Warning: this is as much of a recap as it is a review, so here there be SPOILERS.
With only a pair of episodes remaining in what is shaping up to be an epic season, The Walking Dead put Merle at the center of another solid hour of nerve-wracking horror. I think last week's episode was a little leaner and the narrow focus produced one of the best entries to date. "This Sorrowful Life" wasn't quite as polished and it didn't shine quite as brightly as a result, but it was a very good episode that continued to build momentum heading toward this week's big finale.
First off, let's start with the bad, since that's how the show kicked off. Rick decided to hand Michonne over, and I don't think this worked for anyone. This felt like a plot device from the very start, and it was a lazy attempt to advance a fine show. I'm not sure how they could have set this entry up without that development, but leading off on a false note definitely cheapened the episode. To make matters worse, Rick then approached Merle and told him about his decision while keeping everyone else aside from Hershel and Daryl in the dark.
Merle knew Rick wouldn't be able to go through with delivering Michonne to The Governor, and he told Rick as much. Though the scene painted Rick as a buffoon, it was compelling stuff, and little did I know that Michael Rooker was just getting started. In truth, if you have a guy like him in your cast, you should definitely use him, and "This Sorrowful Life" gave Rooker a wealth of material to play with. He excelled, which is no surprise to those of us who love his work. Whenever he was on the screen last night, The Walking Dead was absolutely riveting, and he was the centerpiece of this episode. If not for Rick's baffling decision at the onset and the latest installment of the Glenn and Maggie soap opera, this would have been an instant classic.
Anyway, recognizing that Rick didn't have the stomach for the job at hand, Merle put his own plan in motion. He subsequently captured a surprisingly gullible Michonne and set off for the rendezvous with The Governor without Rick or his brother. Things really picked up from there. A fantastic scene found Merle trying to boost a ride while Michonne was tethered to a nearby column. Merle accidentally set the car alarm off, attracting a mob of walkers, and Michonne showed that she doesn't need her hands free to kick some serious ass. Merle also showed his mettle, and this setpiece continued a recent streak of rousing action scenes.
There has always been a lot of violence on The Walking Dead, and the execution is typically sound, but I feel like the makers of the show are at the top of their game this season. They've given us a wealth of bloody mayhem that rivals anything you're apt to see on the big screen, and they should be applauded. It should come as no surprise that horror heavyweight Greg Nicotero was in the director's chair when "This Sorrowful Life" was filmed.
Back at the prison, Rick (thanks in part to another sighting of Lori's ghost) realized he could no longer stomach the notion of giving Michonne up. He came clean with the rest of the group and demanded that they become a democracy so he no longer bears the burden of making all of the decisions for them. Of course, he soon realized that neither Merle or Michonne were on the scene, and it wasn't hard to put two and two together. He was going to go after them, but Daryl took responsibility and reminded Rick that he needed to be at the prison just in case The Governor moved on them and the shit really hit the fan. He also noted that Rick had little chance of tracking Merle and Michonne, and we all know that tracking is one of the zombie-killing badass known as Daryl Dixon's specialties.
Meanwhile, Michonne appeared to be biding her time. I got the feeling that she was so confident of her ability to turn the tables on Merle that she elected to devote herself to talking him down first, earmarking a struggle for freedom as Plan B. Maybe that's just me being entirely too enamored with her character, who is one of the best heroines out there in 2013. I thought it very unlikely that Merle would release her, but the dialogue between these two outsiders was enthralling. As good as Michael Rooker was in this episode, and he was utterly fantastic, Danai Guriri was nearly his equal despite playing a smaller role. In the end, Merle shocked me by stopping the car and setting Michonne free. He made it clear that he wanted to see the group at the prison survive because that's where his brother wanted to be, but he didn't see any way that he could ever become one of them.
I think he was wrong about Rick and our merry band of survivors; I believe there was a place for Merle at their table. That's why I'm also willing to recognize that maybe Merle felt that they didn't stand a chance unless someone did something to try and put a dent in the numbers game working against them before all hell broke loose. Merle did just that, leading a pack of walkers to the rendezvous and unloading on The Governor's troops while they tried to contend with a zombie horde. I think Merle had a good idea, though getting drunk beforehand wasn't his finest moment, and he did rush things a bit. Regardless, he took several of The Governor's fighting men out before the bloodthirsty villain Merle once hailed as leader took him down in a vicious fight.
This was a big moment for The Governor, and it was damn impressive, but I'll admit that it also hit a sour chord with me. I mean, I know that this character is now a far more frightening rendition of the comic book villain I know and love, and I know that Merle was drunk and winded, but I still think the one-armed man would have won the fight. I guess that while I'm truly enamored with the direction David Morrissey has taken, particularly in recent weeks, I'm still not completely on board with AMC's version of the character. Again, I know this was necessary to keep the plot moving, and it was a great way to make The Governor look strong, but I just can't wrap my head around seeing him take Merle out with relative ease. I think that Merle wins that fight at least seven times out of ten.
Now, to be fair, I was dreading Merle's inevitable exit from The Walking Dead, and I've made my affection for Michael Rooker clear, so maybe that last sentence is just the homer in me talking. Either way, I'm sad to see Merle go, though I do think the show benefited greatly from bringing him back in Season 3 and devoting so much screen-time to the rowdy rascal. Merle Dixon, you were an asshole, but you will be missed. The conclusion of "This Sorrowful Life" found Daryl catching up with his big brother, and we were witness to a gut-wrenching display of emotion as zombie Merle advanced on fan favorite Norman Reedus, forcing Daryl to kill him. That was almost as powerful as anything we've seen on The Walking Dead, and it was a great way to cap off a nice entry in one of television's most compelling shows.
Yes, there was a fumble on the first snap, and whether you dig the Glenn and Maggie stuff or not, it seemed out of place here, but this was another winner. Season 3 has produced a lot of those, and as we head toward the finale, many questions loom large, though it is fair to wonder how many of them will be answered. I think most everyone who follows the program is eager for the big finish, but I also think we all realize that we're approaching a massive cliff-hanger. I have a feeling the wait for Season 4 is going to be nothing short of agonizing. I'll be sure to share my thoughts in seven days, but until Episode 16 airs we'll just have to wait and wonder.
Who will live?
Who will die?
Will the season finale be able to capitalize on all the momentum the show has gained in recent weeks, or will AMC drop the ball?
Will people really riot if Daryl dies?