Merle kidnaps Michonne for the greater good of the group. Or maybe he's seeking redemption. Or maybe he just wants to find a place that still serves whiskey
Merle Dixon
Credit: Gene Page/AMC

I’m going to go out on a limb here (then chop that limb off and replace it with a knife) and say that no one involved in the production of The Walking Dead has any idea how the hell The Walking Dead got to be so popular. Like, I’m sure the producers and the network and the various departed showrunners went into the TV adaptation thinking/hoping/praying that the zombie series could be a big success by cable TV standards; I don’t think anyone attached to the show could have imagined that the show would wind up smashing ratings records, delivering the killing blow to the whole idea of the Broadcast TV Era. (The Walking Dead is so popular that The Talking Dead — the amiable spin-off talk show which is filmed entirely on a set that vaguely resembles Monica and Rachel’s apartment from Friends — regularly gets higher ratings than anything on NBC.)

Nothing could better express the creators’ confusion than the weird, wonderful, and utterly incoherent path of Merle Dixon, a full-crazy knife-handed zombie thrillkiller who died twice in last night’s episode. Merle was going to die sooner or later. (Heck, I had an inkling that he’d bite the dust this season.) But the particular way that he died was cuckoo. The show treated his last day on this earth with all the gravitas of The Last Temptation of Christ, sending Merle on an existential journey which tried to deal concretely with big thematic issues. We were meant to find Merle’s ultimate death redeeming, I think, although as I think back on the episode, I’m struck by the fact that the whole redemption arc might have been more convincing if not for one simple problem: Every character on the show suddenly decided to make every possible bad decision they could make.

Let’s start with Rick Grimes, former Deputy Sheriff of King County and current war chief of Tribe Grimes. Rick had thought over the Governor’s Michonne-for-Peace deal, and he had decided to give the samurai woman over to his enemy. Never mind the fact that anybody with half a brain would know better than to trust a one-eyed homicidal despot with a tendency to collect zombie heads in his man-cave. Rick thought it was The Right Thing To Do. He asked Daryl Motherf—ing Dixon to join in on the Michonne Operation. And he needed one more guy. Specifically, he needed Merle.

Now, I love Merle. On a show filled with characters suffering from apocalypse PTSD, Merle is the one guy who consistently seemed to be having a ball. He loved killing zombies. He loved fighting zombies in the gladiator pits, to the roar of approval from the crowd. But it’s insane that Rick, a nominally sober-minded leader, would decide to trust Merle with top-secret information for a top-secret operation. Rick seemed to realize this almost immediately, when he found the man with a knife-hand digging through a prison bed. “Best dope I ever had was in a mattress,” Merle explained, as if what he was doing was perfectly ordinary. Rick got deep: “Do you even know why you do the things you do? The choices you make?” Merle threw it back in his face: “I don’t know why I do the things I do. Never did. I’m a damn mystery to me.”

Now, having a character who never thinks further than three seconds into his own future is fun. The problem is that the whole episode felt like it proceeded from that same ADD mindset. Merle told Rick there was no way he would actually go through with Operation Michonne. And he was right. Rick changed his mind almost immediately. He went out to a bare part of the prison to grab a length of wire. Then he looked up in the air and saw Ghost Lori, the most judgmental hallucination in TV history, who always seems to pop up when something interesting is about to happen and do everything she can to prevent that interesting thing from happening. Rick threw down the wire, disgusted by himself. (At this point, I think we can declare the whole Rick-Goes-Crazy subplot a complete failure; the craziest thing he ever did was kill a bunch of zombies and scream at the ghost of his dead wife, which in the context of the Zombie Apocalypse strikes me as extremely functional behavior.)

Fortunately for Rick, Merle doesn’t have any ghost wives. But Merle did have a plan. Or two plans. Or maybe he just wanted to find some whiskey.

NEXT: Merle makes his move

Merle was feeling restless. He asked Carol: “We got any whiskey? Hell, I’d even drink vodka.” Carol frowned at him, as if Merle was an annoying drunk cousin and not a maniac who tried to kill two members of Tribe Grimes in the last fortnight. “Are you with us?” asked Carol, channeling Judgmental Ghost Lori. “I mean, are you with us?” Merle told Carol that she had come a long way from the little mouse he remembered from the campsite. Then he told her: “Also, you’re still alive after three seasons? Would definitely not have called that!” Carol smiled, utterly charmed by the elder Dixon brother. (ASIDE: I feel like we need to give props to Melissa McBride, who plays Carol; she barely gets anything to do, but somehow, she seems to have a slight spark of romantic chemistry with every male actor on the show. END OF ASIDE.)

