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Oh Merle. I’ve been struggling with writing this review and gave the episode an extra rewatch and trashed the first draft to start from scratch. The easy answer to what Merle did is that he sacrificed himself for his brother to give Daryl a chance. But the truth is that Merle didn’t have to leave the prison to help his brother. With Merle’s skills he could have caused about as much damage fighting side-by-side with the group as going off on his own. Rick raised the question to Merle, “Do you even know why you do the things that you do?” To this Merle responded that he’s a “damned mystery” to himself. That line from Rick, like some others in this episode, seem to be as much a reflection of the inner struggle in Merle’s head as being about what Rick was going through. The truth is Merle chose to end his own life, because as he told Michonne, he couldn’t go back. And when people choose to end their lives, the question always asked by those left behind is “why?”

Merle’s comment to Michonne that he couldn’t go back falls in line with a question that has been raised repeatedly in the series. The end-of-world events are changing people, and in some cases, these characters are doing unthinkable things and losing their humanity. The question the series has been asking is, can you go back once you’ve lost yourself? In 18 Miles Out, Shane was at a crossroads, and Rick told him, “It's time for you to come back.” In Clear Rick pleaded with Morgan, “You’ve got to be able to come back from this.” In This Sorrowful Life, we learn that Merle has killed 16 men since he’s been with the governor. He tells Michonne that he had never killed anyone before the zombie apocalypse started and hints that he hadn’t killed anyone before he joined with the Governor. We know the Governor’s style, and Merle has probably been part of other unimaginable horrors as well, aside from murder. Unlike Daryl, who has found a new family through all of this, and voiced that to Rick in this episode when he told him, “You’re family too,” Merle ended up with a sadistic man who used Merle to do his dirty work.

But even though Merle’s time with the Governor seemed to play a large role in his decision, Merle’s wounds are deeper than those the Governor inflicted. We learned earlier this season that Merle and Daryl were both victims of abuse growing up. And we saw Daryl last season go through a similar internal struggle, when Daryl hallucinated his brother and imagined Merle ridiculing him for taking orders from Rick. Daryl also was struggling with putting aside his patterns of isolation and accepting that the group really did value him. Unlike Merle, Daryl could come back.

Carol reached out to Daryl last season, and she tries again in this episode with Merle, suggesting that he too might be “a late bloomer.” Merle was looking for an escape through alcohol or drugs, and Carol asks him, “Are you with us?” Merle responds he’s there for Daryl, and Carol says, “It’s not time to do shots. It’s time to pick a damn side.” It’s clear Merle is not with the Governor anymore, so when Merle needs to pick a side it’s between truly opening himself up to the group or staying an outsider. In the end, he picks his side when he chooses death over a new start.

The really sad part of this story, aside from Daryl’s sobbing, was Merle’s assumption when Rick came to him to ask for help with the plan to hand Michonne over to the Governor, that Rick’s request equaled Rick needing him to do his dirty work. Merle had been part of the Governor’s inner circle, and Merle had known his role. He was only there to do the Governor’s dirty work. When Rick invited Merle into the secret plan of trading Michonne to the Governor in exchange for peace, Merle assumed that this was because Rick knew deep down inside that he would back down, and Merle believed that Rick wanted Merle to carry out the plan when Rick couldn’t – even if Rick himself didn’t realize it. When Merle decided to let Michonne go, and told her he couldn’t go back, was part of him still believing that if he didn’t fulfill his role in the group by doing the things that were too distasteful for the rest of them, that they wouldn’t keep him around? And a more troubling question – was Merle right about Rick?

Even though Merle saw himself as an outsider, and said the group looks at him like he’s the devil for kidnapping Glenn and Maggie, we saw several people reach out to Merle and try to pull him in. There was Carol in this episode; Daryl trying to smooth things over with Glenn; Michonne, who seemed to make a peace with Merle in her own way; Hershel talking the Bible with him in a previous episode; and Rick, who while distrustful, did seem to accept that Merle was with Daryl, and by association was part of the group. Merle doesn’t seem to be someone who worries about what everyone else thinks of him, so it seems that the demons he was running from were not other peoples’ opinions of him – they were his own.

Sorrowful Life

This episode was heartbreaking, and that’s a credit to the acting skills of Michael Rooker, the powerful writing, and the contributions of everyone else involved. The successful transformation of Merle from a racist, reckless villain to sympathetic brother and tragic hero, in what amounted really to just a few episodes, was impressive. I knew something like this was coming, not that Merle would be killed in this episode – I didn’t read the spoilers – but I knew that he couldn’t last with the group for too long. He was too much of a loose cannon. And while I had hoped for his redemption, I’m not sure I would have believed it if it had happened. After The Suicide King, I dared to hope that we would see Merle interact with the group for at least half a season and that we’d get some quality scenes between Merle and Daryl. I mostly got my wish, so in a way, I’m OK with this.

In this episode, we got some memorable Merle moments to add to our collection, other great scenes, and some profound quotes from many sources:

Merle tearing up the prisoners’ mattresses, looking for dope, was classic.

Merle gets the chance to call Rick “Officer Friendly” one last time in a chilling scene where he tells Rick that the Governor will torture Michonne, and that Rick is “cold as ice.”

Merle: “You know something. You’re right. I don’t know why I do the things I do. I never did. I’m a damned mystery to me. But I know you Rick. Yeah, I thought a lot about you. You ain’t got the spine for it.”

Daryl: “You can't do things without people any more now, man.”

Michonne: “You talk about the weight of what you have to do. How you can handle it. A bad man, someone truly evil, they’re light as a feather. They don’t feel a thing.”

Michonne: “The truth is this could have been your shot. With your skills? A whole new beginning. But you choose to stay on the outside. No one’s going to mourn you. Not even Daryl. He’s got a new family.”

Merle: “You’re as much on the outside as I am, girl.”

Also from the episode:

Did you catch Merle putting Rick’s phone in his backpack? It was probably for the wire to tie Michonne up, but I would like to think that it is a sign that it is time for Rick to move forward too.

Glenn and Maggie got engaged. While cutting the ring off a walker’s hand was a little creepy, the scene between the two of them, as well as the one between Glenn and Hershel, were sweet. This much happiness makes me worry for them in next week’s finale. It’s too bad Glenn and Maggie’s moment couldn’t help but be overshadowed by the Merle storyline.

So Rick is finally giving up his little dictatorship. Thank you. The speech at the end of last season never seemed right to me, and Rick has been bowed down under the weight of the responsibility for being in charge of everyone all season. He needs to share the load, and he can’t become like the Governor.

The voice-over effect of Hershel reading from the Bible as Rick saw a vision of Lori and reconsidered his decision to sacrifice Michonne was beautifully done.

It looks like the son of the annoying character with Tyreese and Sasha was killed by Merle. That will likely erupt in some drama next episode, and will probably play a role in Tyreese and Sasha joining Team Rick.

Nitpicks:

One thing that didn’t ring quite true to me was Merle’s response that he hadn’t killed anyone before he teamed up with the governor. He’s ex-military, and he was very close to killing T-Dog in season 1 without provocation. It’s possible, but I doubt it.

Was that a radio playing the car? It could have been a tape or CD, but it looked like a radio, which begs the question what radio station is still broadcasting about a year after the zombie apocalypse. And why would this car’s battery still be good?

When Merle tied Michonne to the post while he was breaking into the car, why didn’t she even try to untie it when he wasn’t looking? She had about a minute there before the walkers started closing in.

So what are your thoughts? How do you think it next week’s finale will play out? Will you miss Merle?

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