It’s time for Merle to take centre stage doing Rick’s dirty work – the only work he thinks he’s any good for – as the confrontation with Woodbury gets ever closer.
This episode returns to the dilemma of a couple of episodes ago: Will Rick hand Michonne over to the Governor in the hope that he might spare the prison? At the start of the episode Rick is still set on his original plan to give Michonne up, but the audience are as convinced as Merle is that Rick won’t be able to go through with it. And, inevitably, Rick does change his mind (courtesy of his latest Lori-vision), but not before Merle has already taken Michonne.
Much of the episode then focuses on Merle and Michonne, but there’s some good stuff at the prison too, not least Glenn’s proposal to Maggie (and his inspired engagement ring shopping), and a touching scene between Merle and Carol (who’s becoming something of an expert at popping up and dispensing wisdom just when another character needs a pep talk).
But enough of the prison – this was Merle’s episode and Michael Rooker steals it. The scenes between him and Michonne on the long journey to the drop-off point with the Governor are as good as anything The Walking Dead has produced. Danai Gurira gets more dialogue than ever, with writer Scott M Gimple yet again proving that Michonne can be controlled and stoic without scowling silently all the time. She’s a very physical character, and tying her up forced her to take another tack and talk Merle into some semblance of humanity instead of just fighting him. Although, of course, this being Michonne she’s still a bad-ass even when tied up, taking out one walker with a decapitation-by-wire.
Bit by bit across the episode – and across the latter half of this series – we see Merle begin to drop his snarling, defensive shell, revealing more and more of himself to Michonne. It comes as something of a surprise to learn that he’d never killed anyone before the apocalypse – pre-apocalypse Merle was an addict and a racist but not a murderer. He’s always considered himself a monster, but it was the Governor who made it a reality.
From the moment he sets Michonne free and gets himself a bottle of whiskey, we know Merle’s on a suicide mission. He plan is brilliant, even if it is decidedly Governor-esque. Zombies are again used as weapons, and with Merle’s sniping thrown into the mix he takes out a good number of the Woodbury soldiers (including Ben from Tyreese’s group) before, inevitably, the Governor takes him down (in brutal fashion – poor Merle doesn’t have much luck with his hands).
Now, The Walking Dead is terrible for telegraphing things. From Merle’s very first scene with Rick you know that he’s being set up for Big Character Development and Heroic Self-Sacrifice within this episode. But the episode does pull out one brutal shock. Usually, when a character is killed off on American TV they’ll get one last tear-jerking moment with their loved one. So all along you expect Daryl to reach Merle in time for his last breath. But no – Daryl arrives to the sight of zombie-Merle munching on some guts. It’s a raw and shocking moment, played heartbreakingly by Norman Reedus, who’s been quite under-used lately. Merle died a hero, but without closure.
The Walking Dead will have a Michael Rooker shaped hole in it for some time to come. He made an unpleasant character sympathetic, entertaining, and ultimately someone you could really root for. Merle’s layers were rarely in the script – they were all in Rooker’s performance. In a series that has seen the deaths of Lori and T-Dog, it’s Merle’s death that has the most impact.
So, with the playing field levelled considerably thanks to Merle’s mission, we’re now hurtling down hill into the final confrontation with Woodbury. Who’s going to come out of it alive? Speaking as someone who hasn’t read the comics (so no spoilers here, just speculation), you’ve got to figure that certain characters are doomed. I’d expect the Governor to be killed – dragging his story out for another series would be serious overkill. There are three strong candidates for who will deal the killing blow: Rick, Daryl or Andrea (Michonne’s already had a big fight with him, so I wouldn’t expect her to do it). Milton doesn’t stand a chance of making it. Glenn and Maggie’s ‘marriage’ heavily telegraphs some heartbreak to come. But actually I wouldn’t be surprised if they make it through alive, with Hershel giving his life to save them (his happiness in this episode and his speech to his daughters suggests he ain’t long for this world). The showrunners might also give up on Andrea in the same way that they gave up on Lori. She might be the de-facto female lead, but Michonne and Maggie have been stronger than her all series. The show could comfortably stand to lose her. I’d also hope that the finale will find a way to bring Tyreese into the fold.
However it turns out, and so long as they don’t kill of Daryl or Michonne, it looks like we’re in for a damn good finale.