“Maybe these people need someone like me around. To do their dirty work. The bad guy.”
It’s almost over. The penultimate episode of The Walking Dead’s third season was (as I expected) a catch up with the gang at the prison as the tension built for the inevitable season finale confrontation with the forces of Woodbury. But just as last week’s Woodbury episode was also an Andrea episode, this week’s prison ep was really all about Merle. And given the opportunity, Michael Rooker devoured the scenery all the way through. No disrespect to Laurie Holden in last week’s perfectly good episode, but an hour of Rooker as Merle was way more fun.
And emotionally resonant too. We’ve unexpectedly started to see a redeemable side to Merle these last few episodes; it started with his chat to Hershel about reading the Bible at Woodbury’s “damn fine library”. This episode was all about that redemption, or at least its possibility, and both the script and Rooker’s performance kept us guessing all the way through, making it a gripping ride.
We started out with Rick having a hush-hush meeting with Daryl and Hershel (his two chief lieutenants, it seems), in which he confided that he was going to give in to the Governor’s demands, and present him with Michonne. This seemed pretty foolish, given that a couple of weeks ago Rick seemed to have sussed out just how untrustworthy his neighbouring warlord is. But no, being Leader means making hard choices. Would Rick live up to them?
The answer (thankfully) was no – just as Merle guessed. Merle figured heavily from the outset; if he wasn’t actually in a scene, people were talking about him. Caustic he may be, but he also turned out to be pretty perceptive. About everyone but himself, anyway. He correctly surmised that Rick would be too decent to trade another person’s life for his own security, however ruthless he may seem to have become.
Also, he recognised a kindred spirit in the newly independent Carol, in a beautifully played scene between Rooker and Melissa McBride. Recognising how she’d grown out of the shadow of her abusive husband, Merle opined, “maybe you’re just a late bloomer”, to which Carol, seeing a man in search of redemption, replied, “maybe you are too.”
The possibility of Merle’s redemption from the no-good redneck thug we met back in season one hung heavy over the episode. Still of the (accurate) opinion that Rick wouldn’t go through with the deal, he took matters into his own hands by pre-emptively coshing the surprisingly trusting Michonne over the head. I’d have expected her to be more wary around the man who tried to hunt her down and kill her; but still it was a convenient way to get them travelling to Woodbury together for some quality character time.
This being The Walking Dead, the character interaction had to be spiced up with a bit of zombie thrills. So it was that, hotwiring a car (a neat trick with one hand), Merle inadvertently set off its alarm, sounding the dinner bell for every Walker in the vicinity. The ensuing fight saw he and Michonne working together – a taste of things to come, it turned out.
It also meant they had a car to cover the strangely mutable distance between the prison and Woodbury. Last week, Andrea managed the journey on foot in less than a day, even managing to find time for a game of cat and mouse with the Governor. This week, once again, it was a journey you needed to drive. Road trip!
Along the way, Michonne gradually needled at Merle’s conscience, getting him to unwillingly recognise that the Governor had turned him into a monster. All right, he wasn’t exactly a nice guy long before he met the Governor; but he wasn’t, it turned out, a murderer. Those “sixteen men” he’d killed had all been since he set up home in Woodbury.
Merle wasn’t exactly happy at having his conscience pricked, threatening to cut out Michonne’s tongue if she didn’t shut up. It’s a tribute to Rooker’s performance that, when he pulled the car over, I half-wondered if he was about to do just that. But no – in an equally surprising development, he cut her bonds and let her go. Then sped off with the assertion that he had “something to do”.
It wasn’t hard to guess what. The script had painstakingly pointed out that Merle was looking for somewhere to belong, and that he could have had a chance with Rick’s group. Realising this, he thought they needed him to be the hardman who does the dirty jobs; it’s all he knows how to do. But as he released Michonne, it was clear that his search for redemption was taking him down the road of heroic self-sacrifice. He was going to take out the Governor – even if it killed him.
Being Merle, this involved getting drunk and playing Motorhead at very high volume, to lure the Walkers into following his slow-moving car. This achieved, he led them straight to the appointed venue for the meeting with the Governor – and all hell broke loose. It was another of the show’s superb action sequences, gunfire from all sides and Walkers everywhere. A number of the Governor’s men bit the dust; but no-one we’d heard of. Oh, except Allen’s characterless son Ben. Not much of a loss, but presumably liable to enrage the already asshole-ish Allen – look out for that next week, though it may be hard to care.
All this intensity was counterpointed back at the prison with what, in this show, passes for light relief. Hershel led his daughters in prayer (Psalm 91, fact fans), while Rick was tormented by yet more visions of Lori, forcing him to realise he couldn’t go through with ‘the deal’. Glenn, meanwhile, offered a truly romantic proposal of marriage to Maggie – a ring he’d cut off the hand of a nearby Walker. He really knows how to charm a girl.
As the ep ended, so did the ‘Ricktatorship’, as our hero realised he couldn’t bear the burden of decision-making all alone. So it’s back to democracy for our heroes, just in time to be plunged into war – probably the worst time for group decision-making.
Classic tribute zombie
This is obviously getting to be a regular thing, after last week’s many Day of the Dead homages. This week, the zombie we saw lurching out of the bar where Merle was parked looked oddly familiar, if you’ve ever seen the original Dawn of the Dead:
Gore of the week
LOTS to choose from this week, in a veritable gore-nucopia – exactly what you’d expect in an episode directed by effects honcho Greg Nicotero, himself a veteran of Romero’s original Day of the Dead.
The Walker attack triggered by Merle’s car theft led to some of the usual head splattering, courtesy of Michonne’s boot. Perhaps Walker skulls are softer than those of the living due to decomposition:
There then followed an inventive use of the phone cord she was tied up with as a method of decapitation:
While Merle had to cope with a zombie that seemed to be quite literally falling apart:
And that was just the start of it, in an episode more bloodsoaked than we’ve seen in ages. Merle’s climactic ambush on the Governor’s forces led to head shots, entrail-chewing and death galore. But while it might not have been the ep’s goriest moment, nothing beat this shot as a sheer emotional gut-punch:
I should have guessed it really. When this show gives that much attention to any one character, it usually means they’re for the chop by the end of the episode. So it proved with Merle, as the heartbroken Daryl discovered. Last week, I postulated that the show wouldn’t dispose of a character as important as the Governor offscreen; this week, that’s exactly what happened with Merle.
Having already bitten two of the fingers off his sole remaining hand (another choice gore moment), the Governor wound up with the ultimate cruelty to his sometime henchman – shooting him, but not in the head. As he knew anyone who dies turns into a Walker, it was about the nastiest thing he could have done. Given that, by this point, we’d started to feel some actual sympathy for Merle, it was a double whammy – the loss of a well-liked character, which also served to underline just how psychopathically cruel the real villain is.
I had actually wondered how long the show would get to keep a big-name actor like Rooker, but I actually assumed he would go out in a blaze of glory in the season finale. What we got here was, in fact, far more devastating. And it means Rick and the crew have to go into battle next week without the wily Merle. At least they still have Daryl – Norman Reedus was at his most intense here, weeping as he stove in his loved/hated brother’s head, rather than let him shamble around as a Walker.
This was a storming episode in a season that’s been full of them this year. There was action, gore, thrills and real drama, and it kept you guessing throughout. Next week (presumably) it’s the Final Conflict. I’m betting on some big spectacle, but I have to wonder if it’ll have the emotional impact of some of the episodes we’ve seen recently. Tune in next week to find out…