Meanwhile, Merle’s brother Daryl went to Glenn and had the single craziest conversation that has ever happened in the history of the world. Basically, here’s what happened:

Daryl: “Did Merle say he was sorry yet?”

Glenn: “Did he say he was sorry? Did he say he was sorry for tying me to a chair, beating me, and throwing a walker at me? Did he say he was sorry for letting his boss do terrible, emotionally devastating things to the woman I love? No, Daryl, he hasn’t apologized for that yet, no.”

Daryl: “Oh. Well, he’s sorry.”

Look, I’m not saying that Merle isn’t awesome. Merle is awesome. But he is also, very clearly, a terrible person. You can justify his actions any way you want to, but those justifications fundamentally circle back around to two conclusions: A) he was only following orders, which isn’t actually a justification and is also patently untrue, or B) it’s a zombie apocalypse so there’s no such thing as “Good and Evil.” This latter explanation is actually totally true, and one of things that makes The Walking Dead comic book such an addictive read is that it buys into that amorality wholesale.

Of all the differences between graphic novel and TV show, the main one is that the graphic novel has almost never made the argument that its lead characters are good people. They do what they have to do to survive; sometimes, they purposefully do it in the most violent way possible. But The Walking Dead TV show is VERY interested in morality. On The Walking Dead TV show, we’re told again and again that characters are doing bad things for the right reasons; in The Walking Dead comic book, the characters do bad things, and sometimes they live, but mostly they die. In America right now, we’re positively in love with the idea of morally ambiguous heroes, so long as they are still demonstrably heroes.

Lest this all sound too heavy or too thematic, I’m basically just rehashing what Merle said explicitly in the episode. Daryl found his brother trying to find some crystal. Merle told his little bro that Rick didn’t have the stones for Operation Michonne. Daryl shrugged: “Whatever he says, goes.” Merle told him bluntly: “Do you even possess a pair of balls, little brother? Are they even attached? I mean, if they are, they belong to you.” Daryl shrugged: Rick was the leader. “You used to call people like that sheep.”

Daryl made a counter-argument: “You can’t do things without people anymore.” But Merle was on a roll: “Y’all people look at me like I’m the devil,” he said, listing off his prime sin: Bringing a member of the group to see the Governor. “But now, you all wanna do the same thing I did. Maybe these people need somebody like me around to do their dirty work. A bad guy.” Daryl shrugged that off, too: He just wanted his brother back.

BEEPBEEPBEEP Pause For Your Weekly Greene Family Update: Hershel read Psalm 91 to his daughters. Maggie agreed to become the future Mrs. Glenn Rhee, after Glenn proposed to her with a ring he chopped off a blonde walker. Beth did not sing. This Concludes Your Weekly Greene Family Update BEEPBEEPBEEP

Now, Merle had his own plan for Operation Michonne. He asked Michonne to follow him into the tombs, because, um, there were zombies down there that they needed to kill. Now, keep in mind that it’s been just a little over a week in Dead Time since Michonne was fighting for her life in a man-to-man battle against Merle, and keep in mind that the whole central plotline of Michonne this season has been her inability to trust anyone. Now: The guy who tried to kill her, and who coincidentally regularly throws racial epithets in her direction, walks up to her and says, “Hey there, honey, would you mind coming to a dark and remote corner of the prison, far away from anyone who hasn’t tried to kill you?” And she apparently says: “Sure.” She was knocked unconscious immediately.

NEXT: Special Limited Edition Merle Dixon Samurai Action FigureThus began the central concern of the episode: Merle and Michonne’s long walk to meet the Governor. Call it The Sword and the Stub: A One-Act Play. Merle was surprisingly chatty with his prisoner. He told her that he saw some divine plan in the fact that he alone was man enough to take her to the Governor. “Figure that’s why I was back there in the first place. Do the dirty work.” To be honest, I figured this whole gambit was some kind of long-con ploy on Merle’s part. Surely, he knew that the Governor wasn’t serious about making peace with the prison, considering that he had told Rick earlier in the episode that the Governor would almost certainly torture Michonne for weeks before killing her.

