“You’d let that happen for a shot? Shh. You’re cold as ice, Officer Friendly.”
It is inevitable that the penultimate episode of any season just sets up the pieces for the finale. The only show that I’ve ever seen break this formula is Season 4 of Buffy, where the finale actually comes in the second-to-last week, and the last episode explores the psychological ramifications of the choices made in the showdown. The Walking Dead makes no bold dramatic choices or foists any real surprises on the audience – it just knocks down some pawns.
The big news, which I’m sure everyone reading this already knows, is that Merle dies. Normally, the death of a racist, violent pig wouldn’t be something to sniffle over, but Michael Rooker (one of favorite actors) brings a layer of subtlety to character that could easily be a one note stereotype. In the episodes since he’s been reintroduced, Rooker has been offering hints of Merle’s nature, the same sort of sense of innate worthlessness that plagued Daryl with an extra decade or so of violence hanging around his neck to keep dragging him down. We see the first glimmer on the brothers’ trek back to the prison, after they bust out of Woodbury, when Merle’s blustering insistence that the two of them can make it on their own turns to palpable fear that the others will turn him away because of the things Merle’s done to them. It wasn’t just the fear of physically being on the outside that was driving that change in tone; for all their fraternal abuse, Merle truly loves his brother and being parted after finally finding each other seems a terror.
Daryl’s decision that the two of them join Camp Prison has put Merle in a precarious position. He’s physically harmed two of their members and allowed a third to come to harm, but he can’t leave, and he’s not sophisticated enough to understand the kind of social nuances that would overcome this past. He tries to ingratiate himself in his own messed up way. At one point he approaches Michonne as she’s working out, and while his banter in that scene can be read as bullying jerkness, I always thought he was genuinely trying to be nice to her, except that Merle has never been in a position to see how nice people actually interact with each other. We know that the brothers grew up in a violently abusive home, that Merle had extensive military training, and that he was in a biker gang before the world collapsed. Afterwards, he got abandoned on a rooftop, cut off his own hand, and was finally rescued by the Governor to serve as his right hand attack dog – by his own admission, Merle’s killed 16 people in the time he’s been working for Woodbury. None of this adds up to a gentle soul. Or even a positively socialized one.
Hershel gets a different glimpse of Merle, in their brief exchanges, when we discover that Merle is a closet reader, and raise your hand if you saw that one coming. He doesn’t bother trying to apologize to Glenn or Maggie, though Daryl assures them Merle’s embarrassed by what happened – and it’s not so much of a logical leap to see that this is a distinct possibility, that he’s avoiding them because he doesn’t know how to apologize, not because he doesn’t want to. There’s more proof of that in Merle’s conversation with Carol in “This Sorrowful Life.” Merle remarks on how much the “little mouse” has changed, and admires that Carol is a “late bloomer.” The expression on his face when Carol shoots back “Maybe you are too” is both a shock and a longing.
So we come to this episode, with Merle already on the outside being offered the only entry to the “inner circle” he’ll ever get solely on the basis of Merle’s viciousness and cold-bloodedness. Rick has been wrestling with Woodbury’s peace settlement; give us Michonne, we’ll leave your family alone. Why Rick even entertains this as a serious chance is a matter that can only be justified by “this is how the plot needs it to be”; Rick is neither stupid nor needlessly cruel, which the plot line requires him to be. So when Rick decides to turn over Michonne, he approaches the one person he thinks will understand the decision – Merle.
Let the record show that Hershel and Daryl were in agreement to this plan, which is some writer’s witchery. There is no way that Hershel, moral, just, religious Hershel, would ever agree to this, not even under the guise of “Well, if Rick thinks it’s best.” The show adds salt to the wounds by making sure to highlight how helpful Michonne is to the group – coming up with practical defense plans for the now open outer yard, and rationally advising that the group doesn’t need to be able to best Woodbury’s might, just make the cost to get to them too high to pay. And yet Rick still goes to Merle, explains the plan, and asks for the other man’s help in “quietly” getting Michonne to the meeting.
