AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD pays tribute to “This Sorrowful Life” of Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker) in the penultimate episode of the third season. Rick (Andrew Lincoln) tells Merle about his plan to hand over Michonne (Danai Gurira) to the Governor (David Morrissey), after which the Governor has promised to leave the rest of the group alone. Knowing Rick won’t have the stomach to go through with it, sending Michonne to be tortured and brutalized, Merle captures Michonne himself and sets out to the meeting.
Along the way, though, Merle has time for self-reflection. Some of this is surely caused by Michonne’s words in their wonderful scenes together, but some of it is spurred by Merle’s own doing. He knows that he has made mistakes, and he realizes he has become something bad. He regrets some of those actions, even if he doesn’t stop at the time to consider the consequences, both to others and to his own soul. Michonne tells Merle that the truly evil don’t feel guilty, and Merle’s remorse proves he is, or at least can be, a good guy.
Whether or not Merle is redeemable has long been debated by fans of THE WALKING DEAD. We know that, in the beginning, he and his brother, Daryl (Norman Reedus), intend to steal from the group. But seeing how Daryl has become not only a team player, but a valued friend and compatriot over three seasons offers hope that, given time, Merle can also play nice. Carol (Melissa McBride) certainly thinks this is a possibility, extending a second chance to him early in the episode.
The sad thing is, “This Sorrowful Life” proves that Merle not only has a heart, but is willing to sacrifice for others, and then doesn’t give him time to expound upon it. He lets Michonne go and tries to single-handedly remove as many of the Governor’s men from the game as he can. I don’t think Merle intends his mission to be a suicide one, but he is willing to take the chance and in the end, the Governor leaves Merle to become a Walker, which means we’ll never see the others forgive and welcome him as one of their own.
Rooker does a fantastic job in this installment, delivering what will be one of THE WALKING DEAD’s most unforgettable performances. At the start of the hour, Merle is still loathsome. But we see so much in his eyes, those soulful orbs that show us that he wants to do right by his brother and be cared for by others. We see that, under the right circumstances, he can be heroic. And we watch him go down with quite a fight, even if he doesn’t end up succeeding.
Rooker’s performance is matched by Reedus, whose character arrives at the battle site too late, and finds a Walker Merle that he must put down. Rooker’s eyes are, again, pivotal, and the scene between the two brothers is amazing. They can’t ever say what they want to say to one another, even if they ever could find the words, but dialogue isn’t necessary to convey the message. Merle’s deaths are tragedies, both of them.
I don’t think Merle does much damage to the Governor’s team. He takes a few men out, but by dying himself, Merle removes a valuable tool from the prison group, so it probably about evens out. Merle is worth several other man.
What might be missed in Merle’s last stand is that one of those he kills is Ben (Tyler Chase), a member of Tyreese’s (Chad L. Coleman) contingent. Ben isn’t a huge character, nor is he one fans will particularly care about seeing die. However, because of Ben’s connection to several other, slightly more significant, characters, his demise could most definitely play a role in motivation and manipulation in the finale.
Back at the prison, it’s nice to finally see Rick be the leader he needs to be. This entire season has been about him figuring out what kind of person the group needs to follow. He begins, with his speech at the end of season two, trying out dictatorship. But in “This Sorrowful Life,” he chooses democracy. He can’t sacrifice Michonne because she’s one of the people he serves. He gets a chance to tell everyone else that in a very moving moment.
Rick has needed to step up for a long time. He’s tried, sure, but with all of the emotional turmoil he has suffered, he hasn’t achieved the status. This has now changed, and should he survive the coming battle (an almost certainty), he will be a different man yet again in season four, one finally prepared to make his group into what they need to be, and what they should be.
I hope that Michonne can forgive Rick and know that he cares about her and couldn’t go through with handing her over. She has every reason to feel betrayed, after Merle kidnaps her and she learns that Rick has been considering handing her over. However, she is also an understanding and compassionate woman, and surely knows that while Rick struggles with the decision, he isn’t the type to sentence her to a fate worse than death. And if he did consider the act, it was only to protect his people.
Lastly, Glenn (Steven Yeun) secures Hershel’s (Scott Wilson) blessing to marry Maggie (Lauren Cohan), and finds his bride-to-be a ring, on the hand of a Walker, no less. I wish we would have gotten a little speech from Hershel, which would be totally in keeping with his character, but the proud papa’s smile is enough.
It’s not clear if Glenn officially proposes, just sticking the ring in her palm, or if they already consider themselves spouses without a proposal. Maggie is wearing the ring shortly after this scene, signifying their commitment to one another. Glenn says they may not have a wedding, given the circumstances, and I doubt there will be time for one in what little is left of this season. But do they actually need to say “I do” in this post-apocalyptic world? Isn’t it enough that they are together and intend to stay that way?
We unfortunately didn’t get any of Woodbury this week, and rather than being part one of a two part showdown, this is a sort-of stand-alone episode. “This Sorrowful Life” is a brilliant piece of television, and an excellent installment of the series. However, I don’t see how everything else can possibly be resolved in forty-two minutes. Are we heading for the mother of all cliffhangers?
THE WALKING DEAD will complete its third season next Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.
Coincidentally, next Sunday is Easter Sunday, a celebration of Jesus’s rising from the dead, which some have begun to say makes him a zombie. Will we see a long-haired, sandal-clad Walker in the finale? One can only hope so.
CHIEF TELEVISION CRITIC | Creator of and writer for It's All Been Done Radio Hour live show and podcast. A voracious reader wanting to tell stories of his own, Jerome began writing around the age of 8 and hasn’t stopped, both original works and television reviews. Lives in central Ohio. Favorite current shows include The Walking Dead, Jessica Jones, Flaked, Outlander, and Archer.