Merle was lost and then found, only to still be pretty lost. For most of this season, he was not much more than a one-dimensional villain. In the past few episodes, though, once he was reunited with his brother, he softened up. Or, in EKG terms, for a long time he was just one monotonous, buzzing line and then suddenly there were spikes. This made watching him a lot more enjoyable. He became a zombie just as his character took on some life.
A little while ago, I was thinking about how we had yet to see a main character engaged in actual zombie behavior. Andrea’s sister was only undead for a moment before being shot in the head. (Which unfortunately ushered in the Andrea, We Know You’ve Got a Gun era that followed.) Dale was dispensed with immediately. Laurie’s matricide happened off-camera. Sophia was a proper zombie, but she was taken care of before she had a chance to feast on her family. I used to wonder which character we would see doing that, but then the show became about prepping for a preventable war between one incompetent leader and one cartoonish one and I stopped having these kinds of questions at all.
So it was a jolt to see Merle at the end of this episode, doing what zombies do best. He managed to preserve a bit of a Merle swagger; did you notice that? It’s not a criticism. I liked it. Maybe Milton’s right, that a trace of self lives on in the walkers. Daryl and Merle’s relationship has always been one of the more convincing ones for me, in theory at least. How do you choose between the family you want and the family you have?
The scenes between Merle and Michonne weren’t bad either, except for their seeming to reference an entirely different relationship than the one we've ever seen between these two before. She’s one of the stronger characters, once she’s given a chance to talk. This new patient, philosophical side Michonne doesn’t exactly match up with the silent warrior that she was for the early part of this season, but I’ll definitely take this version over that one. Merle must have really perfected his one-handed wire knot because otherwise I don’t know why Michonne, even with her hands confined the way they were, didn’t free herself when she was tied up to that post.
Here’s the thing, though. It’s not enough. We still spent most of this episode going through the motions of whether or not Michonne would be offered to the Governor. I know you guys think I’m too hard on this show, but at this point, its lack of rigor is feeling cynical. It’s like watching someone phoning in their last few months until retirement; there are so many instances of just going through the motions. Sixteen minutes of the season's penultimate episode were filled with Rick going from cell to cell, relaying his plan to send Michonne to the Governor. Then after he shares a meaningful moment with an ethernet cord and the ghost of his dead wife (does Formal White Gown Ghost Laurie know about Pregnant Flannel Shirt ghost Laurie? Because that sort of felt like Rick was cheating on her. Or do ghosts work like Barbie dolls, where they come in all different versions and outfits?), his mind is changed. The Michonne deal is off! Now he has to go back through the prison cells, talking about undoing what he didn’t even yet do.
It’s too late, though. Merle might have only become born again yesterday, but he still knows how things run. He knew Rick wouldn’t be able to follow through with his plan. So Merle decides to take matters into his own hands. He gathers up Rick’s magic telephone so that Rick won’t be able to make a real-time ten-minute phone call to the devil/angels on his shoulders Shane or Dale to ask for advice on what to do. Then Merle tricks Michonne into going to investigate a breach in the tunnels and disarms her. He puts a sack over her head and ties her. I was able to buy his doing all of this because there were actual stakes on the line. Merle knew the only way he’d ever be able to make things right with Rick’s crew was if he became a hero. Which meant he had to take out the Governor on his own. This way he’d be protecting the others, including his brother, and he was cocky and self-destructive enough to believe he could do it.
The problem with Merle’s showdown with the Governor, however, was that there’s no way anyone watching thought the Governor was going to die. You know why? Because all season long we’ve been told that Rick’s crew is going to war with Woodbury. I don’t know how this war will be any different than that mess of a gun battle that capped off the break, but it’s definitely happening (or at least starting) next week. And the knowledge of this time frame has been a big part of why this season has been such a drag to watch. It’s been frustratingly clear to us viewers that the show had no intention to go to war until the final episode of the season. Which has meant endless talking about that war and preparing for it in the weirdest, least strategic ways. Like handing out guns and then taking them back. Or padlocking broken gates that don’t seem to have any purpose. Or banging on pots in order to distract the handful of zombies in your front yard but for some reason never stabbing them.
Not only did Merle have real reasons to try and kill the Governor on his own, but he also had a strategy. That’s something that would never have occurred to Rick. That dude must have lost every game of Connect Four he ever played. He’s a wretched leader, and on another show, I would’ve been glad to see him cede his title. On this show, though, I can’t help but think it’s just a setup for another season’s worth of in-fighting, to episode after episode devoted to who votes to stay and who votes to leave. I hope I’m wrong about this, but the track record just has not been good.
I guess after killing Merle, the Governor just went back to Woodbury to order his people to plant and then uproot some more shrubs. Or maybe he went back because he had a five o’clock torture appointment with Andrea. The son of Tyrese’s crew got shot in the head by Merle, which means that the dad is going to be on a tear next week. Now I’ll never know if his name was Allen or Ben. Everyone’s cleared out by the time Daryl “tracks” his way to the meeting warehouse (after bumping into Michonne in that nether region between the prison and all the other sets) and runs into his big brother chomping away. Glenn also proposed to Maggie this episode, after cracking the wedding ring wearing finger off of one of those prison-yard zombies. (Maybe Rick’s crew is beginning to think of those zombies sort of like pets. Or stray cats who you keep putting a tin can of food out for while going on about how they’re such a nuisance) This show still has no idea how to write romantic scenes. His proposal consisted of his putting the ring in Maggie’s hand and her saying yes. I feel like they need to hire Nancy Meyers on retainer or something.
Next week: war.