When The Walking Dead pulled a LOST in the Season 8 opener with some weird time skips to a dreamy future, pretty much everyone was confused, including Rick Grimes.
Look out: There are spoilers for The Walking Dead season premiere below.
Who is this Old Man Rick? Are the scenes of him waking up to a peaceful Alexandria some kind of legitimate flash-forward or are they just dreams? Is Rick daydreaming of a happy future before he’s about to die later this season? Or does he get so psychologically broken by the end of this “all-out war” that he hallucinates himself a happy ending that’ll never arrive?
Showrunner Scott Gimple promised to Entertainment Weekly Sunday that answers to these questions will come, adding that there is “a very important point to the story of it.”
We can’t know for sure, but here’s four possible explanations for the strange time jumps featured in Season 8, Episode 1, “Mercy.”
The Entire Show is a Dream
“Old Man Rick” was first seen at the end of The Walking Dead Season 8 trailer that came out at San Diego Comic-Con in July. We saw shots of his cane and bed throughout the Season 8 premiere, but the main image of Rick lying in bed hearkened back to the show’s very first episode:
The Walking Dead plays with LOST imagery a lot in “Mercy.” LOST, of course, began and ended with the image of Jack Shephard’s face as he lay in the jungle of The Island, and most fan theories to this day grapple with whether or not The Island itself was some kind of purgatory. It’s hard not to think of LOST when watching The Walking Dead these days, especially when the former dealt so heavily in flash-backs, -forwards, and -sideways.
Was this whole zombie apocalypse thing just the dream of a comatose Rick? Did he spend years lying in that hospital bed imagining his own personal hell?
Since the trailer debuted, many of us asked these kinds of questions, but “Mercy” sets the record straight fairly quickly: Old Man Rick definitely woke up from his coma and experienced the zombie apocalypse.
The Old Man Rick Scenes Are a Legitimate Flash-Forward
Old Man Rick wakes up in a calm house in Alexandria, bustling with positive energy from Carl and Judith. Michonne’s even there, and the town’s preparing for some happy festival that includes a huge owl. They even listen to some “Weird Al” Yankovic.
Everything’s really … weird. This vision of the future could be how things wind up for Rick after this “all-out war” against Negan is over. Maybe they can all figure out a way to settle down and live peacefully. All we really know about this supposed future is that Rick’s old and has to walk with a cane, and his children and Michonne managed to survive for at least several more years.
None of this seems impossible, but it’s a very optimistic future for a show that’s often incredibly violent and bleak.
Rick Hallucinates This Future at the End of This Season
All of these happy Old Man Rick scenes are intercut with another, more troubling scene featuring a crazy-looking Rick kneeling below a piece of stained glass. He’s sweaty, distressed, and totally bloodshot. He says, “My mercy prevails over my wrath.”
Considering that the flash-forwards are brightly distorted and blurred, they feel like a saccharine dream that’s too good to be true. Chances are very high that the entire flash-forward is dreamt up by what we might as well call Bloodshot Rick. It actually makes a lot of sense.
“There’s an exchange between Maggie and Rick, in which Rick says he can’t wait for tomorrow and that they can start tomorrow right now. The future does hang over them quite a bit, that this may be the last obstacle to the future that they desire. And that such a thing needs to be earned. It speaks to that obstacle and the difficulties ahead in getting where they want to be.”
The Old Man Rick vision of the future is a hopeful one, so we’d do well to pay closer attention to a seemingly innocuous scene from early in the episode about “hope.” Carl wanders around looking for gas and hears a stranger pleading for help. Rick fires off a few warning shots to scare the man off, rationalizing that he could be a spy sent by Negan. Carl isn’t happy.
Visibly frustrated by the encounter, Carl storms off:
“It’s not gonna be enough, dad.”
The Walking Dead always paints a bleak and formidable future for everyone. No matter what they do, everyone will die and come back as a Walker. What does hope mean in such a world? What can it do for people?
The Walking Dead probably wants us to think that hope and mercy are intertwined.
When Bloodshot Rick’s says “my mercy prevailed over my wrath,” he’s paraphrasing an Islamic hadith. The man begging for help that Rick scared off — the same one that Carl later left food for — he was quoting the Quran in his first appearance. Could he be the one to share these words of wisdom to Rick?
In the “All Out War” storyline from The Walking Dead comics that this season borrows from, Rick doesn’t actually kill Negan in the end and instead opts for peaceful co-operation. Does that mean Rick from the show will also spare Negan? Or will Rick be pleading for mercy when it praises it over wrath?
We’ll have to wait and see.
The Walking Dead airs on Sundays on AMC at 10 p.m. Eastern.