Did you ever think that mercy would win at the end of season 8 of The Walking Dead? I know that I didn’t.
It is no secret that I have been very critical of this season. I have pointed out over and over how disjointed and counter-logical the show has been all season. And tonight’s episode wasn’t without its problems. Maggie’s anger makes sense to me, and her breakdown after Rick’s act of mercy was heart wrenching. But, I guess that we are now supposed to believe that Jesus, the same man who told Morgan to stop killing people, is now ready to fight Rick for not killing someone? (followed by Carol’s awesome line, and my new ringtone, “Jesus! I am starting to like that guy”) Or Daryl, who just let his enemy Dwight live, is now going to join a conspiracy against Rick and Michonne?
I am hoping that these scenes were just added in order to help next season’s new show runner Angela Kang overcome this season’s abysmal ratings. If you compare the total viewers of this episode (7.9 million) to the total viewers of the season 5 finale (15.8 million) you see that almost half of the audience has left the show. So I can easily understand the desperation that is probably plaguing the writers room.
But, regardless of a few of these problems, I loved this episode!
As a matter of fact, I was genuinely surprised at many of the twists. Eugene’s betrayal of the saviors was hinted at earlier, but I never really thought that he would go through with it. Especially after he chose the saviors over Rick earlier in the season with his “fat lady sings” rescue plan. I thought Dwight was dead tonight for sure, and despite the fact that Negan lives in the comics, I thought that he was finished for good when Rick sliced his throat.
I guess that the reason I loved the episode so much is that it really reacquired a theme that had all been lost in the last few seasons – mercy. I am not saying that the show didn’t talk about mercy. It did this relentlessly. I am just saying that one of my favorite things about this show was how our protagonists were always able to maintain their moral compass while encountering very immoral people. And when they didn’t, the group always suffered. The world of The Walking Dead is a perfect place to explore that theme because there are no societal rules forcing people in line. People have to make choices for themselves here, and Rick has always been about making the right choices. But that seemed like it had all been abandoned for the last couple of years – until tonight.
I know that I cynically said that Carl’s exit from the show was about the actor’s age showing. And if you watched carefully, you saw that the last two years of the show took place in about two to three months (Maggie is probably barely in her second trimester with Glenn’s baby). Poor Chandler Riggs didn’t really have a chance stopping his rapid teenage aging, and nobody really blames him. But tonight absolutely made Carl’s death so much more meaningful.
I have loved the letters that he wrote and was hoping that people were taking them seriously. And tonight we find out that Rick, the most important person was paying attention. We don’t know if it was the realization of Carl’s words that made Rick order Saddiq to heal Negan, or if that was Rick’s plan all along. But either way, Carl’s ideas of mercy and peace came through. And the scene of a beardless Rick walking along the road with a pre-school aged Carl was just beautiful. All of us who are parents have had that experience where we flash back to moments when our kids were young, reflecting on how they got from there to here.
I guess that what I am saying is that I saw a lot of the gospel in this episode. We conveniently call this column The Gospel According to the Walking Dead, but over the last couple of years I have been struggling to find the gospel on the show.
My brother started this column years ago after he finished his excellent book The Zombie Apocalypse Guide for Teenagers. And I remember him at the time talking about how this show had so much excellent gospel discussion in it. I started writing columns here in season three, and by season six, I was exclusively writing all of the episode discussions. And the reason that I have been doing this is because we just have never run out of things to discuss on this show. But lately I have been wondering… until tonight.
Tonight mercy won, and even Negan couldn’t open his eyes and admit that the whole world had changed. I believe that if Rick had let Negan die, he might have just become another Negan. Maggie is certainly contemplating this, and we may see her character become more Negan-like in the future. But I am so glad that Rick decided to save Negan (after he sliced his throat). We all know that Negan deserved to get killed, and that he didn’t deserve to get saved. But what could be more gospel than that?
But probably my favorite gospel scene in the episode came when Daryl drove Dwight into the woods alone. After the battle had been finished, Daryl had no reason to keep Dwight alive. It is so easy to forget the people Dwight killed (remember Denise?) and the things that he did under Negan. He definitely deserved to die, and I thought that he had about a 10% chance of getting out of this situation with Daryl alive.
But then notice what Dwight said. It could have come straight from the scriptures.
Dwight: I know why I’m here. I know what I did to Denise. To you. To other people. And it doesn’t matter why. I knew I’d have to face it to pay, and I should. I’m ready. (smiles) I got to see Negan taken down, and that’s enough. Me? I’m a piece of sh*t. There’s no going back to how things were. I’m sorry. Look, I’m so sorry. Please. Please.
