“The Walking Dead” – This Sorrowful Life episode review 0

Merle (Michael Rooker) takes center stage in this week's episode

Merle (Michael Rooker) takes center stage in this week’s episode.

★★★★½

While I was frustrated at first that the entire episode goes by and the only nod we get to Andrea’s predicament is in the previews for next week’s season finale, I can’t even complain that much because everything else is so well done. The zombie gore is great, there’s character growth all over the place, and I’m still struggling with my Dixon brothers feels so I’d call this a success of an episode for sure.

It starts with Rick, Daryl, and Hershel holding secret council out in the prison yard to discuss Michonne and their meeting with the Governor that day. Rick is pushing for handing her over despite his moral qualms, but Daryl and Hershel are much more reluctant. Hershel storms out, as best he can on crutches, and Daryl is uncomfortable, but goes along with it.

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Rick enlists Merle to help with their plan and finds him ripping up mattresses in search of drugs. Merle is sarcastically honored to be part of the inner circle, but he doesn’t think Rick is going to go through with handing Michonne over to the Governor. He still offers the advice to use wire, not rope, to bind her in case Rick does do it. He can’t answer, though, when Rick asks him why he makes the choices that he does, and I love that Michonne is perceptive enough to bring up exactly the same point when she converses with him later.

Over in the prison yard, the group is preparing for Woodbury’s arrival, making it difficult for their trucks to get across the lawn. Rick thinks that’s a great idea, and Daryl pointedly adds that it was Michonne’s. Michonne herself adds that they just have to make it too much trouble for Woodbury to break their way through, they don’t necessarily have to win. Add “strategic intelligence” to the long list of reasons why I love Michonne as a character.

Speaking of characters I love, Carol chats with Merle inside while she watches Judith. Taking care of Judith so much has to bring up painful memories of Sophia, but Carol never seems affected. I guess she’s too busy being assertive and awesome as she tells Merle he has to “pick a damn side” in all this. Even Merle is impressed; Carol wasn’t like this when he knew her, and he commends her for ditching the fear. She says she was scared of her husband, and now she’s grown into herself and found her courage. She better survive this season because I am loving empowered Carol so much.

Outside, Daryl tries to apologize to Glenn on Merle’s behalf. The earnest way in which Daryl advocates for his brother is extra heart-wrenching to think about now; he just wanted his blood family to become part of his found family and now Merle will never get a chance to earn their forgiveness. Glenn could have forgiven Merle for the torture if he hadn’t handed Maggie over to the Governor to be abused; Glenn cares more about her than he cares about himself, which in hindsight was such foreshadowing for the next step in their relationship.

Daryl heads inside to find Merle, presumably to get him to apologize himself, and they end up having their last conversation. Okay, even typing that made me sad. Daryl’s clearly uncomfortable with betraying Michonne, but he defers to Rick on this one, and Merle taunts Daryl about not having the balls to go through with it either. Merle points out the hypocrisy of the group rejecting him for handing people over to the Governor when that’s exactly what they’re about to do with Michonne, and he theorizes that maybe people like him need to be around to be the bad guys. This is interesting, and while Merle’s no longer around to be this foil, I think it’s worth thinking about in terms of the Governor/Rick comparison that’s been pushed the last few episodes.

Rick, especially with this decision about Michonne, is straying into Governor territory, though his final speech puts him back to being the good cop to the Governor’s twisted fanatic cop. Anyway, Daryl says he just wants his brother back, all sincere and with a hand on Merle’s shoulder and Merle tells him to get out, but in a half-choked-up voice that really means he loves him too. And that is it, that’s the final (living) interaction between the Dixon brothers. I was touched at the time because Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker just sell the hell out of their characters, but now it feels extra tragic.

Hershel’s Bible reading to Maggie and Beth inside the cell block turns into a heavenly voiceover as Rick scours around outside for some wire for Michonne. But when he sees Lori again, he can’t go through with it. He leaves the wire where he found it, Hershel finishes reading in time to tell his daughters all he wants is their safety before Rick comes in to tell him he’s not handing Michonne over. Hershel’s clearly proud, and I’m mostly concerned about all this safety talk because I’m thinking the season finale is going to be death-heavy. If Hershel goes, I don’t know if I can handle it.

Unfortunately, Rick’s memo doesn’t quite make it to Merle in time to stop him from luring Michonne away from the others, knocking her out, and kidnapping her himself. They walk together, her hands bound with wire and her sword in Merle’s possession. Merle talks about his role as the guy who does the dirty work as he uses her sword to take down a stray walker or two, and boy, can Danai Gurira give a great “screw you” smile.

