Merle hunts Michonne and Andrea gets closer to the Governor. Meanwhile, Destiny is calling Rick. Will he accept the charges?
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 ringingThe last remaining squadmate — the newbie named Neil, a man with a last name Merle couldn’t even try to pronounce — wanted to go back. He pointed out that they were dangerously close to the Red Zone. It was unclear if the “Red Zone” was a particularly zombie-infested area, or if that was just the catch-all term for the entire world outside the perimeter of Woodbury. Merle refused to go back. They had to go further.
While Merle and Michonne role-played their way through Predator, Rick was at the prison trapped in the world’s worst abstract Off-Broadway play. He picked up a ringing rotary phone and heard a woman’s voice on the line. She wouldn’t say where she was calling from, just that it was a safe place. “It’s just…away…from them,” the woman said, mysteriously. A couple hours later, Rick received another phone call from the same group of people: A man this time. He asked Rick pointed questions. “Have you killed anyone? How many people? Why?” He asked Rick how he lost his wife. Rick wouldn’t answer; the man hung up. Hershel came to check on Rick, and when the Fearless Leader told the old fellow that someone was calling on the phone, Hershel held the phone up to his ear and flashed a quizzical look in Rick’s direction. More on this exciting development later!
In Woodbury, Andrea had a bone to pick with Mr. Governor. She told him that she didn’t think very much of his toothless-zombie gladiator fights. “It’s brutality for fun,” she said, “And I think the world’ brutal enough already.” But she didn’t want to just be a scold. She asked if she could work security on the wall. The Governor set her up with a cool chick with a crossbow and Daisy Dukes. By way of introduction, Crossbow Girl told Andrea she killed her father and her brother. Andrea said that she killed her own sister; this is small talk in the zombie apocalypse. (ASIDE: Am I crazy to think that Crossbow Girl and Daryl Motherf—ing Dixon might be on a collision course? Like, maybe later in the season, if/when Woodbury goes to war with the Prison, maybe her and Daryl could have a crossbow re-enactment of Enemy at the Gates, with Daryl playing Jude Law and Crossbow Girl playing Ed Harris. Except, like, with romance. END OF ASIDE.)
A walker came towards the gates. Crossbow girl tried to take it down, but missed. So Andrea got off the wall and stabbed it in the head until she was covered in blood, letting out orgiastic breaths like she was alive for the first time. “What’s wrong with you? This isn’t a game,” said Crossbow Girl.
You know who’d disagree? Merle Dixon, that’s who. He was having a blast hunting Michonne through the forest, even though she was running circles around him. She attacked and slashed Neil. Right then, some walkers attacked. Michonne sliced one of them open at the midsection, and the thing’s intestines dribbled out on her just like a piñata – how could anything else possibly come close to beating that for Zombie Kill of the Week? Michonne ran off, injured, straight into the Red Zone. Bruised and suddenly anxious, Merle wanted to go home. This was such a complete change of perspective from his previous glee — a change underscored by the fact that Neil had suddenly discovered a taste for blood. Merle just wanted to go home. He asked Neil: “Do you hear that bird?” Then he shot Neil in the face.
NEXT: Daryl remembers his old ma
Back at the prison, Merle’s brother Daryl took Carl on a mission to clear out the rest of the prison’s tunnels. But Daryl really wanted to talk to Carl. He told the kid a story about Mama Dixon. “She liked her wine, and she liked to smoke in bed,” said Daryl. “Virginia Slims.” Daryl told a sad and soulful story about being a little kid — the only one in the neighborhood who couldn’t afford a bicycle, which meant he was the last person to arrive when his house burned down with his mother inside. “My mom in bed, burnt down to nothing,” he said, his grim and sad and bruised Norman Reedus eyes staring through time at some distant frontier. “It made it seem like she wasn’t real, y’know?” This speech rates as a 8 out of 10 on our Daryl Motherf—ing Dixon Swoon-o-Meter, which means that an estimated 6 million Walking Dead viewers fainted and shared the same dream about a man with a crossbow and a wardrobe of sleeveless shirts.
Speaking of swooning! Back at Woodbury, the Governor treated Andrea to a drink in his lovely garden. She admitted that she actually liked the fights quite a bit. She’s an adrenaline junkie — how can you not be, in a world where you’re allowed to do whatever you want to do? They talked, and the Governor made a revealing comment: He noted that, pre-zombocalypse, “I wasn’t particularly proud of my car, my house, or my job.” He implied that there was one thing that did make him proud — maybe his daughter, or his whole happy family. (ASIDE: I like how, in a weird way, the show is making it seem like The Governor used to be a totally normal guy: Boring job, normal-sized house in the suburbs. It’s a striking contrast to Rick, who has always been fairly explicitly painted as a hero: Before the zombies came, he was a policeman whose biggest character fault was that he was just too darn good. END OF ASIDE.)
