Merle decides who lives and who dies in a pretty terrific Walking Dead

Let us understand that “This Sorrowful Life” is Merle’s story, and everyone else is just a supporting character. Although this episode started out with an extremely stupid, contrived decision clearly designed to set up a very specific situation, that situation — and what it led to — was excellent enough that it ended up being worth the initial nonsense. And hey, someone died, that’s always exciting!

Merle still isn’t fitting in too well at the prison — darn that nearly killing Glenn and giving Maggie to a psychopath! As Merle hunts through the prison for some left over crystal meth (or any narcotics, really) Rick has suddenly decided to give Michonne to the Governor.

Rick explains this to Daryl and Herschel, and they both point out it’s exceedingly awful; Herschel storms off while Daryl decides to follow Rick’s lead, even if he doesn’t like it. Then Rick tells Merle, ostensibly for his help, despite the fact that Merle is a bastard and cannot be trusted. Although in this instance, he actually can be trusted to follow Rick’s plan — because even though Rick changes his mind about giving up Michonne, Merle conks her on the head, kidnaps her and starts taking her to the Governor anyways.

I was pretty annoyed initially at this, because 1) we know Rick isn’t going to go through with it, because it would be just too evil, and 2) it seemed like a an incredibly arbitrary way to fill up one more episode while giving Merle… well, a bit of closure, shall we say. Why has Rick changed his mind? Why would ever trust Merle to play any part in his plan? It's really an excuse — and a horrible excuse — to get Merle and Michonne together, on the road. But again, what it leads to — not just for Merle, but also Daryl and even Rick — pays off with what ended up being a pretty great episode.

First of all, all, I can buy Rick’s decision to give up Michonne in the sense that Rick hasn’t been particularly moral at any point this season, and frankly, Michonne has been immensely unlikable for ever episode but “Clear.” Actually giving up Michonne would have jibed with Rick’s behavior from the rest of the season, even though it makes him nearly impossible to root for.

Second of all. I totally buy Merle’s reasons for going solo: yes, Rick was obviously going to chicken out, and more importantly, even Merle knows he has to do something positive for the group and his brother. The fact that there’s a dirty job and Merle’s a dirty guy — well, that’s just kismet. And I like that Merle admits this to himself (and Michonne) during their hike to the Governor’s meeting place (which he has packed with his arms goons, as you’ll recall).

Now, being kidnapped by an asshole and being delivered to your almost certain immensely painful, torture-filled death would warrant a few glowers, but Michonne’s personality blissfully shows through in her many tense conversations with Merle. It’s a nice reminder that, oh yeah, we don’t want this character to die.

Merle decides who lives and who dies in a pretty terrific Walking DeadS

Plus, these conversations do wonders for Merle, who fleshes out into a full character, thanks to some revealing dialogue and a spectacular performance by Michael Rooker. Hell, he ends up likeable by the end of the episode, and this is Merle that we’re talking about. It happens slowly; first he acknowledges that his brother cares about the prison, he cares about his brother, and turning Michonne over might keep the prison safe. He wants to fit in at the prison, or at least not be loathed. He reveals the terrible things he’s done since he joined the Governor. And eventually, he frees Michonne, gives her her sword back, and drives off to enact his plan.

First part of his plan: Get drunk. Second part: Crank up the CD player and drive really slow, and attract a significant herd of zombies. Third part: Lead the car and the zombies to the meeting place, where the Governor and his troops lie in wait. Fourth part: Shoot every motherfucker he can.

And he does; he takes out eight of the Guv’s goons (and nearly the Governor himself) before a random zombie reveals his position and the rest of the Guv’s men grab him. As you can imagine, this does not end well for Merle — suffice it to say, the Governor’s bites of two of Merle’s fingers in the brawl, and things go downhill from there.

Meanwhile, at the camp, two things are happening: Glenn proposes to Maggie, after receiving Herschel’s blessing (Glenn took the engagement ring off a zombie’s finger, and when I say “took” I mean “tore the fingers off with pliers.” Still, it’s the thought, etc. etc).

More importantly, Rick realizes what a dick he’s been all season. He recognizes that tying up Michonne and giving her to the Governor is a terrible thing — also, it’s exactly what Merle did to Maggie and Glenn — and that he shouldn’t do it. He should be better than the Governor. He assembles the group, explains what's happened, cancels the Rick-tatorship, and reinstates democracy. He says they can vote on whether to run or to stay and fight. Unfortunately, he walks off before they can vote, but again, it's the thought that counts.

And as Michonne returns to the prison in what promises to be a very awkward conversation between her and Rick, Daryl — who had tracked his brother to save Michonne, spotted her on the road, and then continued on after Merle. When he arrives at the meeting place and sees the aftermath, he also finds his brother… as a zombie.

Showing a beloved family member has become a zombie is cheap but effective drama no matter what, but holy shit does Norman Reedus just destroy this scene. He breaks down, reverting into the little boy that no doubt cowered before his big brother all those years growing up. It’s all he can do to push Merle away at first, almost whimpering in pain and disbelief. Eventually, he gets worked up enough that he stabs Merle, then again, and again, in the face, over and over, and you don’t know if he’s trying to erase the fact that Merle’s a zombie, or if this some pent-up anger for all the trauma Merle inflicted on him over the years, or what, but it’s all on Reedus’ face. It’s a fantastic scene.

So… yeah. Daryl’s best scene ever? Rick (finally) turning into a good guy again? The redemption of Merle? Totally worth some nonsense at the beginning. Technically, “This Sorrowful Life” is more padding before the action-packed finale (and by god it better be action-packed, we’ve waited so damn long for it), but it didn't feel like padding because it had something to say, it showed us two characters in new lights, and got Rick back on track (which, for me, has been the season's biggest issue). While would have been fine if TWD had figured out a less contrived way for this episode to have started, I'll take good Walking Dead where I any way can get it.

Assorted Musings:

• Admittedly, Merle’s hunt for booze and/or drugs was a nice touch; of course that’s what the character would do in an abandoned prison. And it was totally worth it for the “I know, I know, I shouldn’t throw my life away” line.

• Zombie Kill of the Week: Michonne wrapping her wire tether around a zombie’s neck, wrapping it around a wooden beam, and then pulling so hard the zombie’s head pops off.

• Now that Glenn and Maggie are happily married, I imagine the changes of one of them dying in next week’s finale is something like a billion percent.

• Actually, I can’t help but find the idea of wearing an engagement ring torn off a random zombie deeply creepy. Do any of you ladies disagree? Does the zombie apocalypse make it okay? And Maggie has to realize where it came from, right? I mean, it’s not like Glenn can pretend he found it on the ground or anything.

• Someone desperately needs to re-edit this scene into a Kay Jewelers ad.

• In the Next Episode trailer, it looks like the Woodburian have a goddamned rocket launcher. If I had voted to stay and fight, I would be incredibly upset I didn't have this key bit of information before making my decision.