Watching "This Sorrowful Life," the season's penultimate episode of The Walking Dead, I was reminded yet again that this show tends to be at its best when its scope is narrowest. In principle, I like the idea of this episode's B story, in which Glenn realizes that he likes Maggie enough to put a ring on it -- and I really liked the disgusting (but utterly logical) way Glenn acquired that ring. But in practice, I was a lot less interested in post-apocalyptic romance than I was in our A-story, which followed Merle Dixon as his sorrowful life came to a surprisingly sorrowful end.
Let's all pour out a little looted whiskey for Merle, whose ultimate personal sacrifice actually feels like it might have tipped the odds toward Rick and the gang in the inevitable clash between the prison and Woodbury next week. The Walking Dead's third season has been enormously clever in the ways it's used zombies as a kind of blunt weapon in the skirmishes between people, and in "This Sorrowful Life," Merle demonstrated that he learned well from the Governor's example -- first by drawing the zombies to the meeting point as a distraction, and then by using the Woodbury gang's gunfire attack on zombies as a camouflage to pick them off with his own gun before they noticed. I only wish The Walking Dead would have had the guts to actually let Merle pick the Governor off, which would be logical from a character perspective and surprising from a storytelling perspective.
And while I'm lamenting missed opportunities, I'll admit: As affecting as it was, I wasn't totally sold on the logic behind Merle's redemptive arc in "This Sorrowful Life." When a character says something like "I don't know why I do the things I do. Never did. I'm a damn mystery to me," it's not a sign of complexity; it's a sign of slipshod, inconsistent writing, which has been a problem with this character from the very beginning. Merle was a damn mystery to all of us because his character never really made any sense. The occasional halfhearted attempts to explain why Merle was Merle -- bad parenting, rampant drug use, some sadistic aspect of his nature -- felt like the writers trying to wallpaper over the fact that they never really understood why Merle was Merle.
But it was all worth it for that devastating, episode-closing moment when Daryl found his glassy-eyed zombie brother chowing down on a corpse. The Walking Dead has amassed an unusually high body count for any series, but despite the loss of much higher-profile characters like Dale, Shane, and Lori, I think this qualifies as one of The Walking Dead's most affecting deaths to date -- if only for Daryl's brutal sobs of grief. (Nicely done, Norman Reedus.) Michonne goaded Merle by telling him that he wouldn't be mourned by anyone, but I can't imagine any Walking Dead fans watching this episode didn't feel something for him -- and whether or not his sacrifice is ever fully understood by our heroes, I suspect that they'll mourn Merle in their own way too.
Merle's rejection of the Governor led to his own death, but Rick's rejection of the Governor's ethos at the end of "This Sorrowful Life" -- while thuddingly obvious -- was also, in its own way, affecting. It's a relief to see that all the hemming and hawing of The Walking Dead's third season has actually been building to something with a last impact: the end of the Ricktatorship, which was established in the closing moments of season two. I know we're all interested in seeing The Walking Dead tackle the ramifications of long-term living in the post-apocalypse, and I think Rick's rejection of the Woodbury way of life points to an interesting direction for The Walking Dead going forward.
But we still have a big battle on the horizon -- and knowing how this show burns through characters, I suspect that Merle's death was just an appetizer before a bloody main course. Next week, The Walking Dead will break out its big guns as the Governor leads a siege against the prison, and I'm as eager as anyone to see how it all plays out.
Well, I think first, a few quick notes of stark agreement:
1. The wonderful Norman Reedus's portrayal of Daryl's loss on discovering his brother's undeath was completely heartbreaking and real.
Which was all the more amazing, given:
2. Merle's abrupt motivational turn leading up to this episode's last act was completely incongruous -- and merely the last incongruous motivational turn in the life of one of The Walking Dead's most thinly motivated characters (which is now saying a lot).
Neither did The Walking Dead's writers ever really bring the relationship between Daryl and Merle to life. Over the course of the show, we've seen how complex a person Daryl is, both in the writing and in Reedus's tremendously nuanced acting. Merle, though, was never written as more than a stock character -- a 1-D bad guy there to complicate the plot and be an occasional dramatic foil for his brother. Any complexity that the writers tried to introduce to Merle, right before killing him (so his death would affect us more), was vague and unconnected to anything we'd previously known about him. The only reason it worked at all is that Michael Rooker, who played Merle, is awesome.
Even if your primary focus as a writer is plot -- over character or any other aspect of the story you're telling -- one of the most distracting moves you can make, I think, is to have your characters do things just because you want them to ... or because you kind of have to since, hey, damn, this season's wrapping up pretty soon. Unfortunately, The Walking Dead has done this all year; and here, in "This Sorrowful Life," they did it as roughly as ever:
Why is Rick so crass and stupid at the outset of this episode as to entertain, not just the moral abomination of handing Michonne over to the Governor, but the idiocy of believing for an instant that the Governor would really take the sacrifice and leave Rick's group alone? Because the episode needed some dramatic tension!
Why did Rick then suddenly change his mind? Because! ... No, wait, that's not good enough: Because he saw the apparition of his dead wife! Again!
Knowing Rick would do this, and going to elaborate lengths to kidnap Michonne and take her to the Governor himself, why does Merle suddenly change his mind and let her go before going on the offensive against the Governor, solo? Because ... because ... because it would redeem him before he was killed, zombified, and then re-killed by his mortified, soulful brother!
Why, at the end of the episode, does Rick extend his conversion about sacrificing Michonne to a conversion about of the explicitly non-democratic Ricktatorship he declared at the end of Season 2?
"What I said last year, that first night, after the farm, it can't be like that. It can't. What we do, what we're willing to do, what we are -- it's not my call. It can't be. I couldn't sacrifice one of us for the greater good, because we are the greater good. We are the reason we're still here. Not me. This is life and death. How you live, how you die, it isn't up to me. I'm not your Governor. We choose to go. We choose to stay. We stick together. We vote. We can stand, we can fight, or we can go."
Because the writers decided it was time. Yes, there's one episode left in the season and we got all the forced drama out of this Rick-as-tortured-authoritarian conceit we needed. Let's shut it down.
Next week: big fight! o_O