The two of them bonded over their shared love of killing zombies. “It’s part of being alive,” said the Governor. And, crucially, the Governor thinks that the ability to enjoy killing zombies — to truly want to be violent — is a skill that most people don’t have. “That’s why there’s a hell of a lot more of them than us,” he said. Humanity didn’t die because the zombies attacked; humanity died because most people were too weak to fight back. Andrea kissed him, finally proving that she has a “type” and that type is Charming Militaristic God-Complex War Hawk.
Meanwhile, Glenn and Maggie made a run to a supermarket to get some baby formula. As fate would have it, Michonne was passing by that very market at that moment. She didn’t show herself. She’s learned to be skeptical of people, although the fact that Glenn and Maggie didn’t read “totalitarian sociopath” made it seem like she might actually approach them. But as double fate would have it, Merle appeared. Everyone pulled guns on each other. Merle recognized Glenn, and asked if his brother was still alive. “Take me to him, and I’ll call it even,” said Merle. (This is another weird complicating factor in the Merle equation: Occasionally, it seems like the only thing he really cares about is finding Daryl, which should make their relationship a linchpin of the show, but we’ve never actually seen them together.) Merle managed to get a gun pointed straight at Maggie’s face and told Glenn that he needed to drive them somewhere.
NEXT: I come bearing baby formula.
Back at Woodbury, Merle forced the Governor to leave Andrea in bed while he gave him an update. We lost three guys in the forest, said Merle; I killed Michonne, but walkers attacked. The Governor was disappointed that Merle hadn’t brought Michonne’s head or her sword. He looked suspicious. But Merle mentioned that he had a couple of prisoners…and that one of them came from the same group as Andrea. The Governor has plans for them. One imagines it won’t be pretty.
Meanwhile, Rick had a surprise. The phone rang again, and the voice on the other end sounded familiar. By “Familiar,” I mean it was Lori — and the whole Ringing Phone subplot was really just Rick’s brain figuring out how to deal with his grief. Twist! Shyamalan! Imaginary Friend Trope Alert! I’m going to be cruel to be kind: This was really, really silly. (It was also a plotline lifted directly from a Walking Dead graphic novel which was already bad the first time; translating it to screen is practically unforgivable.) Still, the whole thing was almost rescued by Andrew Lincoln, who delivered an extended apology. “I made a deal with myself,” Rick said. “I would keep you alive, find a place…I thought there’d be time.”
Watching this episode, I came to a sudden realization. Even though The Walking Dead feels like it’s been moving much faster this year, not that much has actually happened. Most of the momentum of the first five episodes of this season have been based around introducing two new settings and slowly watching them spiral downwards. This episode, by contrast, was all about fusing those two new settings together. Two members of the Grimes Gang are now captive in Woodbury. But The Grimes Gang got a fair trade on Glenn and Maggie. At the end of the episode, Rick emerged in the prison yard with a peaceful look on his face. He has said farewell to Lori; he has recommitted himself to turning the prison into a safe refuge. But he saw something in the distance. He walked to the fence…and stared straight into the face of Michonne, covered in camouflaged Zombie Intestine and holding a couple hundred gallons of baby formula.
ALSO: Carol is alive and all our theories were wrong. Daryl picked her up and carried her out into the sunlight, a moment which ranks a Daryl Motherf—ing Dixon Swoon-o-Meter, which means everyone who watched this episode is pregnant with Daryl’s brain babies. THE END.
Fellow viewers, this was a manic Walking Dead episode, with various chess pieces moving into position for the final two episodes of this half-season. It will be interesting to see how Andrea reacts to the return of her former allies, especially since she has so completely drunk the Woodbury Kool-Aid. It’ll be even more interesting to see how Rick responds to what Michonne has to say: About Woodbury, about Merle, about the captured young lovers. Will Rick try to rescue Glenn and Maggie with an all-star Melee Squad composed of himself, Daryl, and Michonne, with Carol providing sniper support? Will Glenn and Maggie find themselves in an uncomfortable Abu Ghraib allegory? And will Merle Dixon ever find true love?
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