She points out to him that he’s always talking about the weight of his actions when truly awful people don’t feel light, and leaves Merle to draw his own conclusions there. He responds with his (human) murder toll since the zombie apocalypse started – 16 – and leaves it at that. They come across a town and Merle ties Michonne to a pillar while he hotwires a car. Of course the alarm goes off, drawing every walker in the area, and we’re treated to some choice zombie killing. Michonne, left defenseless, improvises and curbstomps one and beheads another with her wire tie. That’s got my vote for kill of the episode. Merle helps out with his actual weapons, and the two of them take off in the car.

Back at the prison, Daryl heads out on his own to track his brother and Michonne after they’re found missing. Meanwhile, Glenn has a heart-to-heart with Hershel in his bunk. Hershel dishes out the wisdom that there have always been and will always be people like the Governor, which is a really heartwarming start to Glenn asking Hershel for his blessing to marry Maggie. Of course, Hershel gives it, and the smile he gets as Glenn leaves his cell is the cutest thing I think I’ve seen. I think it’s the Santa beard that really makes it adorable. Hershel’s happiness really just seals the deal for me; something tragic is going to happen to either him or his daughters next episode, I’m calling it now.

Merle and Michonne have their own version of a heart-to-heart as they drive towards what would have been her doom. She asserts that Daryl is a respected and important member of the group, and wonders why Merle was purposely keeping himself on the outside. He reminds her that she’s an outsider too, but she in turn reminds him that she won’t have to live with herself when the Governor’s done with her. Can we just talk about how coolly she said that? She has an idea of how sick and twisted the Governor is, and she’s already bracing herself for the inevitable horrors of being his captive. I swear, Michonne can handle just about anything.

She turns the conversation back to the killing people topic, and we find out that Merle has only killed those 16 people since joining up with Woodbury. She wants to know why he’d kill someone for the Governor, and says they can always just turn back. I think this is the first time we’ve seen this much softness from Michonne, and even if she’s trying to save herself, I really believe there’s compassion here. If anyone ever wants to know why I think Michonne should get more screen time and dialogue, I will point them to this episode. Merle says he can’t go back, a roughness to his voice that I will forever applaud Michael Rooker for, but lets her out of the car, cuts her bonds, and gives her back her sword.

On her way back on foot, she crosses paths with Daryl, who continues on after his brother. Michonne heads prison-ward, and we see Merle begin his secret mission. Hard alcohol in hand, he’s got the car radio cranked up for maximum walker attraction and slowly draws them towards the meeting place where the Governor awaits. He ditches the car and sneaks inside a building to watch the guards outside deal with the horde as he picks the humans off. Whether this was his intent all along or whether he was influenced by his conversation about killing, he only injures the guards enough to take them down and let the walkers do the rest.

The Governor himself is there (wherever this exactly is) but before Merle can pull the trigger, a walker attacks him and his position is compromised. The nearby guards beat him up, but the Governor asks them to leave Merle to him, and he promptly kicks the crap out of him. Merle puts up a decent fight, but I don’t think there’s much that matches the Governor’s bloodlust. He bites Merle’s finger off, for God’s sake! Merle, defeated, says he isn’t going to beg, and the Governor doesn’t wait for him to, he just fires his gun at him straight into a commercial. I may or may not have shouted in surprise/anger/frustration at my television at that. Okay, I totally did and I am not ashamed.

Leaving us to deal with the whole Merle’s been shot but is he actually dead question, the show turns back to the prison.  The music gets soft and romantic (well, behind the zombie moans) as Glenn puts an admittedly gorgeous diamond ring stolen off a walker into Maggie’s hand, and she simply says yes. They kiss, it’s lovely despite that being the least romantic proposal I’ve ever seen, and that sinking feeling gets worse.

Rick holds a team meeting where he owns up to the whole Michonne ordeal and confesses that she disappeared along with Merle and he has no idea what happened to them. In a stunning display of character growth, he goes on to say that he can’t just be the one leader anymore. He’s not the Governor, and he was wrong about this not being a democracy, so they’ll vote on fighting or fleeing. Although apparently they’re waiting to vote until next episode, so that felt like kind of a letdown.

Daryl meanwhile has found the spot where Merle ended up. He takes in the scene, takes down one walker, and is poised to deal with another one when it raises its bloodstained face and it’s Merle. I honestly wasn’t expecting that, and the surprise combined with the way Norman Reedus breaks down crying just got me. If you had told me in season one that I’d be upset about Merle’s death for any reason, I wouldn’t have believed you. But man, watching Daryl shove him away sobbing before he finally stabs him in the head (repeatedly) was rough.

As lead-ups to season finales go, “This Sorrowful Life” was fantastic. This one didn’t have that uneasy unfinished feeling that the last few episodes have had, but it’s still a great set-up for what’ll happen next week. We even got great character development in with all this exposition. And of course, if I could give all of the acting awards to Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker for this episode, I totally would. This whole season has been much stronger than the last, so I cannot wait for next week, even if they are just going to leave us with the usual giant cliffhanger.