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With “The Sorrowful Life,” The Walking Dead returned back to debates about beliefs and how to not only survive, but live. While the episode wasn’t quite as intense or well done as “Clear,” it still offered up a nice return to what the show used to be, almost a complete reversal from “Prey,” which is indicative of what the show has become. In what is the penultimate episode of Season 3 it was a wise decision for the show to slow things down a little, at least until the end, so that the finale will seem even more bombastic than it has been promised.
“The Sorrowful Life"s' most important achievement comes from the attempt, and somewhat success, of humanizing Merle. In every single second of Merle’s screen time, including the beginning of “The Sorrowful Life,” he has been portrayed as a violent man with a couple screws loose. He was always more of a one-dimensional looming force than he ever was a character. “The Sorrowful Life” set out to change that, or at the very least add a second layer that was never there before.
From the very beginning of the episode, Merle is the seething beast to which everyone has become accustomed. He agrees to help Rick execute his plan to give Michonne up to the Governor, explaining his decision by saying his choices are a mystery to even himself. He slices open prison beds searching for drugs and looks at though he is planning to leave with supplies and weapons (including the telephone). Carol takes the first crack at him by comparing her transformation from cowering in her husband’s shadow to the gun toting, ammo-loading woman she currently is to the possibility that Merle has the same ability to transform.
Daryl then told his brother that he missed the guy he was before the zombie apocalypse; that Merle can still be a valuable member of the good guys. Merle let Daryl know that he had “done worse” than what he had done to Maggie and Glenn, furthering his belief that he was irredeemable. Merle equates giving up Michonne to what he has done and tells Daryl that Rick won’t go through with it and Daryl, again, showed allegiance to Rick.
After Merle knocks Michonne out and takes it upon himself to deliver her to the Governor, which was not the original plan, it is he and Michonne that find themselves knee deep in discourse. Michonne continually erodes Merle’s exterior until she finally gets through as she tells him that truly evil people are light as a feather and that Merle is not evil because he refers to his bad deeds as a weight he must carry. She continues by telling him that it is the Governor who is to blame for making Merle what he is. Eventually Merle realizes what she is saying is true, or just realizes there is only one way to redeem himself and cuts Michonne free and drives off to go meet the Governor by himself.
As much as they tried with the constant barrage of humanizing conversations with Merle, his moment of realization feels half-baked. This isn’t necessarily because of any fault of what was within the episode. In fact it was nice to hear Merle actually have cogent opinions and thoughts on his existence as opposed to his usual persona. However, for his transformation/realization to have felt complete it would have had to be slowly laid out over multiple episodes. Instead his transformation felt more like a plot mechanic as opposed to something organic and honest but its failure came from the lack of time invested and not because of something hokey and cheap.
Merle ended up getting a herd of zombies to follow him to the Governor meeting and as the Governor’s henchmen dealt with the zombies, Merle was sniping the henchmen from a barn. Eventually Merle was found and beaten up. He knew he was sacrificing himself the moment he let Michonne out of the car but he did end up redeemed by the end of the battle. At the end of the episode, Daryl, who has been tracking Merle at behest of Rick in hopes of saving Michonne before it is too late, finds a zombified Merle – now the monster he believed himself to be. In a poignant moment, a distraught Daryl first tries to just push his former brother away, not wanting to have to kill him, but finally all his pent up aggression comes out and Daryl repeatedly stabs Merle in the head.
Another fortunate occurrence came from Merle’s last stand. The Governor ended up beating up Merle once his lackeys found him. And for the first time in the entire season, the Governor actually had a menacing evil air about him. In the fight he bites off one of Merle’s fingers and spits it back at him and just before he shoots Merle his hair is disheveled and he finally looks the part of a monster. While his actions were evil in last week’s “Prey” he always kept his cool, calculating persona in tact. It was nice to see him finally lose his calm demeanor and become a purely visceral vengeful beast. The Governor shooting Merle through the chest, and not through the head, only adds to the Governor’s new menace.
Brooks’ quote from great The Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy living or get busy dying,” comes to mind for the happenings at the prison. It was refreshing to see the group return to its goal of trying to find quality of life instead of only surviving. Even though much of Maggie and Glenn’s relationship, especially during Season 2, was annoying and their drama seemed frivolous in comparison to what was happening around them, it was good to see Glenn wanting to propose to Maggie. This wasn’t given too much time in the episode but came with the added bonus of stealing a zombie’s ring finger to get her an engagement ring. Likewise Rick announces to the group that his dictatorship is over. Living does not work if everyone does not have a say, in contrast with the Governor’s style. While Rick’s decision seemingly came out of the blue it does offer up an interesting jumping off point for further episodes.