'Walking Dead': Why "My Mercy Prevails Over My Wrath" Is Important

THR breaks down the final moment of Sunday's midseason premiere, and what it tells us about the looming end of the "All-Out War" arc.
Gene Page/AMC

[This story contains spoilers from the season eight midseason premiere of AMC's The Walking Dead and the comic series it is based on.]

Will Rick Grimes' mercy prevail over his wrath?

It's not just a question repeated throughout season eight of AMC's The Walking Dead — it's the question, period, the defining thesis of the latest incarnation of AMC's zombie drama. The phrase was first uttered in the season eight premiere, in the form of newcomer Siddiq (Avi Nash) trying to establish peace with then-hopeful new ally Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs), and since then the tense relationship between mercy and wrath has been at the forefront of Walking Dead throughout "All-Out War," the name of the action-packed arc from Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard's comics on which season eight is largely based. Now, nine episodes later, the phrase is taking on an important new meaning.

For one thing, it adds weight to one of the most disturbing images from "Honor," Sunday's season eight midseason premiere in which Carl finally succumbs to the infection sustained in a zombie bite — easily the biggest deviation from the Walking Dead comics thus far, unless the show is setting the stage for Rick Grimes' own death. In the final moments of the episode, we see Rick (Andrew Lincoln) leaning against a tree, bleeding profusely, looking physically worse than we have ever seen him in eight seasons of television. That's clearly the same flash-forward from earlier in the episode when he says: "My mercy prevails over my wrath."

According to what Lincoln told The Hollywood Reporter, the words Rick speaks underneath the tree should inform viewers that there's no trickery surrounding this image; unlike many other glimpses into the future this season — including the supposed "time jump," which was revealed to be Carl's hopes for Alexandria's future — this one's real.

"Now that you've seen the episode, you realize that so much of what was seen in the season eight premiere was a premonition — or a vision — of Carl's hopes or ideas for the future. If you subtract that from the first episode [of season eight], you're left with the scene under the tree. The fact that Rick says something under the tree — a reference to a real scene that has already played out in the reality of the world," says Lincoln, "that harkens back to an earlier scene. That gives an indication that that, in this scene, is not a premonition. The fact that I'm equating something, I think, probably gives you an impression that it exists in the real world of the show."

Lincoln stops short of confirming the scene means Rick's days are numbered, but adds, "[That's] what it looks like. I'm not saying that that's actually happening. I am saying that if you do the arithmetic, that scene plays out not in Carl's imagination because Rick has already said something that exists in the real story, which is, 'my mercy prevails under my wrath.' So it is a real thing."

(To be clear, Sunday's "tree scene" was the largest glimpse of the "red-eye Rick" scene first seen in the season eight premiere.)

Given that the phrase was first uttered by Siddiq ("May my mercy prevail over my wrath" in the season premiere), and will eventually be uttered by Rick at some point in the future, it seems fair to guess that these two men will have a conversation at some point in the next batch of Walking Dead episodes. Certainly, in his final hours, Carl stressed Siddiq's importance to the group, while Siddiq himself promised to live the rest of his life honoring Carl's bravery. What's more, viewers learn in "Honor" that Siddiq is a doctor — a hugely important development given what Maggie needs at the Hilltop right now (Lauren Cohan's uncertain future with the series notwithstanding), and even more pressingly, what Rick needs given his bloody state at the end of the midseason eight premiere. Will Carl end up saving Rick's life from beyond the grave, by virtue of his decision to save Siddiq, a doctor who can patch up Rick from whatever wound he's sustained? It's certainly a possibility worth considering.

Rick's struggle between mercy and wrath likely connects even more deeply to his relationship with Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the general on the opposite side of the battlefield. In "Honor," shortly before we see Rick's wounds, we return to Carl's hopes for the future, which includes young Judith and Negan engaging in a very warm interaction within the idyllic Alexandria. Is this a continuation of Carl's vision, or is it a sign of how Rick plans to honor Carl's vision to its fullest extent — by extending mercy to even his worst enemy?

There's reason to think Rick is positing some form of reconciliation with Negan based on what happens at the end of Kirkman and Adlard's "All-Out War" arc. In the comics, Rick diffuses the violence by directly confronting Negan in front of the full gathered forces of both armies. He lays out his vision for a peaceful future that he and Negan can achieve together, if they can agree to abandon the Saviors' ways of forcing survivors into servitude, and instead work toward a more peaceful existence. During the course of the conversation, Negan comes to see the error in his ways, and quickly accepts Rick's pitch.

Naturally, Rick takes this opportunity to attack Negan, as one does.

Rather than allow Negan passage into the peaceful future, and rather than outright kill the man, Rick overpowers Negan and throws him in prison for the next several years — a prison cell not unlike the one Morgan (Lennie James) built back in season six, as a matter of fact. It's an intersection between mercy and wrath: Rick doesn't kill his enemy, but he doesn't forgive him, either.

It's likely the image we're seeing of Negan and Judith together isn't an actual glimpse into the future, or even a glimpse into Rick's hopes for the future. Instead, we could be looking at the vision of the future Rick pitches to Negan at the end of the war, moments before he pulls a fast one on the Saviors' leader. In the comics, while Rick wins the war in this moment, he doesn't walk away unscathed. Indeed, he barely walks away at all, as the wounded Negan badly breaks Rick's leg, leaving the hero with a permanent need to walk with a cane. The TV show has often shied away from Rick's grislier comic book injuries, most famously the loss of his hand early on in the Woodbury arc with the Governor (David Morrissey). One can imagine the show shying away from Negan causing such grave injury to Rick's leg, and instead wounding him in less permanent (albeit still painful) fashion — like the image of Rick we see leaning against the tree, for instance.

Rick's mercy will almost certain prevail over his wrath by the end of season eight, allowing Negan to keep his head long enough to survive into season nine … but as a free man? As Lincoln himself puts it, "There's a long way to go for Rick to stomach that." For now, let's consider a resolution to the war a win enough in the mercy column for now. Here's hoping Rick lasts long enough to see it through.

How do you expect the issue of mercy versus wrath to play out in the episodes ahead? Sound off in the comments section below and keep checking THR.com/WalkingDead for more coverage of season eight.