The Walking Dead: The choice to be merciful

The Walking Dead; AMC; Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan; Chandler Riggs as Carl Grimes
The Walking Dead; AMC; Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan; Chandler Riggs as Carl Grimes /

“My mercy prevails over my wrath” is the theme of the second half of The Walking Dead season 8. For Rick’s sake, mercy must prevail.

There’s a mural going up in Brooklyn to celebrate the February 25 return of The Walking Dead. The mural features a very poignant tagline: “My mercy prevails over my wrath.” How will the concept of mercy factor into the second half of season 8?

“My mercy prevails over my wrath” is a quote from the Koran. Siddiq uttered those words in the season 8 premiere, which was appropriately titled “Mercy,” and things came full circle as Siddiq showed up in the mid-season finale with a fatally injured Carl Grimes. It was Carl, after all, who sought out Siddiq to atone for Rick shooting at him. In the process of making things right with the stranger, Carl was bitten and will not survive.

After eight seasons of a show set in the harsh reality of a post-apocalyptic world where the undead have risen and civilization has been destroyed, it’s hard to imagine how mercy can exist. At this point, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who hasn’t killed someone.

When the moment comes and Rick and Negan have their epic final battle, will mercy prevail? Both sides have reason enough to kill each other; Rick lost many friends at the hands of the barbed-wire bat wielding villain Negan while Negan suffered losses of his own. Both men have blood – lots of blood – on their hands. But perhaps Carl’s final wish for his father is for Rick to rise above the hatred and cold-blooded desire for revenge so that Rick isn’t sucked into that bottomless pit. Perhaps Carl knows that taking the first step toward being merciful is the equivalent of a giant leap; by choosing mercy for his enemies, Rick is saving himself in the process.

With things looking so bleak heading into season 8B, we must ask the question: Can mercy exist in a world where everyone has blood on their hands?

On Mercy

Bestselling author Sylvain Reynard offers these words of wisdom about the nature of mercy in his book The Raven: “No one deserves mercy. Not deserving it is what makes it mercy.”

Though none of Mr. Reynard’s characters have to deal with anything close to life in the zombie apocalypse, many of them are flawed and have their own existential dilemmas to work out. His many books confront the challenges of atonement, salvation and mercy, and while all of these themes are prevalent in the world of The Walking Dead, it’s his message about mercy that resonates with the show in season 8.

“My mercy prevails over my wrath” suggests that there will be situations where Rick and his fellow survivors are faced with difficult decisions as All Out War comes to its inevitable conclusion. At this point, no one is innocent when it comes to bloodshed, and this is where Mr. Reynard’s message shines through. With so many people with so much blood on their hands, showing mercy is a giant leap toward salvation. The bloodshed cannot continue. Sure, there will always be Walkers attacking and so too will there be other people to fight in the future. But ending this war and showing mercy to the losing side is a step in the right direction. The losing side might not deserve mercy, but that’s exactly why the losing side should be shown mercy.

It’s Incredibly Complicated, Though

Some people might read this and say that there is no way Rick should show mercy to Negan in the event that Rick’s side wins the war. Negan killed Glenn and Abraham in one of the most violent scenes in The Walking Dead history, after all. Why show mercy to a monster like that? On the flip side, Negan came into the situation because Rick’s people attacked one of the Savior outposts and killed Negan’s men while they slept. Rick accepted this mission because he needed to make a deal to exchange food and supplies with the Hilltop, and in a sign of good faith he offered to take care of the people who were oppressing their community. Rick was working to help his people and help his new allies, but to Negan, Rick was the murderer and his group engaged in an unprovoked attack.

Negan and the Saviors are clearly the “bad” guys, and Rick and his people are the “good” guys. Negan has a complex set of rules for his people; you break the rules and you pay the consequences. Rick fights for the causes of good, but that attack on the outpost pushes the boundaries of right and wrong. Negan utilizes a Machiavellian system that we now know exists because he is working hard to keep his people in line, and without his efforts there might be even more bloodshed. Rick’s methods of governance vacillate depending on the situation, but he tends to weigh the needs of the group in making decisions.

When Jesus returned to the Hilltop with the captured Savior prisoners, he was certain that Maggie would agree that the Saviors should be treated as POWs rather than going along with Tara’s plans to kill them all. Tara had good reason to want them dead: after all, she and Jesus were confronted by one of the Saviors and he tried to kill them before they subdued him. Why let these dangerous people go? Maggie shocked Jesus when she killed one of the prisoners to send a message to Negan and his right-hand man Simon, who killed one of her people in cold blood to send her a message in the middle of the war. Maggie knew she had to send a message in return, and though she clearly didn’t want to do it, she knew that the only way to assert her authority was to send a message in kind back to the Saviors.

Therein lies the cold hard truth: No one is innocent in this war. But the bloodshed must end.

Carl’s Legacy

Ending the bloodshed is where Carl comes in. Carl wants his father to choose another path, and it’s a path guided by the decision to be merciful.

When Rick and Carl encountered Siddiq on their supply run, Rick fired warning shots at him to chase him away. They didn’t need another possible problem, as far as he was concerned. Carl felt guilty about his father’s actions and he went back out with food and supplies for the stranger, leaving him a note apologizing for his father’s actions. This is Carl showing mercy for the stranger, and offering an olive branch. Of course, during Carl’s mission to find Siddiq is where he was bitten, and when The Walking Dead returns we will witness Carl’s tragic end.

With Carl’s death comes a message for his father. Scott M. Gimple recently revealed in an interview that Carl’s death will change the trajectory of the season. Perhaps “My mercy prevails over my wrath” is the message that Carl wants to convey to his father, and that preventing more bloodshed is the path forward. We’ve talked about the philosophical and ethical dilemmas faced in the world of The Walking Dead. In this case, Carl doesn’t want his father to head down an even darker path, and perhaps this will be his final act: To save his father’s soul.

More from Undead Walking

The choice to be merciful isn’t an easy one. Allowing mercy to prevail over wrath is the path that should be taken when possible. This won’t be an easy choice for anyone involved because horrible losses have been suffered on both sides. Choosing mercy is the righteous path, and though it will be hard to do, it’s definitely the right thing to do.