Tonight, Sunday March 24th, 2013 is the penultimate episode of The Walking Dead Season 3 on AMC. In the episode “This Sorrowful Life”, tensions between Woodbury and the Prison are at an all time high. Furthermore, the fate of Andrea(Laurie Holden) is up for grabs as she is thrown into a torture chamber made by The Governor (David Morrissey). Will Rick (Andrew Lincoln), Glen(Steven Yeun), Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and the rest save her in time? And what about the offer to give up Michonne(Danai Gurira)? What about Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Merle Dixon(Michael Rooker): how do they fit into everything?
***NOTE: The following continues SPOILERS.***
“This Sorrowful Life” opens with Rick, Herschel (Scott Wilson) and Daryl coming to an agreement in regards to Michonne being given up to The Governor. Naturally Rick doesn’t know that The Governor is going renege on his deal and betray them all, but they need another body. So Rick, realizing he needs to make amends with Merle, decides to have a chat with our favorite one-armed Dixon brother.
One of my favorite smaller scenes in the entire show’s run, it takes two iconic characters (with a well-know disagreement between the two of them in regards to the definition of ‘being left behind) chatting it out with an amazing bit of sub-textual truth to it. For fans of The Walking Dead, a lot of people have taken a shine to Merle, the other Dixon brother to Daryl. Even during his worst, fans somewhat cheered and rooted for him to be something better than he is. And in a way, Rick asks what fans ask Merle and what they ask all characters on shows like The Walking Dead which is: “Do you even know why you do the things you do? The choices you make?”
After some small banter, and the realization that Michonne will keep the group safe, Merle, proud to be in the ‘inner-circle’ says… “. You go on. Give ‘em that girl. He won’t kill he, you know. He will do things to her. Prolly take out one of her eyes, both of them probably. You’d do that? For a shot? Whew. You are cold as ice, ‘Officer Friendly’.”
It was a chilling sequence, where Merle later confessed he didn’t know why he did the things he did. He is a mystery even unto himself. But Merle mentions a lack of a spine with Rick. And for the cold-hard stuff, the stuff like giving up another human being to get tortured… well, it’s true. Rick is not heartless. Rick’s decision further chides him as Michonne goes a step beyond and proves her worth by helping them set-up the Prison for an out-all attack. Rick feels pressure from what he knows deep-down is right and wrong, and the whole giving up Michonne is further called into question. Will Rick continue to go through with this?
As the episode continues with Rick questioning his decision to surrender Michonne, we begin to get a sense that this is about Merle’s big moment to shine, if only he knew how. Which further surmises Merle is soon gonna die.* Merle though with the understanding that Michonne is considered part of the group, but at the same time, the group needs “someone to hate”, he takes it on himself to ‘take care’ of Michonne. In his heart of hearts, Merle to me, figures and understands that he will be hated by the group, but if his death and that hatred towards him could save the group and save his brother, then Merle will do it; he will be the Prison group’s sacrificial lamb.
(*) - Any character who gets a moment to try to redeem themselves proves in The Walking Dead, it means it is soon their last. I sincerely hoped this to NOT be the case but alas. I was wrong.
Let’s be real here: this episode is a pure tour de force of acting for Rooker as Merle Dixon. Let’s go a step further: Michael Rooker had us in his pocket since the first appearance of his character in season one of The Walking Dead, and this episode where we see the real toll on Merle’s head or should we really say, his heart. Despite his gruff exterior and bad-ass ways* ,Merle never actually killed anyone before until he started working for The Governor.
(*) We as viewers know of the plan that him and Daryl would rob, plunder and murder the group back in Season 1.
In letting Michonne go, Rooker displayed such a wealth of emotions without even dare directly saying what was really in his head. And Merle is too proud to do such a thing. Emmy voters, I beg you, if nominated, give this man an Emmy. Rooker did phenomenal work in “This Sorrowful Life”.
And in what was an amazing coupe de grace for the character not just in an emotionally heavy performance, the character really laid one down hard on The Governor, using his getaway car to lead a whole swarm of walkers to decimate half of the military-trained warriors from Woodbury along with some bullets. Sadly, the Governor gains the upper hand, literally.*
(*) – Merle is overpowered in a fisticuffs with his fight with The Governor, getting two fingers bitten off from his hand. Sadly, Merle mistakes the Governor wanting him to beg, but instead The Governor just wants him dead and does so then by shooting him.
The final moments of Darly killing Merle are tragic ones. As a viewer, the storyline feels earned and justified, but as a critic, the death of Merle feels, well, a bit too soon. Say what you will, but Merle would have been interesting to have in the group dynamic within Rick. Then again, to have Merle go out the way he went out, there truly is no better way, but to see him carry on to another season before going out the way he did would have been nice.
There lies the rub with The Walking Dead is that the series has the pace of a show that has no idea what it wants to be at times. The slow boil between Merle and the other Prison group members would have been better appreciated. Perhaps that would be driving the show’s pacing down to a stand-still, but considering how it ebbs and flows a bit anyway, when it comes to killing characters off, it begs the question how justified are they in doing that to characters?
Well the answer is they are fully justified.
But in cases of characters like Axel (Lew Temple) who get any sense of development and then are killed off, or in some cases, have been around forever and then are killed off without much development (IronE Singleton’s T-Dog), it gets you quite upset. While individuals like Joss Whedon really pushed for killing characters off to show you they mean business, sometimes The Walking Dead kills characters off to remind you they kill characters off because it’s a zombie show. And while you can put a pretty bow on it, at the same time, we still know what the show is doing, and it’s wee-bit frustrating. Every character should have their moment to shine. Luckily Merle had a whole episode featuring his before he died, unlike Axel who had a small morsel of dialogue making him a skosh more likeable before getting a bullet in the brain which feels a similar fate to T-Dog.
Overall, despite that nagging bit of criticism, “This Sorrowful Life” does showcase the talents of Rooker as Merle, and even showcases Lincoln and Reedus with powerful moments in the final throes of the episode. It is powerful and showcases what The Walking Dead does best(and sometimes worst). And with one more episode left airing March 31st, Easter Sunday, well, you can’t argue with that logic. *
( *) - Well, the logic with Jesus rising and all that. You know, being there are walkers, uh, around.
The Walking Dead airs on AMC and can be found on channels 16 for Insight Communications Customers and channel 54 for Time Warner Customers . For HD channel versions, check your local cable or satellite provider for more information.
But what do YOU think?
You can read Nick’s additional reviews on The TV King.