Merle Dixon has been a somewhat complicated character for The Walking Dead. His recognition seemed to be derived mostly from the popularity of his brother Daryl (and, for some, the hope that he had another brother named Daryl, which would lead to a brief Bob Newhart cameo) and the fact that the character had been played so convincingly by Michael Rooker.
Having missed the majority of season 2 – save for a brief hallucinatory appearance – Merle remained something of a question upon his return early on in season 3, which saw him partaking in the vicious beating of Glenn and occasionally acting as an agent in the ongoing grudge match between Michonne and the Governor. Once he was cut loose from the town of Woodbury, after its bloodthirsty citizens demanded his participation in their small-town version of gladiatorial combat, Merle found himself once more among people who didn't much care for his presence, but apparently tolerated it because he possessed several useful skills.
And so, in 'This Sorrowful Life,' The Walking Dead, and, more specifically, director Greg Nicotero (and the episode's writer/TWD future showrunner Scott M. Gimple) take what will essentially be Merle's swansong and apply the notion that he'll never be fully accepted into the group because of who he is and what he's done, to Michonne's growing importance within the prison group.
However, this wasn't nearly as carefully constructed an episode as 'Clear' or even 'Prey'. Glenn's proposal to Maggie, though sweet, didn't seem like an appropriate fit, while other characters' various decisions, and their subsequent reversals, came basically out of nowhere and served only to place Merle further in harm's way.
It was difficult to buy either of Rick's decisions during the episode, especially since the initial choice to give Michonne over is based on Rick trusting the Governor (a fact that undermines the character's heroism and calls into question his intelligence), while the abrupt about-face he makes is essentially brought on by yet another vision of Lori.
On one hand, everything feels like an overly choreographed move to get Merle where he needs to be, but the somewhat muddied turnaround on Rick's behalf seems to have happened solely to announce the end of the "Ricktatorship" and give everyone an equal say in what happens from here on out. That's not to say Rick's change of direction isn't a good sign for the character, because it is – but the manner in which he arrives at it felt artificial. Similarly, while Merle's motivation to take charge of the situation (he thinks "officer friendly" is too soft to see such a dirty scheme through to the end) certainly makes more sense, his eventual release of Michonne seemed just as arbitrary.
But what 'This Sorrowful Life' lacks in delicate plotting, it makes up for by offering another big moment in the series that (thanks to great performances by Rooker and Reedus) comes off being more emotionally balanced than some of the other major deaths that have occurred in the show.
The highlight of the episode is, of course, Merle's redemptive assault on the Governor and his men, which is then closely followed by Daryl's emotional discovery of his zombified brother snacking on the corpse of what appears to be a dead Woodburian. The scene benefits from the lack of dialogue and is, in that respect, reminiscent of the quiet moment between Hershel and Rick after it was evident Hershel would survive his spur-of-the-moment amputation. Obviously, Merle's condition prevented the writers from diluting the situation with unnecessary talk, but, as it was with the convalescing Hershel, the lack of dialogue here added some much-needed gravitas.
What's more: despite the sequence of events leading up to the final moments, Gimple and Nicotero are able to wrangle some compelling elements out of Michonne's journey with Merle. In addition to a white-knuckle moment involving a car alarm and a horde of walkers, their conversation hint at Michonne's understanding of Rick and the group back at the prison, and what it means to be an outsider trying to find a (permanent?) place among them. If anything, this helps to better inform why she would return to Rick and the others, while also providing some insight into Merle's last ditch attempt at doing the right thing.
That surprisingly affecting note leaves season 3 with just one episode to see whether or not the group thinks the prison is worth fighting for, or if they'll vote to cut and run.
The Walking Dead ends season 3 next Sunday with 'Welcome to the Tombs' @9pm on AMC. Check out a preview for the episode below: