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The Walking Dead: “This Sorrowful Life”

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The first 10 minutes of “This Sorrowful Life” play out like a disaster. Rick, it seems, has changed his mind once again—conveniently off-screen, of course, so we’d be spared anything approaching actual drama or character logic. He takes Hershel and approaches Daryl with a proposition: They need to give Michonne to the Governor to save everyone’s life. First, Daryl thinks this is a bad plan, and then, because Rick just repeats the plan he’ll go along with it, because that’s how little this twist makes sense. Rick decides they’re going to need someone especially nasty to catch Michonne unawares (because why, exactly?), so he goes to see the one person in the prison Michonne should, at least in theory, trust the least: Merle. And for a little while, it seems like the plan is to lure Michonne away from the others, tie her up in wire that she can’t chew through, and turn her over to a psychopath they have absolutely no reason to trust whatsoever. At one point, Hershel prays, and it’s all very Biblical and shit. Finally, Rick sees Lori’s ghost and decides he can’t go through with it, but it’s too late, sort of. Realizing there was no way that Rick would ever go through with the plan, Merle takes matters into his own hands.

That last bit is the important part. In retrospect, the only reason for Rick to briefly entertain this plan, the only reason for both Hershel and Daryl to go along with it even as long as they do, is to get Merle on the road with Michonne, so they can have a chat, and then Merle can sacrifice himself in one last desperate attempt to kill the Governor. That last scene is a good one, and it leads to the terrific final confrontation between Daryl and zombie Merle that makes up for a lot. In fact, this episode definitely gets better as it goes, to the point where it’s possible to be legitimately excited for what comes next. But man, that opening 10 minutes is dumb.

It’s dumb because it has Rick, Daryl, and Hershel looking like idiots, Rick especially. Even putting aside the fact that sacrificing Michonne would be losing what little moral high ground Rick has left (which can be measured in inches at this point, if that), trusting the Governor to his word is beyond stupid. It means giving up seemingly every lesson Rick has learned since the end of the world, and we’re never given any good reason to believe that this time, the Governor is telling the truth. The only reason Rick believes him for as long as he does is so we can get that big scene with Merle, and so Rick can give a speech to the group at the end about how they’re all in it together, and everybody gets a vote. And all it really would have taken was a quick conversation at the beginning between Rick, Hershel, and Daryl, with them saying, “Well, this is a possibility, but no, we don’t trust him, and we’re not comfortable with this.” Merle overhears them, decides the only way he can earn everyone’s trust is by doing what they can’t do, and then he kidnaps Michonne, and the episode plays out as usual. There’s even still room for Rick to give a speech at the end. Instead, we get a sequence that makes our protagonist both impossible to like as a good guy (seriously thinking that turning over someone who trusts you and has saved your son’s idiot life to a psychotic killer means your name goes off the Hero List) and hard to give a rat’s ass about as an antihero, because he is just too goddamn stupid to live.

That sort of sloppy character work (which tends to lead to sloppy plotting) is, as usual, the main problem this week, but at least the writers compensate by having events with actual consequences. I’m not sure I buy or even understand Merle’s change of heart, given how inconsistent the character has been. In his conversations with Michonne, we’re being sold the idea that he’s deeply conflicted about all the murdering he’s done, and that he’s had something like a change of heart since joining the prison group. Which doesn’t really fit into anything, although at least now Merle’s gradual integration with the main ensemble makes a little more sense; he wasn’t supposed to be a monster, just a messed up asshole who eventually had enough regrets to try and do the right thing. There’s no background for this, and no real depth to Merle apart from Michael Rooker’s performance (and Rooker is almost single-handedly responsible for any consistency the character ever had). It makes you wonder if we missed a scene where Merle had to watch the baby and discovered the sanctity of life, or if he’s been getting phone calls from the dead himself. He did take the phone with him when he left the prison (I think), so who knows.

If you can get past that, though, it’s not so bad. Michonne and Merle’s brief road-trip is punctuated by one excellent suspense sequence (if nothing else, the writers know how to use the zombies well), and when Merle finally decides to let her go, even if the decision seems to come almost out of nowhere, it’s nice to have a character actually behave better than you were expecting them to for once. And everything else with Merle from then on is great, from the scene with him drinking whiskey and using rock music to attract a herd of walkers, to his ambush of the Woodbury group that was waiting to ambush Rick, to the fight with the Governor. And, of course, the last bit, with Daryl finally finding his brother after it’s too late to save him. While the show so often struggles with finding emotion or resonance in its conversations (apart from “Clear”), there are still wordless exchanges like this, with Daryl sobbing as he stabs Merle again and again and again. There’s no real complexity to what’s happening, and no mystery, but it’s powerful regardless, inspiring fear and pity for both characters, and ending the hour on a high note.

Apart from that, the only real sub-plot of note has Glenn deciding to bite the bullet and propose to Maggie, with Hershel’s blessing. (I wonder what Glenn would’ve done if Hershel or Maggie had said no.) It’s a simple, small storyline, with no real surprises, but there’s a certain simple sincerity to the whole thing that makes it fairly effective. Plus, it’s not like this is your typical proposal. Glenn has to go out and chop a wedding ring off a walker’s fingers. In the midst of life, etc. Let’s hope he washed that ring a few times before passing it on.


Stray observations:

  • Sorry for the lateness this week, but AMC chose not to provide screeners. I’m assuming this will be true for the finale as well, so… look out for that.
  • There are still a lot of zombies in the prison. And out by the fences. You’d think Rick and the others would’ve thinned their numbers by now.
  • When Rick comes to see him, Merle is tearing up mattresses looking for dope, and not having much luck. “This place must’ve been no fun at all.”
  • “Go to hell, Merle.” Carol is awesome.
  • I realize she’s staying with them because it’s theoretically safer than being alone (and also because it’s in the script), but at this point, you have to wonder why Michonne doesn’t just cut ties and run. Rick was going to hand her over to a man who wanted to torture her and murder her. Sure, Rick had a change of heart, but that’s not a real comforting thought process.
  • On the plus side, Rick’s final speech at least means he learned something positive from this debacle. Maybe it’ll last all the way to next season.
  • The Governor bit off two of Merle’s fingers. Damn.
  • I guess we can just assume Rick told Merle where the drop-off was going to be in a scene that we didn’t see? Because otherwise, I’m not sure how Merle knew where to go.
  • Goodbye, Michael Rooker. You deserved better than you got, but at least your exit was memorable.