Last week, I argued that The Walking Dead might benefit from Glen Mazzara’s departure as executive producer, listing a number of patterns that have been gnawing at me since he took over in season two. One storytelling tick that I forgot to mention is his tendency to keep viable characters meandering in the background for months and then start building them up half an hour before their brutal passing for shock value. He’s done it with Dale, T-Dog, Axel, and now Merle, who I was hoping might serve as the snotty Cordelia to Rick’s Buffy the vampire slayer. Such a waste of an excellent cast member.
In fairness, “This Sorrowful Life”, written by upcoming show runner Scott M. Gimple, makes a point of presenting the one-armed bandit’s suicide by Governor in a different light than previous deaths in The Walking Dead. Whereas Dale, T-Dog, and, to some extent, Lori’s respective demises were treated as tragic interruptions of the human continuum, Merle’s exit from the series comes across more like Shane’s in “Better Angels”: calculated, deceptively giving, and oddly peaceful in its violence. It’s worth noting the two hotheads comprise the only cast members to become walkers in Mazzara’s run.
It’s been so long since we’ve seen one of our heroes turn that I’d almost forgotten it could happen, making Daryl’s reunion with his zombie brother all the more heartbreaking. Norman Reedus gives a poignant performance here, striking the perfect balance between manly blubbering and confused rage, as does Michael Rooker, whose take on the walker condition evokes the lonesome, feral existence of a wounded coyote. This strikes me as a fitting end for Merle, who always had an easier time identifying with the flesh-eating ghouls than the people around him.
Or did he? As his conversation with Michonne reveals, Merle had a softer heart than he himself realised. I suggested in my review of “I Ain’t a Judas” that living in Woodbury somehow tamed him, but it turns out the one-armed bandit changed his demeanour out of guilt from associating with the Governor. I love this subtle twist and what it implies about his rapport with the dreadlocked samurai. She didn’t elude him back in “Hounded”. He subconsciously let her go because he admires her fortitude the same way he cherishes Daryl’s new life with the prison tribe. Why else would the man give his life but to secure his younger brother’s?
That’s what I like most about “This Sorrowful Life”: the sense of hope undercutting not just the title of the episode but also the core theme of The Walking Dead as a whole. I complained last year that, in keeping with its source material, the show stopped celebrating the human spirit after Frank Darabont left. While gorgeous character studies, Gimple’s scripts of late had done little to dissuade this impression, so I was a bit weary of how the series might evolve under his control. This Merle-centric piece has me feeling a great deal more optimistic, which I admit is an odd thing to say about a story that ends with a gruesome gunshot to the chest followed by the guy’s head getting squished like a ripe grape in a Tuscan vineyard.
Think about it though. For all of his fatalistic posturing, Merle’s actions are predicated on the notion that life will go on regardless of the zombie apocalypse. Unlike, say, Morgan or, to a lesser extent, Shane, our scruffy anti-hero believes that human civilisation will adapt to the new world order: that former battered wives will continue to find strength in unlikely places; that clever pizza delivery boys will continue to propose to farmer’s daughters in beautiful, understated ways; and, of course, that his brother Daryl will continue to grow amidst his new family whether or not he’s there to see it.
What’s more, “This Sorrowful Life” goes out of its way to prove Merle right. Consider Rick’s breakthrough this week, which somehow leads to the resurgence of a democratic process among our heroes. If you ask me, they took far too long to get to this point, but I appreciate that the decision stems from a need to share the burden of leadership rather than from a tragic mistake or melodramatic mutiny like in the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If this is what the future holds for The Walking Dead, then more power to Gimple.
Death toll so far: nineteen. Carol called Merle “a late bloomer”. I’m just happy the character got a chance to flourish.