The good news is the future of this show seems to be in good hands. Scott M. Gimple, writer of the Morgan-centric "Clear", and this week's excellent tale, definitely has a grasp of what makes these characters tick. Who could have thought we would genuinely be rooting for Merle by episode's end? It's interesting, because the show is mirroring last season's structure. Season 2's penultimate episode featured the death of a major character, and the finale had our heroes running for their lives. If the previews for next week are any indication, the season 3 closer will be similar. It will just be light one beautiful blade-armed bastard. Damn it, Merle, why did you have to go off and die?
It's a shame we have to spend the first half of this episode listening to Rick entertain the Governor's bargain. As both Daryl and Herschel say- "It's not us." And we, as viewers, know it's not Rick. Of course, this is used to set up a very welcome and important change in Rick, it just feel as if Rick was going somewhere he wouldn't to get somewhere he should. He even confides in Merle, which even baby Judith knows is a bad idea. In the end, however, the silent and judgmental phantasm of Lori literally makes him see the light, and he delivers a line we've been waiting to hear all season, and it's a good one- "I'm not your Governor". And just like that all the parallels to the Woodbury psycho fall away, and Rick feels a lot like his old self again.
With all the carnage that is undoubtedly on the horizon, I think we deserve a tender moment, something we can latch on to amid all the chaos. The interesting thing is that moment says as much about the world our characters live in as all the ugliness and violence does. The show has done a good job of showing Hershel's initial dislike of Glenn blossom into full blown respect. His genuine moment after Glenn asks for Maggie's hand in marriage is one of pure happiness, and that's not something we get very often on this show. I will say this- It's going to be a hard road for any post-apocalyptic Kay Jewelers when a man can just lop off the finger of the nearest zombie to get the ice. Valentines day? Chop! Anniversary? Chop! Getting caught with another woman? Chop! Chop! Chop! In all seriousness, the scene where Glenn proposes to Maggie is a great one. Hell, it's not even a proposal, it's an understanding, a bond. It's a new kind of proposal for a new world. It's a bit heartbreaking to hear Maggie say "yes", because instead of deciding to spend the rest of her life with the one she loves, she is accepting that Glenn is the one she is inevitably going to die with, and it's tough to decide which bond is stronger.
A question is posed to Merle- "Do you know why you do the things you do?" Despite Merle shrugging the question aside, it clearly resonates with him. Is he the Governor's obedient lieutenant? Is he the prison's fly in the ointment? Is he a mad dog that bites anyone who gets too close? You can ride doing what feels natural for a long time, but when someone throws a "Why?" at you the train will eventually derail. Merle initially thinks he's doing the right thing, doing the prison's dirty work like he once did for the Governor. He leads a tied up Michonne down the road like she once did her walker pets. Michonne continues to open up as she slowly chips away at Merle's conscience with her words. I always love it when the show uses the "rules" of the world to create a tense set piece, and in this episode we again learn just how deadly a car alarm can be. It's an edge of your seat moment, and it also shows just how efficient Michonne can be without her sword. It's interesting that it's Michonne who bears witness to Merle's change of heart. Will she tell Daryl the crisis of conscience she saw in Merle's eyes? You have to admire a man who's blaze of glory involves a bottle of whiskey, blaring rock 'n roll, and ghosting a car with a parade of zombies into the heart of the enemy. Merle was truly in his element. He tells Michonne he can't go back, that's just not who he is, but he can help by doing things his way. I couldn't help but think, as the Governor bit off two of Merle's fingers, about the mid-season finale, when the Governor accused Merle of being an agent of the prison. It wasn't true, but ironically now it is, and Merle ends up losing his life for it. Will Rick and co. ever know what Merle became in his last moments?
Michonne suggested that the Governor was turning Merle into a monster, and in the end he did. The last scene is one of those moments when the show is at its best, and they are moments that are unique to The Walking Dead. Daryl, who has spent two season's searching for his brother, and even when he found him was still searching, is confronted with the show's ultimate reality. The people you know, whether they were good people or bad, friends or family, will all end up with hallowed eyes and no trace of what made them special to you. It's the most emotion we've seen from Daryl yet, and his overkill of his brother's husk speaks volumes. I liked Merle's character quite a bit, and I love seeing Michael Rooker on screen for any reason. The onus is really on the writers now, as they disposed of a very strong character, one that could literally spice up any situation, and that is something I think everyone will miss.
Joel Rickenbach is a curator of cult cinema at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA, and can be heard every week talking film, TV and other geekery on the You’ve got GEEK podcast. Follow him onTwitter and hilarity will no doubt ensue.