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The Walking Dead – Recap: Merle, Interrupted

Recap video and review of The Walking Dead – Season 3 Episode 15 – This Sorrowful Life:

In its more atmospheric moments, The Walking Dead does a better job than just about any show on TV when it comes to establishing a certain mood in its audience. Whether it’s fear, outright terror, or nervousness, the series can pretty much elicit any emotion from the viewer, provided said viewer is in any way emotionally invested in the story. Given the uniform excellence of season three, I don’t imagine there would be many hold-outs, in that regard. Which brings us to tonight’s episode, as The Walking Dead has given up getting us to feel hopelessness, and has moved on to a more relatable emotion: sorrow. “This Sorrowful Life” is an episode that is immaculately-structured, and it’s that exact structure that lends the episode its poignancy and power. In an isolated series of segments, we see the cracks in Merle’s (Michael Rooker) facade, giving way to the kernel of a good man underneath. Michonne (Danai Gurira) recognizes this and attempts to convince him of his lapsed goodness. And this entire arc proves to be among the most powerful of the season, as we begin to develop not a weary acceptance of Merle as a character, but instead a genuine affection for him. I can only imagine that the viewer would want to see him succeed, would want to see him cut down all the walkers, and lead the remaining horde into a trap for The Governor (David Morrissey) in what proved to be one of the more clever modes of attack that any of our protagonists have utilized before. Ultimately, Merle completes his arc started several episodes back, when he became a part of the prison clan, and struggled to fit in. Here, he’s finally earned his keep. Unfortunately, he had to die in the process.

Credit: AMC

Credit: AMC

In season one, I hated Merle outright. I thought he was a flimsy, one-dimensional, racist stereotype. I just didn’t feel as though there was anything that could be done with the character. After he disappeared from the rooftop where Rick (Andrew Lincoln) left him, I figured we’d see him again. I just never knew when. And I’m not sure I particularly cared to see him, either way, given how much progress Daryl (Norman Reedus) had made in his absence. Yet I found myself genuinely intrigued by Merle’s insistence to Rick that forking over Michonne to The Governor is not only a bad idea, but is also something he doesn’t have the balls to do. This gets Rick’s wheels turning, as does the constant, unnerving presence of Lori’s ghost. Rick can’t seem to make up his mind, and Merle picks up on this and decides to take matters into his own hands. While luring her into the basement tunnels of the prison on a routine walker-clearing job, Merle renders Michonne unconscious, ties her up, and hauls her off to complete the deal with The Governor and save the group by making the hard decisions their leader couldn’t. There’s a strange sense of honor at play here that I found weirdly compelling, even though I disagreed with it. Merle might not be happy at the prospect of giving The Governor what he wants, particularly since Merle recognizes there’s a very real possibility that The Governor won’t keep his word and leave them in peace, but he’s going to do this for the group, and for his brother, anyway.

Credit: AMC

Credit: AMC

And so we get a road trip with Merle and Michonne heading to the meeting point with The Governor. This is the best stuff of the episode, including a wonderfully tense sequence in which Merle hotwires a vehicle outside a motel, sounding the car alarm and drawing walkers to the area. Michonne is tied to a post, and Merle can’t hear her cries for help over the sound of the car alarm. This results in Michonne having to come up with some inventive kills as the walkers swarm her position, including kicking one to the ground and stomping his head in, while wrapping another around the post with the wire she’s bound with, and strangling the walker until the wire cuts through the dead flesh, bone and sinew, decapitating the walker altogether. Merle is swarmed in the car and uses his arm-bayonet to cut the walker before slicing the dead man’s face off with Michonne’s sword. It’s a terrific sequence, and the acquiring of the car comes into play later for Merle’s big plan.

