encountered in said scene.

Note also that the final shot of the episode, with the trailer being surrounded by zombies, was also similar to a scene in which Rick was trapped inside a tank by walkers with seemingly no escape in sight. Just as Rick, with the help of Glenn (RIP), escaped, I suspect Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) will as well. All the better for Rick to finally get his long-awaited face-to-face showdown with Negan, right?

Meanwhile, in the flash-forward sequence, we saw Rick awaken- to the strains of, of all things, “Weird” Al Yankovic’s “Another One Rides the Bus” (!)- in a bed, much as he did in that hospital bed long ago in the series premiere. Only here, he was in full Santa beard mode, as an older Judith (Kinsley Isla Dillon) played nearby and Michonne (Danai Gurira) watched over her, looking much the same as she does now- sans the battle scars of the last episode, that is.

No word on how long in the future this is, but Judith is listed to be six years old in the credits, so one can safely assume at least a few years on down the line. Of course, it would be just like the show to reveal this is just a dream- rumors have long abounded that Rick might not make it that long, though I’m inclined to be a little doubtful of that.

After all he’s been through, it’s hard to imagine the show knocking him off, especially with the showrunners looking as far ahead as to Season 11 & 12. Still, it wouldn’t be the first time a show had used a flash-forward as a fake-out, only to later reveal it as actually being a dream sequence, so we’ll see. It’s worth mentioning, though, that the scene is indeed in the comics, albeit later on in the narrative, after the war with Negan.

Elsewhere in the episode, we saw plenty of said war, as the denizens of Alexandria, led by Rick, joined forces with The Kingdom, led by King Ezekiel (Khary Payton); and The Hilltop, led by Maggie (Lauren Cohan), who essentially took over after former leader Gregory (Xander Berkeley) weaseled out on his own people to try and broker a side deal with the Saviors, led by Negan.

With a key assist from turncoat Savior Dwight (Austin Amelio), who provided inside information on the lay of the land and where the various Savior lookouts were stashed, the three contingents prepared for “All-Out War” with Negan, taking out said lookouts, as well as any advance teams sent out by Negan, and formulating a risky-but-savvy plan that involved leading a “herd” of walkers to the Sanctuary compound where Negan and most of his people resided.

In the best scene of the episode, Rick and several key members of all teams, including Ezekiel, Maggie and Gabriel, surrounded Negan’s compound behind a variety of vehicles all outfitted with metal protective shields, and opened fire on him and his main guys, as well as Gregory and turncoat of a different stripe, Eugene (Josh McDermitt), who clearly bet on the wrong horse, after foregoing a rescue from Rosita (Christian Serratos) towards the end of last season and opting to stick with Negan instead. For those keeping score at home, this would be the second time Rick and company didn’t give a f*ck about Eugene’s well-being after he willingly sided with Negan.

While it’s hard to top the tiger attack and last-minute save from The Kingdom and Hilltop after Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh) and her people turned against Rick and company in last season’s finale, the premiere certainly came close with the sight of Daryl (Norman Reedus) casually tossing bombs from his motorcycle, as he led the walkers to the Sanctuary, and Rick’s amusingly abbreviated countdown before launching his attack on Negan and his people.

Though the character moments in the episode seemed a bit abbreviated themselves, there was no denying that this was a fun, action-packed episode that kept things moving. Besides, there will be plenty of time for “soap opera” later on in the season, to use Romero’s way of putting things. In the meantime, look for the war to continue for the foreseeable future, as Rick and the gang aren’t completely out of the woods yet, not with plenty of Saviors no doubt surviving the attack and Negan himself still alive and kicking.

Indeed, the first five episodes’ descriptions all look to be war-related, according to imdb.com, at least. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, given this show’s occasional tendency to get a little draggy here and there. I do have to say that “The Walking Dead” is one of those rare shows that seems to get better as it goes along, with most of the particularly poky moments occurring early on in the show’s narrative, with things picking up in earnest around the time Rick’s crew ended up in Alexandria. The last two seasons were easily the show’s best, IMHO, warts and all.

It’s also good to know that the showrunners, including Scott M. Gimple and David Alpert, already have an idea of where things are headed, even as far ahead as Season 10-12, noting that they have had plenty of inspiration to that end from the comic books upon which the show is based, from creator Robert Kirkman. It’s cool that the show is clearly taking a sizable amount of inspiration from the comics, even while not being beholden to them, per se.

All in all, I really dug the premiere. It was exciting, filled to the brim with cool sequences and ideas, with lots of walker action and a well-defined sense of forward momentum that bodes well for at least the first half of the season. While it remains to be seen how well they manage to maintain the forward momentum of the beginning of the season, the fact that the show will mostly focus in on the war with Negan is a good thing, as it signals that the season won’t be skimping on the action in the slightest.

I don’t doubt that the pace will inevitably slow at some point, like one of the walkers themselves, but with the war in full swing, the foreseeable future should at least keep things moving. Besides, it would be exhausting if the show didn’t take a breather here and there, I think. Also, I’ve grown to appreciate the character moments more as the show has progressed.

While I don’t think anyone wants a return to the stagnancy of say, the “farm” season, or even the “prison” era, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with some character beats along the way, especially if they’re as solid as they were last season. I didn’t mind the show’s ability to shift the narrative to different characters as it went along, even if I like some characters better than others.

But the fact that the show takes the time to do so in the first place is a minor miracle, given the sorry state of a lot of horror-based projects in recent years, where it’s easier to actively root for one’s gruesome death than it is to root for them. I don’t know when it became a thing for characters in horror movies and shows to be so actively unlikeable, but I appreciate how such is not the case on “The Walking Dead,” which is filled with relatable and cool characters, whether on the side of “good” or “bad.”

The genre could learn a thing or two from TWD’s approach, “soap opera”-esque though it may be. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the recent season of “American Horror Story.” Though certainly enjoyable, there’s not a single character on it that I’m rooting for or relate to in the slightest way. Indeed, it seems like almost everyone on it this season is a villain, leaving the viewer with nothing to grab onto.

You can say the exact same thing about a lot of recent horror movies as well. For instance, the main protagonists in “Wish Upon” and “Death Note” actively seek out to hurt people, not help them survive or evade some sinister stalker or what have you. Say what you will about the old-school slashers, I actually liked a lot of the characters in them, even if they were thinly-drawn at times and trafficked in clichés more often than not. I’ll take those old movie’s caricatures over the nasty, self-serving a-holes of many of today’s horror movies/shows any day.

“The Walking Dead” gets it, in terms of having characters everyone can relate to and get behind. Even a villain like Negan is extremely charismatic and fun to watch, with actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan making a meal out of every scene he’s in, hamming it up to the hilt, and I mean that as a compliment. He definitely gets it. I also like that our heroes aren’t exactly squeaky clean themselves- lest we forget, they took out a bunch of Negan’s people in cold blood a few seasons back.

And yet, most of them remain likeable and enjoyable to spend time with. Sure, some of them brood a bit- but then, so would you if you were living in a seemingly never-ending zombie apocalypse. That the show manages to make it fun more often than not is a minor miracle. Let’s just hope they can keep it up this season- and for many seasons to come.

What did you think of “The Walking Dead” premiere? Did you enjoy the battle at the Sanctuary as much as the one at Alexandria? Or did it pale in comparison for you? (It’s admittedly hard to top using a freaking tiger in a battle!) Did you like all the call-backs to the older episodes? Can you believe a zombie-themed show has run for 100 episodes and counting? Who’d have thunk it?

Sound off on this and more down below, and thanks for reading!