Well, that ending essentially saved this episode. Prior to, it was a typical hour of The Walking Dead — humorless and plodding, with lots of overly earnest speechifying and soul-searching. Hell, at one point, Hershel gravely reads from the Bible to his daughters, his words carrying over images of Rick struggling internally with his decision to turn over Michonne to the Governor (more on that later). Ghost Lori pops back up right then too. Just when you thought this show couldn’t get any more serious, it goes and finds a whole new gear. A really, really boring gear.
But there was genuine emotion earned at the end, with zombie Merle, having recently been killed by the Governor, feasting away on a body as his brother approached him in front of the silos. As this episode constantly reminded us, Merle was never one to take the easy path or the path of righteousness. But in “This Sorrowful Life,” he came to the obvious and correct solution to a dilemma Rick ludicrously struggled with. It wasn’t right to turn Michonne over, and so the Governor had to go. Of course, actually getting that job done is nigh impossible on this show, where something always gets in the way of an otherwise easy assassination. In this case, a Woodbury redshirt steps in front of the killing shot, and the Governor’s men quickly subdue Merle. Daryl finds his brother later on, after the Governor has finished him off and enough time has passed for his body to turn. Director Greg Nicotero was wise to shoot that big close-up of Michael Rooker’s zombie-painted eyes, and Norman Reedus sold the shit out of the flood of emotions that overwhelmed Daryl in that moment. Mostly anger and pain and sadness … but maybe just a hint of relief too.
It was a fitting and justified end to one of The Walking Dead‘s more memorable characters. The brothers Dixon were served well by this episode, their last together. Everyone else? Not so much. I mentally bailed out of Rick’s story about 15 seconds in when it became clear that he was going to spend half the episode agonizing over whether to turn Michonne over. He actually planned to go through with it for a good 20 minutes, this despite the fact that Michonne had not once done Rick’s group wrong, despite the fact that she is their best warrior, and despite the fact that Rick himself previously admitted that the Governor would likely just kill them all anyway. That’s a lot of facts! But this is Rick. Everything’s got to cause some great inner-turmoil. It’s exhausting. A little later in the episode, after he’s changed his mind, he declares that the “Ricktatorship” established in the season-two finale has now come to an end. He apologizes for not telling the group about the Michonne deal when he should have been apologizing for considering it in the first place. And to be clear, Rick gives up the crown himself, as opposed to it being taken from him because (a) he does nothing but make bad decisions and (b) he’s kind of crazy. No repercussions for those things! I did quite like Rick’s “I am not your Governor” line. That would have worked like gangbusters had this season been … you know … good.
In other news, Glenn proposes to Maggie. Actually, first he gets Hershel’s approval in the most morose way imaginable. Then he cuts an engagement ring off a zombie’s finger. (What are the odds that the first one he takes is going to fit Maggie? There’s not a jeweler in the group, damn it! Plus, it’s kind of icky.) Then he proposes. She says yes. It’s meant to up the emotional stakes and remind us what Rick’s group will be fighting for against the Governor next week. Ultimately, it’s kind of boring, and marriage seems like a rite of passage that would be best left behind in post-zombie-apocalypse age. It’s not like you’re going to get better health benefits.
Meanwhile, Carol gets a little scene this week where she tries to dig into Merle’s psyche, which reminded me that Carol hasn’t been given anything good to do in weeks. It’s too bad, as she had been one of the show’s strongest characters in the season’s first half.
There’s also another prison breach this week, and every time zombies find their way in, I bash my head off a wall wondering why Rick and crew would go through all this trouble with the Governor just to stay there. I wish the show would have done a better job convincing us that this place could be some kind of ultimate solution. We needed more scenes showing its full potential, sequences of people having fun and feeling safe. That could have made the inevitable battle with the Governor seem worthwhile. But, unfortunately, the prison always just comes across as a dump with suspect walls and a decent fence.
A few more thoughts on “This Sorrowful Life” …
— I can’t really get a good sense of the geography between the prison and the Woodbury. Sometimes it seems like it’s nothing but woods, like when Andrea has made the journey. Other times it seems to be mostly farmland. And then tonight, Merle and Michonne pass through what appears to be a significant residential area between the two. It’s not very consistent.
— Again, the dramatic tension was sucked out of a scene thanks to AMC cutting straight from Merle getting shot to Talking Dead crowds applauding wildly. So awkward.
— Zombie kill of the week: Michonne uses the cord binding her hands together to decapitate a walker.
Follow Bob on Twitter: @robertbtaylor