Michael Rooker’s performance emerged so fully formed that even though we saw the character for barely more than one episode in Season 1, fans constantly demanded to know when he would return. When he turned up in Daryl’s fever dream in Season 2, it was the first time Rooker and Norman Reedus shared the screen as brothers. And it wasn’t until this season that we really got to spend more time with Merle, see the Dixon brothers interact as actual people and discover what kind of guy truly lied beneath the gruff exterior.
I think most fans would admit that even though Merle was a racist, sexist, socially backward, borderline-homicidal maniac, that he was also kind of lovable. Most of us want to believe that redemption is possible. That even when someone makes mistakes they can see the error of their ways. And Merle was the ultimate symbol of that belief on “The Walking Dead.” He was the Governor’s toadie, he tried to kill Michonne and Glenn, he turned over Maggie to the Governor knowing she’d be in danger, and he killed — we learned tonight — 16 people (or “16 men” as he put it, perhaps meaningfully) while taking out the Governor’s “garbage.”
And yet we wanted Merle to live. To be a better man. To find peace with his brother. But Merle was forever destined to be an outsider, and that’s why he had to die.
“This Sorrowful Life” was another remarkable episode in what has been an extremely strong season overall for “The Walking Dead.” It was the best installment since “Clear,” and it may not be a coincidence that both were written by Season 4 showrunner Scott Gimple. Current showrunner Glen Mazzara clearly knew Gimple had the goods to trust him with major episodes like this, and both Gimple and director Greg Nicotero (also elevated to executive producer for next season) brought their A-game.
There wasn’t an ounce of fat in the hour. The episode opened with Rick attempting to sell Daryl and Hershel on his misguided belief he could turn Michonne over to the Governor and just kept rolling from there. Merle told Rick he could never go through with it. Carol questioned Merle about whether or not he was really a part of the group. Merle sees he can’t completely control Daryl with Rick around. Merle takes it on himself to deliver Michonne … only to ultimately realize that he’s not up to it either and gathers some walkers for a one-man attack on Woodbury.
He may have even succeeded in his plan of taking out the Governor if stupid Ben hadn’t gotten in the way of the bullet. And because of that single moment of bad timing, the Governor — that horrible lucky bastard — came out on top yet again. He gave Merle a beating, bit off two fingers, shot him and left him to turn.
Everything built to that final anguished moment of Daryl finding walker-Merle feeding on stupid dead Ben and being forced to do the horrible thing we saw Andrea do back in Season 1: kill a sibling-turned-walker. But it wasn’t the heartbreakingly fast ending Andrea gave Amy. Daryl’s mercy killing was full of pain, grief, anger, frustration, rage. (And Norman Reedus’ ability to communicate every single emotion churning inside of Daryl was astonishing to behold. This was a exceptionally well-acted episode all around but Reedus and Rooker deserve the highest kudos.)
The Dixon brothers were never able to work through their issues, and now Merle is dead. Daryl still has family, but he no longer has blood.
– One of the season’s most tragic episodes also contains one of its most joyful moments. Glenn’s marriage proposal to Maggie was the perfect subplot to balance the suspense of the main story. There was so much goodness there: Glenn asking for (and receiving) Hershel’s blessing. Hershel’s smile when Glenn leaves the cell. Glenn snatching the ring off a walker’s hand. And the simplicity and genuine quality of both Glenn’s proposal and Maggie’s swift acceptance. Let’s enjoy this while we can, because as Glenn acknowledges “who knows” what’s coming next.
– Gimple has now written what are probably the two best Michonne episodes of the season, at least the ones that involve dialogue. I’m still partial to her brawl with the Governor in the midseason finale, but there’s no question this previously mysterious figure was always meant to open up as the season progressed and Danai Gurira’s performance has expanded and deepened right along with the character. Her conversations with Merle as she slowly worked on him to change his mind and appealed to his humanity — a side few others even see in Merle, understandably enough — made for some of the best scenes of the night. And Michonne’s ability to take down walkers even with no weapons and her hands literally tied is a thing of beauty. Any lingering complaints that the character hadn’t fully earned her anointed status as a badass should be thoroughly silenced now.
– Rick is still seeing Lori, but at least he understands that he’s not. Will something more come of this? It’s been kind of cool to see Sarah Wayne Callies still popping up even though Lori is gone.
– Hershel’s reading from Psalms 91 to Maggie and Beth was a lovely moment, and I prefer the creative use of voiceover like that to some of the musical tracks the show has been laying down lately.
– R.I.P. Ricktatorship: “What I said last year that first night after the farm, it can’t be like that … I’m not your Governor. We choose to go. We choose to stay. We stick together. We can stay and we can fight, or we can go.” Rick’s realization that the group is the greater good may be the most important moment of the night.
– That look on Carl’s face when Rick says the Governor asked him to sacrifice Michonne.
– “You gotta play the hand you’re dealt. I only got one.”