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If the first episode of the new Walking Dead season felt somehow familiar, don’t worry. You’re not experiencing a glitch in the Matrix. The déja vu sensation of revisiting days gone by (or “Days Gone Bye,” as it were) was very much intentional on the part of the show’s creative team.
The eighth season premiere of the AMC zombie drama, called “Mercy,” doubles as the 100th episode of The Walking Dead. It’s a huge milestone by any show’s standards, especially profound not just for the fans who have stuck with the Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) gang through thick and thin from the very beginning, but also the cast and crew who have been strapped in since the first season.
In that regard, look no further than executive producer Greg Nicotero, the legendary special effects wizard responsible for designing the show’s iconic zombies, as well as one of the series’ most frequent directors — indeed, the man behind the lens on “Mercy.”
“It really gave us an opportunity to show the audience how far we’ve come, to pay tribute to the cast, every single castmember who has been on the show from the beginning and every crewmember who has worked on the show, to go back to where it all started,” Nicotero tells The Hollywood Reporter about how the first episode of season eight was designed to honor its own past. “There are these iconic moments that drew the audience in and held their attention when we premiered on Halloween so many years ago [in 2010]. This was an opportunity to really thank the fans and give them something unique and special.”
Some examples of how the 100th episode of Walking Dead knowingly winked at its own history include:
• Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) taking a long and lonely walk through the apocalypse, on a quiet mission to secure fuel from a gas station. The scene mirrors the very first scene of the entire series, in which Rick makes a very similar walk through a gas station, ultimately winding up shooting a small zombified child. In “Mercy,” Rick once again shoots a young walker, but this time it’s not a personal trauma; it’s second nature at this point.
• Later in the episode, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) find themselves trapped in a harrowing situation: stuck inside of a trailer on the Sanctuary grounds, surrounded by walkers. The aerial view of Negan and Gabriel’s predicament echoes the same exact view of Rick stuck inside of a tank in the middle of Atlanta, the climax of the very first episode of the entire series.
• It’s not a direct shot-for-shot callback, but Morgan Jones (Lennie James) boasts a prominent role in the season eight premiere, just as he did in the very first episode of the entire series. Back then, Morgan stopped short of pulling the trigger on his zombified wife, unable to do what needed to be done. His indecision eventually led to his own son’s death. Here in the premiere, there’s no indecision at all as Morgan returns to his killer ways in war against the Saviors, and risks life and limb to make sure the Alexandrians‘ explosive plan goes off without a hitch. It’s yet another way of showing just how far this show has come since its earliest days, by way of one of the very earliest characters.
• The season premiere features numerous glimpses of the future; whether it’s an inevitable future or an imagined one remains unclear. The first image of an aged, big-bearded Rick Grimes waking up in bed calls back to the image of a weary, bed-ridden Rick Grimes waking up in an abandoned hospital, in the thick of the zombie apocalypse.
• Not a throwback to the first episode of the series, but a very fun callback nonetheless: Rick’s vision of the future comes with throbbing music in the background, Weird Al’s “Another One Rides the Bus,” a parody of “Another One Bites the Dust.” The Queen song has great history within the Walking Dead community, if not the actual show. In 2014, The Hillywood Show released a widely viewed parody dance video set to the tune of “Another One Bites the Dust.” No matter the reasons why the show ultimately featured “Another One Rides the Bus,” it acts as a great homage to the creative fans who have become an integral part of the show’s success.
Beyond the Easter eggs littered throughout episode 100, Nicotero promises fans will continue to see The Walking Dead acknowledging its own history in the episodes ahead: “As the season unfolds, you’ll see that this isn’t the only time we’re doing this. There will be other moments and opportunities where we will show you how far we’ve come.”
Did you catch any other Walking Dead callbacks in the season eight premiere? Which moments do you hope to see revisited in the future? Sound off in the comments below, and follow THR.com/WalkingDead all season long for interviews, news, theories and more.
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Thomas Brodie Sangster