Seeing the words in print don’t actually do them justice. The scene is devastating as we literally watch Dwight say that he doesn’t deserve mercy. He is not begging for his life here. He is simply saying that he feels terrible about who he had become and the choices he made. And he does something that we rarely see in movies or television – he takes responsibility for it.
And then Daryl does something equally surprising, he shows mercy.
Daryl: Shut up. You go, and you keep going. Don’t you ever come back here again. If I ever see your face around here again, I’ll kill you. You go out there, and you make it right. Find her.
And yes, forcing him to never come back again is still merciful. He deserves to die, not to get the opportunity to live and search for his lost love. Daryl has been wanting to kill Dwight for quite a long time now, but something has made Daryl change a little. Maybe he also fears what has been happening inside him. Hopefully, this is what we see happen next season instead of a civil war among our group.
When Dwight broke down, I couldn’t help but see the parallels in the gospels. Jesus constantly was teaching people that realizing our own sin, is the way that we can approach God. Notice that Dwight approaches his past this way. He doesn’t make excuses. He just admits that he has done terrible things and that he wants to change. That is the beginning of every conversion that we see in the gospels.
Jesus demonstrates this best in his parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18.
9 Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: 10 “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! 12 I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14, NLT)
Jesus tells the story here of two people. One is a religious person whom most people would think is very righteous. But what is his problem? He thinks that he is justified before God because of all of the good things that he does. The other guy is the guy who takes people’s money for a corrupt government. He is a swindler (most tax collectors were) and is despised by the public. But what is the difference between these two? The tax collector actually knows who he is in the presence of a perfect God. The Pharisee thinks that God is lucky to have him.
At the end of the parable Jesus explains this extremely important gospel principle. He simply says, “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (vs 14) According to Jesus, humility is the key to a relationship with God.
Those of us who have been Christians for a while, will no doubtingly know this principle to be true. Why? Because all Christians who are growing have experienced this and have seen this among others.
I know that I have spent many times on my knees asking God for forgiveness for some of the worst things that I have done (with words not unlike Dwight’s in this scene). As a matter of fact, that is exactly what happened the moment I first became a real believer. I was overwhelmed with how unworthy I was to come before God and ask Him anything. Yet, it was at exactly that moment that God took me in His arms and told me that He forgave me and wanted to have a relationship with me. (For those of you who haven’t experienced this, I speak in metaphor, but this is the best way I can describe what happened).
You see, this is what drew me to Jesus Christ – His mercy and forgiveness. Jesus wasn’t about gathering the best people He could find in order to become His followers. He was about finding people who understood their need for forgiveness and they asked Him for it from a place of humility. This is the essence of the gospel, and I was very excited to see on my television tonight.
SEASON 8, EPISODE 16 DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:
1) Why do you think that Carol said “Jesus! I’m starting to like that guy!”?
2) Aaron’s efforts with Oceanside obviously paid off tonight. They joined in the battle at a very important time. But what do you think motivated Aaron to stay back and help the women at Oceanside?
3) Do you think that Aaron’s persistence, mercy and belief in the people of Oceanside fit in with the themes of tonight’s episode? Why or why not?
4) Why do you think that Eugene betrayed the saviors?
5) Do you think that Rick should trust Eugene in the future?
6) Maggie is very upset about the mercy that Rick shows Negan. Do you think she is justified in being so angry? Do you think she is justified in starting a plot against Rick and Michonne?
7) Do you think that Daryl planned on killing Dwight when he took him in the woods? Why or why not?
8) Do you think that the Pharisee in Jesus parable should get a little more credit for fasting twice a week and giving a tenth of his income? Why or why not?
9) Why do you think that God honors mercy and humility more than other works of righteousness?
10) In your own life, have you ever needed forgiveness and didn’t get any from other people? If so, how did that feel?
11) Jesus says that “those who humble themselves will be exalted.” What do you think that He means by that?
11) Jesus is very approachable, according to this story, if people are willing to admit that they are not perfect. I know that this is one of the most offensive things about Christianity to many people. If you agree with me, why do you think this is?
12) What kinds of barriers do you think there are between you and God right now? Do you think that this passage of scriptures can help you understand what you need to do?
Thom McKee Jr. is a husband, father, pastor… and film geek (and brother of Jonathan McKee). Thom lives in Northern California with his wife and two kids.