But no: Merle’s heart was fully invested in this. He told Michonne that he wanted to be with his brother, and his brother wanted to be in the prison; this way, he could save the prison. “You gotta play the hand you’re dealt,” he explained. “I only got one.” But Michonne was feeling surprisingly chatty, too. She told him that — all evidence to the contrary — “You’re not a bad man. Someone truly evil? They’re light as a feather. They don’t feel a thing.” Merle told her that he’d killed 16 men since the zombies arrived, but he looked melancholy; you could tell that the deaths of all those men weighed on his conscience, that deep down he wasn’t really…

Honestly, I’m not buying it: Not buying the idea that Merle is a badass with a heart of gold, not buying the idea that Michonne — a woman who led Rick’s squad back to Woodbury with the express purpose of killing the Governor because the Governor tried to kill her — would tell Merle, “You know, guy, you’re really just a badass with a heart of gold.” And if I’m dwelling so much on this point, it’s only because the whole episode dwelled on it — on the idea that Merle was a lovable sociopath, as opposed to the clearly evil, finger-biting, boob-grabbing, one-eyed sociopath at Woodbury.

Look, there are plenty of TV shows where clearly bad people gradually evolve into good people. Sometimes that evolution is justified; sometimes it just happens because we all learn to love the bad person, and we want to see them join the good team. (Al Swearengen on Deadwood is a good example of the former, although Deadwood was too smart to make anyone obviously “good” or “bad.” Ben Linus on Lost is a good example of the latter: By comparison, imagine if the Joker evolved into Robin.) And I’m on board with the idea that Merle was misled by the Governor, although it’s difficult to understand why everyone treats the clearly middle-aged Merle as some kind of at-risk teen who could totally get into Harvard if he could just listen to the teacher who really cares played by Michelle Pfeiffer. But the fact that the whole episode seemed designed to redeem Merle in the hammiest way possible was unforgivable.

Anyhow, it had been about four minutes since any zombies got killed, so Merle went to kickstart a car and accidentally set off the car alarm. The zombie kills in this sequence were pretty inventive: Michonne would have earned a rare non-katana Zombie Kill of the Week for her impressive wire-around-the-pole-through-the-neck move, but I had to immediately declare Michonne ineligible for the ZKotW Award because of what happened next. Merle cut her free, and said, “Get in the car!” AND SHE GOT IN THE CAR WITH THE GUY WHO WAS TAKING HER TO CERTAIN DEATH. Now, if you want to argue that they were being attacked by zombies, fine. I say that there were maybe a dozen walkers around them, and Michonne can run about five times faster than any zombie can walk.

But fine, she wanted to get her sword back, and also she wanted to save Merle’s soul, or something. She pointed out to Merle that he never killed anyone before he came to the Governor’s camp. “He saved your life, cleaned you up, fed you a line of bull—. Why would you kill somebody else for him?” She told him that they could still go back to the prison together, because Michonne is suddenly someone who forgives people for wanting to kill her, because she had a moment with Carl, or something. Merle told her, mournfully: “I can’t go back. Don’t you understand that? I can’t.” By way of answer, Merle cut her bonds, gave her back her sword, and told her to get out: “I got somethin’ I gotta do on my own.”

NEXT: At long last whiskeyI want to make one thing clear: My complaints about the show’s treatment of Merle the character have nothing to do with the portrayal of Merle by the great Michael Rooker, a creature who was beamed down to earth seven centuries ago on a mission from God to get the band back together. It’s a testament to just how awesome Michael Rooker is that the show felt the need to give him a legitimate send-off. Most people who die on The Walking Dead die ugly. Merle, though, died grand. We saw his car parked outside a tavern, the music playing as loud as possible. Merle had finally found some whiskey. Zombies were all around his car, drawn by the sound. Merle thought it was hilarious; he pretended to feed one zombie some whiskey, a moment that I choose to believe was improvised on the set by Michael Rooker, who almost certainly believed that the people in zombie makeup were actual zombies.

How cool was Merle? Merle is one of the few people on this show who can actually conceive a decent battle-tactic strategy on the spur of the moment. He slowly drove to the meet-up point, music playing loudly, drawing a whole herd of walkers behind him. He left the car running and dodged out to a sniper point. He drew out the Governor’s men, and as they fought the walkers, he took them down: one, two, three, snipe, snipe, snipe. He got a good look at the Governor, fired…and wound up hitting Meatbag #1.

