Merle Dixon is one of the most insane things ever created by a TV show. I don’t mean that the character is insane — though he probably is, crazypants bananagrams howling-at-the-moon-while-playing-a-xylophone-made-out-of-his-dead-mama’s-rib-cage insane. I mean that his whole place in the show feels lunatic–he’s like a blip in the matrix, or a sudden-onset brain hemorrhage. He was introduced in a single episode of the show’s first season: He threw out the N-word, beat up half the cast, then wound up handcuffed on a rooftop. You could say that Merle was the first “antagonist” on the show — or anyhow, the first sign that the zombies might be monstrous, but the real monsters were HUMANS etc etc. (See also: Every zombie movie. Cross-reference with this season’s tagline: “Fight the Dead, Fear the Living.”) But Merle wasn’t a good man driven mad by the apocalypse; nor, for that matter, was he a bad man who took the end of the world as an opportunity to indulge his every whim. He just seemed like a guy who was absolutely ecstatic that the world was miserable. He was like a minor demon in the background of a Hieronymus Bosh painting, or like the old bad incarnation of Wolverine before Hollywood scrubbed him into respectable man-candy.
Merle disappeared after that episode, leaving behind a single bloody hand. But the character made an immediate impression, and in the long year between season 1 and 2, his legend grew. Because his fate was left ambiguous, the question of What Happened to Merle became The Walking Dead‘s first and only real mystery — an accidental “What’s in the hatch?” talking point for fans. But “accidental” is the key word there. In hindsight, it seems like Merle was much more important to viewers than he was to the show’s creators. The character’s single appearance in season 2 was as an imaginary friend, leering at the camera and inspiring Daryl Motherf—ing Dixon to ascend a metaphorical mountain.
Season 3 of The Walking Dead is, in a sense, a model example of giving the people what they want. The body count is exponentially higher. The pace is faster. The triple introduction of The Governor, The Prison, and Michonne constitutes a veritable orgy of fan service. So it makes sense that Merle would stage a comeback. But here’s the thing about Merle 2.0: He seems to radically change his persona every scene. Sometimes he’s a military-grade tactician; sometimes he’s a crazy kook with too many guns; sometimes he’s a doe-eyed flirty rascal. The fact that Michael Rooker looks like he could be anywhere from 35 to 78 years old adds to the sense that Merle could be anyone at any time.
I’m talking so much about Merle because this week’s Dead episode deployed him in a major way. The episode started with Merle leading his goon squad on an old-fashioned samurai hunt in the forest. They were out to get Michonne, on orders from the Governor. This was a whiplash-inducing turn from the Governor’s previous policy — smile, act insidious, etc. It was also a weird decision: Why kill someone who’s already planning to go away and never return? It might just be that the Governor doesn’t want to leave any loose ends. We already know that the guy has a fifty-year plan for rebuilding civilization in his image: The mere existence of a suspicious lady with a katana could throw a wrench in the works.
Merle and the gang found a message left by Michonne — a message made out of a zombie. The legs formed the letter “G,” the arms formed the letter “O,” and next to that was the zombie’s back. Hence: “Go Back.” (New character trait for Michonne: She likes puns!) “She sent us a biter-gram, ya’ll!” said Merle. A new squadmate was getting a bit nervous. Merle told him to calm down. At that precise moment, Michonne jumped out of a tree, decapitated one guy, then stabbed another guy and used him as a human shield when Merle fired at her. (New character trait for Michonne: She’s probably really good at Assassin’s Creed.) Merle managed to shoot her before she ran off into the forest. “Are we havin’ fun yet!” he cackled, doing his best Henry Pollard impression.
NEXT: Somewhere in the world, a phone is ringing