Merle isn’t smart but he’s not dumb. He makes sure that Rick understands what this choice means for Michonne, and what kind of man the Governor is, and then whistles at how cold blooded Rick’s become. And when Rick turns away, claiming that his mind is made up, Merle sets in motion the plan that Rick would never have really gone through with; he lures Michonne to a deserted part of the prison, knocks her out, and takes her to Phillip.
You talk about the weight of what you have to do, how you can handle it? A bad man, someone truly evil, they’re as light as a feather. They don’t feel a thing.
Here’s the thing about Merle. Despite the fact that he takes the time to knock Michonne out and tie her up, I don’t believe he was really going to turn her over to the Governor. Not for keepsies, anyway. I think his plan was always what it ended up being – distract the Governor’s men with something (Michonne or the walkers) and then pick the Governor off while everyone is looking somewhere else. It’s not a plan he could just ask Michonne to go along with, given that she has no reason at all to trust him, and it’s not a plan that Rick would go along with because Rick would find it dishonorable. It’s a Merle plan, for men like him. An ends-justifies-the-means type of guy. Even before he decides to let Michonne go, Merle’s already carrying a sniper rifle and looking for a car, though Daryl proves you can walk to the meeting site. The real question is, did Merle understand that this was his plan?
Probably not. Michonne, who is obviously a better and more interesting characters now that the writers have deigned to give her lines, is quickly proving herself to be the smartest gal in the room. She’s put out, of course, about Merle’s deception, but she sees him clearer than he sees himself. To her, even though she’s suffered at his hands, he’s transparent – that’s obvious in the way she drives their conversation, in the way she analyzes what he’s doing. She doesn’t even seem too angry at him – there’s a measure of sadness in the way Michonne addresses him, like she’s disappointed in his choices, in the way he turns away from his opportunity to be a better man. After he finally lets her go, Michonne just walks back to the prison. She doesn’t have to, especially after Merle tells her the offer Rick was considering, but she seems like a woman who understands terrible choices.
So we find Merle playing Pied Piper to a line of walkers, leading them right into the Governor’s ambush, while Merle tries to settle the issue by picking off Phillip himself. There’s another episode to go, so Ben – good job keeping your boy safe, Allan, you tool – gets shot instead, and Merle is caught by the Governor’s men.
The last couple of weeks has seen the erosion of Phillip’s human faÃ§ade, so by the time he’s fighting Merle we can’t be surprised by the animal nature of it, the grunts and growling, and the fact that the Governor bites off two of Merle’s fingers during the fight. And when Merle is well and truly beaten, Phillip shoots him. If Phillip had any humanity, he would have shot Merle in the head, which is the last civilized thing anyone in this society clings to, the mercy to not come back as a walker. Instead he shoots Merle in the heart, so that Daryl comes upon his only brother eating Ben’s remains, a true monster at last.
6 replies on “New Show Recap: The Walking Dead S3.E15 — “This Sorrowful Life””
I love your recaps. They make me see the show in a new light.
Thank you. That’s the best compliment you could give me.
Fantastic review. The closing was brilliant.
I think we are seeing the limits of Rick’s intelligence in the most recent episodes. His experience and natural diplomacy allowed him to get by for quite a while as a leader, but now that people are acting like monsters, he is lost. His hit-and-miss approach during his negotiations with the Governor proves that. (Michonne, on the other hand, would have played the Governor like a fiddle if she chose to.)
Btw, I can’t unsee the conservative dresses they stick the female zombies in since you mentioned it.
I hadn’t thought of it in that way, but you make a good point about Rick. He’s starting to flounder — this is a situation he could have really used Shane in, and maybe he has found his limit. Michonne doesn’t want to lead, but she’s so smart and perceptive, she’s going to make a good second for him if he could only trust her. And maybe stop selling her off to psychopaths.
I didn’t mention it in my review but did Rick’s speech ring hollow to you?
The speech did not do it for me. It was like he was distracted the whole time he was saying it.
I think Rick’s speech sounded hollow because he IS hollow right now. We’ve been seeing the erosion of his humanity, too, just in a very different way from what we’ve seen with Phillip. To me, Rick is that person who is so sunken in depression that he can’t feel anything, but he still knows that he’s supposed to be feeling things. He presents the others with a facade of sincerity because he has to, regardless of how hollow or ineffectual it really is.