A zombie unexpectedly attacked him, and soon it was all over: Martinez and another Woodbury soldier were upon him. But the Governor wanted to make this personal: “You leave him to me.” They fought inside of the shack, and it was a brutal brawl. At one point, it almost seemed like Merle had the upper hand…and then the Governor bit off two of his fingers. It was all over for Merle. He said his last words: “I ain’t beggin’ you.” The Governor agreed that no, he sure wasn’t, and then shot Merle Dixon dead.

Now, this was a big emotional moment. What was to follow was even more ruinous.

But first, the show decided to let Rick give a big Braveheart speech. Attempting to parse it is…difficult. Rick told everyone the truth about Michonne, and no one said anything, probably because they knew Rick was making a speech. Rick told them that things had to change. Change what they do, what they’re willing to do. “Who we are. It’s not my call. It can’t be.” Rick was setting himself up in opposition to his opponent. “I’m not your Governor. We choose to go.”

He explicitly spoke out against the last speech he gave, at the end of season 2, the one about how “This isn’t a democracy anymore.” Rick had decided that, actually, this will be a democracy now. Tribe Grimes would become Grimes Senate, and everyone would have a vote. They would decide, together, whether they would leave or go or fight the Governor or have scrambled eggs for breakfast.

NEXT: The Second Death of Merle DixonOkay. This is nominally a big moment that retroactively changes the whole arc of the season. In the season 3 premiere, Tribe Grimes was a military squad run by a warrior-king which moved in lockstep with one main goal: survival. Indeed, that central notion seemed to be the defining innovation of the Glen Mazzara era; the showrunner spoke openly about turning the show into a kind of post-apocalyptic war movie. Now, as the Mazzara era ends, it would appear that the show is evolving away from that. Could this be the much-ballyhooed “difference of opinion” that led AMC and Mazzara to part ways?

Anyhow, the Grimes Senate didn’t vote on what they are going to do, even though obviously they’re going to stay at the prison, because if they just walk off into the Magic Forest then this whole season would appear to be about less than nothing. We’ll return to them next week for the season finale. But the episode ended with Daryl arriving at the meet-up place, hours after the Governor and his men departed. He saw a few walkers biting into dead bodies…and one of those walkers had his brother’s face. Walker Merle looked at Daryl, and his dead eyes almost looked a little bit sad, but they definitely looked a lot a bit hungry. Daryl didn’t want to do it; he pushed the lurking husk of his brother away a couple times. But ultimately, he did what he had to do, and stomped the face of poor dead Merle Dixon into the ground.

And Daryl Motherf—ing Dixon wept.

The emotional power of those final moments was so devastating. And yet…and yet…I’m left wondering what, exactly, did Merle do? During The Talking Dead‘s memoriam, an epitaph flashed onscreen: “You went from handcuffed on the roof to saving the group. Thanks, big brother.” But Merle didn’t save anybody. Rick wouldn’t have taken Michonne to the meet-up point, so he wouldn’t have been ambushed by the Governor. If Merle’s plan was to kill the Governor, then he failed miserably. (Also, if that was his plan, then we are faced with the fact that Merle completely bungled the plan by shooting at other targets before the Governor. You never give up your location before you take down the prime target.) The show seemed to think that Merle was sacrificing himself for his brother, but if Merle wanted to help his brother, surely it would have been better to stay back at the prison and armor up for the coming battle with the Governor.

Really, Merle’s goal was pretty obvious: He wanted to die. This was suicide-by-Governor, pure and simple. He had gone too far into his downward spiral. Maybe he could never really forgive himself for killing all those men; maybe he just didn’t want to live in a world without whiskey. RIP, Merle: We missed you in season 2, and now we’ll miss you forever.

Fellow viewers, what did you think of the episode? Are as sad as I am to see Merle go? Do you think he was really a nice guy when you get right down to it, and if so, would you be interested in buying a bridge in Brooklyn that comes with a jetpack? Do you think people on The Walking Dead keep on making bad decisions because of malnutrition? Is there any way we can kill off Ghost Lori?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich

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The Walking Dead

AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.

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