CAUTION: Spoilers Ahead!
"This Sorrowful Life," the aptly-titled penultimate episode of Season 3 of AMC's The Walking Dead, featured one of the most shocking deaths in the history of the series and advanced the stakes in the looming war between Woodbury and the gang at the prison. On a more positive note, Glenn sliced an engagement ring off of a walker's hand and proposed to Maggie so they could be married before the battle, bringing a smile to Hershel's face.
But the episode truly belonged to Merle, a character that represents one of those rare cases where a television show has successfully followed up on a hotly debated dangling plot thread from an early episode. Since his initial appearance in the second episode of the first season, Merle has been a popular topic of discussion despite only appearing once more, as a figment of younger brother Daryl's imagination during a Season 2 episode. To be fair, Merle's self-severed hand did make an appearance in a subsequent episode.
Fans with knowledge of the events in Robert Kirkman's original comic book series speculated that Merle would turn into The Governor and chop off Rick's hand in revenge, but his eventual return in Season 3 took a different turn and has been handled very effectively. Disappearing into the role of Merle, Michael Rooker took this one-dimensional racist redneck stereotype and made him one of the most memorable and talked-about characters on television. "This Sorrowful Life" contains his final appearance and his finest moment as he finally finds a measure of redemption and completes his journey in a logical, yet surprising fashion.
Preparing to hand over Michonne to the Governor in an attempt to make peace, Rick brings Merle in on the project due to his skill at handling dirty jobs, perhaps recalling the Gov's comment about Merle's usefulness during their face-to-face meeting. After seeing another vision of his dead wife Lori acting as his conscience, Rick has a change of heart and decides not to deliver Michonne, but Merle has already taken matters into his own hands and is en route to the meeting place with Michonne in tow. Along the way, Merle reveals to her that he has killed 16 people, all of them on behalf of the Governor after his arrival in Woodbury, and eventually decides to release Michonne and proceed on his own.
Realizing that he doesn't fit in with Daryl's "new family" at the prison, Merle makes a final sacrifice to ensure the safety of his brother, engaging in a last supper of whiskey and Motorhead before leading a herd of walkers to the meeting place. While the Governor and his men expend valuable ammunition on the biters, Merle picks off as many nameless Woodbury soldiers as possible with a sniper rifle from the window of a shed, inadvertently shooting the vaguely familiar face of Team Tyreese member Ben, Allen's teenage son, when he wanders into the line of fire as Merle is targeting the Governor. Merle's shooting spree is ended when he must fight off a walker in the shed and gets his ass beaten by Martinez and a bunch of thugs. The Governor takes over and Merle tries to fight back, but the vicious ruler bites off two of his fingers and spits them out.
Defiant until the end, Merle refuses to beg for his life and is sentenced to a fate worse than death when the Governor kills him with a gunshot to the chest to ensure that he is resurrected as a zombie. This leads to an emotional scene and a powerful performance from Norman Reedus as Daryl finds his undead brother munching on young Ben's intestines. Hey, at least he eats what he shoots. Director Greg Nicotero's closeup on Merle's zombified eyes simulates Daryl's focus as the brutal truth sinks in and he breaks down crying, but must fend off his ravenous brother. Unleashing his sadness and anger, Daryl repeatedly stabs Walker Merle in the face to put him out of his misery.
Upon a repeat viewing, some of the dialogue contained hints that indicated Merle's fate. During a conversation with Carol, Merle remarks that she had changed a lot since he knew her at the camp near Atlanta and that she is a "late bloomer"; she replies, "Maybe you are too." Daryl's assurances to Glenn that his big brother would "make it right" in reference to his role in abducting Glenn and Maggie also hint at redemption, a concept that seemed unattainable for a character like Merle. The strengths of the TV series are reflected in Merle, as he was a new character created for the show and filled an integral role in the story.
Meanwhile, Rick tells the group at the prison the truth about the Governor's offer and rescinds the fan-dubbed "Ricktatorship" that he instituted at the end of last season, installing a democratic system (USA! USA! USA!) to allow his fellow Prisonites to decide their own fate. In a speech I like to call the "I'm Not Your Governor" address, Rick outlines the essential differences between himself and the Gov when he declares, "What we do, what we're willing to do, who we are — it's not my call," adding, "How you live — how you die — it isn't up to me." The most stirring line as Rick explains the situation with Michonne is, "I couldn't sacrifice one of us for the greater good because we are the greater good."
Although Rick and the Governor both claim to be acting on behalf of their people, the Gov is more concerned with revenge and power while Rick only became leader of his group because he was the best candidate for the job at the time. Some may bristle at the notion that The Walking Dead has any real-world subtext, but the theme behind Rick's words and the whole Season 3 arc is that a true democracy doesn't keep secrets from its citizens. Now that the Ricktatorship is defunct, the Prisonites will vote on whether to stay and face certain doom or flee for the uncertainties of the road.
Despite the revolving door behind the scenes, The Walking Dead should be in good hands with incoming showrunner Scott Gimple, who is credited with writing this episode. The show has kept viewers guessing all season long, so it's hard to predict what will happen next week and how the fallout will effect Season 4. After seeing the preview for the season finale, my educated guess is that the group will boobytrap the prison, showing that Rick learned a few tricks from Morgan, and hit the road. Since David Morrissey has turned in such a fine performance as the Governor, he won't be killed off just yet and next season will pick up with Rick and the group trying to rescue Andrea from Woodbury. As usual, I'll probably be wrong and that's absolutely fine.
R.I.P. Merle Dixon. We'll miss the hell out of you, you crazy racist redneck asshole.
FINAL GRADE: A