Merle has been a challenging character to relate to. When he first appeared in The Walking Dead’s first season, I was glad to see him left behind to die, but I was always intrigued by the idea of him surviving and coming back for revenge against Rick at some point. It seemed like this was the direction Season 3 was going to take the character when he resurfaced as one of the Governor’s men. I may not have liked him initially – why anyone would allow such a racist dickhead to camp with them is beyond me – but he was recreated to be this season’s secondary villain to the Governor. Or so I thought. Halfway through the season, the writers had a change of heart and sent Merle down this path of redemption. It might’ve worked except they forgot one important part of Merle’s personality: he’s impossible to like. He’s always doing something to illicit the ire of everyone around him, his brother included.
Because he’s such a rough character to rub against, his presence in the prison has been curious. He was almost immediately given free roam and weapons, yet nobody seemed to trust him. It was a bit of a mixed message on where everyone stood with Merle. And he continued to be abrasive. When “This Sorrowful Life” opened up, I could tell it was going to be a Merle centric episode, which could end in only one way: Merle was going to die. At this point his character had become so unredeemable through regular actions, the only way he would be able to find some kind of believable character arc would be to kill him off in a semi-heroic fashion. But there was still a lot of ground to cover before we got to that moment and, unfortunately, the episode suffered from how obviously it was trying to fast track everything.
Rick behaves in the most ridiculous fashion, going back and forth on his decision to give Michonne to the Governor. Should he do it? The obvious answer is no because nobody should trust the Governor, but he still plays around with the idea it might all work out. He asks Merle to be the guy to tie up Michonne and take her to the Governor because he’s a jerk and is okay with doing that kind of stuff. Of course, Rick decides against the plan, but Merle saw it coming and is long gone with Michonne as his captive, saying Rick doesn’t have the balls to see this action through. Merle’s motivations for doing this are a little muddied – surely he knows the Governor shouldn’t be trusted in this exchange – but at least once he’s on the road with Michonne the episode starts to feel like the first ten minutes of nonsense might’ve been worth it.
Scott Gimple, who wrote the season highlight “Clear,” penned “This Sorrowful Life” and you can see and hear he still has the best handle on these characters than any other writer this season. He excels at putting these characters in isolated areas and having them hash things out, as evidenced by the journey Michonne and Merle undertake. The scenes the two shares are the best of the episode, with Gimple continuing to actually make Michonne feel like a real character. He even manages to given Merle some kind of redemption, having him explain that though he may have always been a pain in the ass, Merle was never a killer before meeting the Governor. He even admits the horrible things he’s done weigh on him, even if he can handle the burden. Eventually that weight becomes too much to bear and Merle lets Michonne go back to the prison – the exact catalyst for his change of heart isn’t quite clear, but whatever keeps the plot moving, right?
Merle continues on his own and what follows is some of the best scenes The Walking Dead has ever crafted. We already had one scene ripe with tension when Merle was trying to hotwire a car, inadvertently setting off the alarm and attracting a dozen or so walkers, but Merle finds a more entertaining use for the car once Michonne is out of the picture. He blares rock music and slowly lures the walkers to where the Governor and his men are preparing their attack on the prison. He dives out of the car and lets it roll its way toward the camp, bringing the trail of zombies with it. The men open fire on the walkers while Merle hides in a barn, taking shots at them. He’s found out and gets the crap beaten out of him by the Governor. But Merle doesn’t beg, so the Governor shoots him.
While all this is happening, Daryl is hot on his brother’s trail, but he arrives too late to find Merle alive. Instead he happens upon his brother zombified and eating a dead kid’s arm. This was powerful scene, even if how we got here wasn’t perfectly executed. Daryl’s grief is enough, however, as he pushes zombie-Merle away in frustration and then stabs him repeatedly in the face. Ultimately, I think this was the only way Merle’s story could have ended. There was no way he was going to completely redeem himself and while what we got in “This Sorrowful Life” wasn’t grade-A material – I still have high hopes for Gimple once he takes over as showrunner – it was the closest we’ll likely ever get to understanding Merle.