On the road, Merle talks about how he simply wants to be with his brother, no matter where his brother goes, while also talking about how things were since the whole apocalypse went down. He’s killed sixteen men since this all happened, and Michonne responds by asking how many he killed before the rise of the walkers — Merle admits he hadn’t killed anyone before then. As Merle goes on, he rationalizes that he can’t go back to the prison, despite Michonne’s insistence that this isn’t the case. He sets Michonne free and continues on to meet The Governor on his own, looking to settle the score, once and for all. Daryl, tracking Merle after Rick discovered him and Michonne missing, comes across Michonne who points him in the direction of his brother. It’s a race against time for Daryl, as he struggles to reach Merle before anything bad can happen. Merle, for his part, engineers a pretty brilliant plan, turning up the car stereo to draw out walkers, and then slowly creeping the car forward to draw the walkers along his intended route, leading them directly to The Governor and his men. While the Woodbury army deals with the walker situation, Merle hides in a nearby abandoned building with his sniper rifle and cuts down each of The Governor’s men, one-by-one. It’s remarkably savvy, and works like a charm, as Merle takes out four of The Governor’s men. Unfortunately, he falls just short of taking out the big man himself, as Ben (Tyler Chase) gets in the way of the shot and takes a bullet to the neck that would have ended The Governor once and for all.

Credit: AMC

Credit: AMC

When Merle is ambushed by a walker, this gives The Governor’s men the opportunity to get the drop on him, and The Governor really takes it to Merle, going so far as to bite off two of his fingers before spitting them out. He continues beating on Merle before strapping him to a chair. Merle insists he isn’t going to beg for his life, that he’d never beg in front of The Governor. However, The Governor doesn’t want him to beg. He simply takes out a gun, aims it at Merle’s heart and pulls the trigger, killing him. And this is how Daryl finds his brother in the episode’s climax…

Credit: AMC

Credit: AMC

Since everyone turns once they die, The Governor’s cruelty in shooting Merle through the heart instead of the head means that Daryl happens upon his brother as a walker. Walker Merle is pretty unsettling to look at, the raw strings of human flesh hanging from his teeth. The camera focuses on his dead, yellow eyes to truly communicate that whoever was there is now irretrievably lost. Daryl breaks down in what proves to be the best moment in the series for Norman Reedus, who could have made Daryl a one-note caricature in his performance, but fought to give the character depth. Daryl pushes his walkerfied brother away repeatedly, unwilling to accept what has happened. But it’s not long before Daryl can no longer contain himself, and he lashes out at Merle in a torrent of rage and grief, stabbing him repeatedly in the face while shouting and sobbing hysterically. It’s such an incredibly raw moment, and the emotions are far more painstaking than the actual violence involved. I was definitely moved, but also vaguely disturbed by the scene. I can’t imagine that this wasn’t the intent behind the scene, as it really was a harrowing moment, filled with the kind of palpable sorrow that permeates this season.

Credit: AMC

Credit: AMC

The rest of the episode, meanwhile, is equally substantial. Rick gathers the group together and explains that he was wrong for considering handing over Michonne, and even wronger for not including them in the decision. He states that his announcement at the end of last season of a Ricktatorship, where his power is absolute and his decisions final, isn’t the way to do things anymore. He says that from now on, they make their decisions together. He doesn’t want to be their Governor, so he offers a choice. They can either vote to leave, or vote to stay and fight. The answer is self-evident. Yet Rick isn’t the only person with a lot on his mind. Glenn (Steven Yeun) has finally understood the meaning of the pocket watch Hershel (Scott Wilson) had given him. He meets with Hershel and asks for his permission to marry Maggie (Lauren Cohan). Hershel gives his blessing, and as Glenn goes to pop the question, Hershel looks on with a smile widening his face, in one of the rare moments of genuine, joyful tenderness on this series, matched only by Glenn’s simple proposal. After severing the ring from a walker’s finger, Glenn wordlessly hands Maggie the ring, pressing it into her palm. She simply looks at him and says “Yes”, and the couple embraces. It’s just good, simple storytelling, and it helps to offset the pervasive sense of sorrow that fills the episode otherwise.

Credit: AMC

Credit: AMC

“This Sorrowful Life” gets us geared up for next week’s finale, and in a big way. The time for talk is over, and with war on the horizon, I suspect we’ll be losing quite a few characters we’ve come to know or love. But for now, we say goodbye to Merle, who at least got some measure of redemption on his way out, fighting to the last. I can’t imagine another way for a Dixon boy to go out.

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