Gene Page/AMC

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

February 27, 2015 at 07:07 PM EST

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

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