Walking Dead – This Sorrowful Life
This was a complex and intense episode of Walking Dead, filled with struggle and turmoil. And Motorhead.
The episode was titled, “This Sorrowful Life,” which sounds like a particularly depressing NPR show. It starts out with Rick having apparently undergone a complete reversal of his position on whether or not to offer Michonne to the Governor. He’s let Daryl in on the secret appeasement offer, and wants to kidnap Michonne for their own safety.
Everyone has qualms about this. Daryl keeps making comments alluding to Michonne’s effectiveness, and later calls the plan “rotten.” But he’s Rick’s man through and through, willing to follow the sheriff’s orders no matter what. Hershel hates the plan too, stalking away angrily from that initial planning session. The struggle plays out on his face as he conducts a Bible reading with his daughters, and he finally says, “What I wouldn’t do to keep you two safe.”
By the way, that was Psalms 91 he was reading from, and it seems to refer to the Walking Dead almost too perfectly: “Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.”
There are a bunch of small interactions in this episode that worked very well: Carol’s confident talk with Merle; Glen asking Hershel for his blessing to marry Maggie; Daryl trying to convince Glen to forgive Merle; Merle and Daryl trying to sort out their brotherhood. They weren’t just isolated snippets of character progression. All of those conversations fed directly into the events to come (while at the same time also making the characters seem richer and more interesting). I give Walking Dead’s writers a hard time most weeks, but I’m happy to call out great writing when I see it, too.
Can we take a moment to talk about Daryl’s hair? Is Carol cutting it for him? At first it was a sort of modified redneck mullet, but now it’s almost a glam rock shag. Daryl Stardust and the Zombies from Mars.
While Rick is making his plan, Merle has one too. He’s seen going through the prison looting the cells and cutting open all the mattresses looking for drugs (or “a vacation,” as Merle calls it). He even jokes about looking for crystal meth with Daryl. “I know, I shouldn’t mess my life up just when everything’s goin’ so sweet.”
But Merle’s conversation with Daryl reveals a lot more of what Merle is thinking. His time as the Governor’s muscle has made him think that that’s his function in this world, to play the bad guy, to take on the sins necessary for survival, allowing everyone else to keep a clean conscience. He later tells Michonne that he wouldn’t let Rick make such a choice. “It’s all on me. I figure it’s why I was back there in the first place. For the dirty work.” Done dirt cheap, eh Merle?
So Merle lures Michonne off alone, knocks her out, ties her with wire, and starts a long march to Woodbury. The distance between the prison and Woodbury seems entirely malleable. Andrea has walked back and forth several times, but sometimes it seems like a lengthy drive. Merle decides he wants a car (for reasons more than convenience, which we’ll soon discover), so he ties Michonne to a post outside a motel and hotwires a hooptie. This is an amazing scene with some of the best zombie kills in Walking Dead history. Merle accidentally triggers the car’s alarm. He keeps working to try and shut it off, but the noise brings all the zombies to Michonne’s yard. Problem is, she’s got her hands tied to a post. She kick/stomps one walker, then uses her wires to tie another to the post, then pulls tight for a garrote decapitation. Merle gets the alarm off, cuts Michonne free, and they hit the highway.
Meanwhile, back at the prison, Rick sees the ghost of Lori and has an awakening. He can’t sacrifice Michonne, not even to keep his own family safe. I’ll applaud the subtle use of Lori here, because I can easily imagine the show using heavy-handed voiceovers of some of Lori’s old dialogue to make this painfully obvious. Instead, it all happens silently in Rick’s head. He decides to call off the plan. But Merle is already gone, and Daryl figures out why. He runs off to save his brother.
Oh, and Glen steals a wedding ring for Maggie by cutting off a zombie’s fingers. Dude. Go loot a jewelry store, or make a ring from bits of metal or something. Anything would be less creepy than that.
Merle and Michonne are talking in the car on the way to Woodbury. Merle’s motivation is to be with his brother, and that means keeping the prison safe, and that means sacrificing Michonne. Michonne points out that Merle could have helped the prison crew fight off the Woodbury assault and become a hero, but he’s chosen a path that makes him an outsider. He realizes that kidnapping Michonne will not result in the “all is forgiven” scenario he’s imagined, and when Michonne says, “We can just go back,” that stone-faced glare finally cracks.
He stops the car. “I can’t go back.”
He cuts Michonne free and lets her out of the car. “There’s something I need to do.” He drives off.
Cut to Merle drinking whiskey in his new car, rocking out to some Motorhead (and later, Ted Nugent). Lemmy’s voice draws zombies from far and wide, and Merle slowly creeps toward an old farm that apparently is on the outskirts of Woodbury. He rolls out of the car and ducks into a building, then lets his ambush unfold. The zombies form a pack, the pack and the sound from the car draws the Woodbury militia. Merle starts picking off the Governor’s troops, and in the chaos it takes a while for them to notice that someone is shooting at them.
Merle gets a bead on the Gov, but luck intervenes and some random guy steps in the way and takes the bullet. High-powered rifle like that, it probably would have gone clean through and nailed the Gov anyway. But ok. They rush in and grab Merle and beat the crap out of him. I mean this was a brutal beating to watch. Horrific bone crunching sound effects. Then Gov comes in and makes it mano-a-mano. They brawl a bit, but Merle is already hurt, and Gov bites his fingers off, which may seem shocking, but that’s actually how governors are elected in 17 states. Merle screams that he won’t beg, Gov yells, “No!” and fires his gun at Merle. The screen goes black.
But the show will not leave us hanging regarding Merle’s fate. Daryl arrives some time later and sees numerous walkers munching on corpses. And…slow reveal…one of them is Merle. He’s really, truly dead.
I don’t really know how to address this scene, it was so powerful. We’ve finally come to understand the complexity of the relationship between Daryl and Merle, and how deeply they love each other despite everything. So we are feeling Daryl’s anguish at the death of his brother. We’re repulsed by the violence of stabbing him in the face again and again (to erase Merle’s face, as Daryl can’t stand to see that shambling thing wearing his brother’s identity). At the same time, we’re feeling our own sort of meta pain at the loss of Michael Rooker as a cast member.
In the epilogue, Rick calls a team meeting that is the exact opposite of the one from the end of season two. He undeclares himself as dictator and says they’ll vote on whether to run or stay and fight. It’s now the Prison Republic. Then Michonne returns.
What will they decide? That will be the crux of the season finale next week.
Tags: amc, michael rooker, this sorrowful life, walking dead, walking dead season 3