MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT FOR THIS RECAP. I’ve read plenty of pissed of tweets and Facebook statuses, so please… if you truly haven’t seen the episode yet, look away now.
I began watching this episode knowing we weren’t diving into the war just yet, and I’ll admit I felt a little sleepy through most of the episode. And even though I’m sure many people are shocked/possibly upset by the ending, I have to say that the dramatic end this episode met is one that brings me back into the emotional appeal of The Walking Dead. We began to get so wrapped up in philosophizing about war, and good and evil, rage and anger, that examining the emotional toll of what the apocalypse has cost humanity has been a secondary thought. We all know that the Grimes camp (and probably others too) look upon killing the zombie reincarnations of those they once knew can be seen as a mercy killing, something necessary because they have accepted the truth that the walker that emerges contains nothing of the person they lost. We see this come to fruition in the wrought relationship between Daryl and Meryl this week. Despite where they fell on the moral spectrum once the apocalypse hit and once its repercussions took hold, their brotherhood was an undeniable part of their humanity. Just as they began to truly make peace with one another, that kinship is taken away by no less than what I like to interpret as Meryl’s martyrdom – the one good thing he tries to do, the one deed that will be left otherwise thankless, unrecognized, and misunderstood.
I approach the topic of killing off/writing off characters with a high level of scrutiny, and hope that whatever circumstances arise for this character to be removed from the show stay true to the nature of the character. Oftentimes, and usually for probably shows with less need for analysis, this can be done without a care and with a one-off explanation. Then there are the shows that do a character justice in writing them out of the grander narrative in a conclusive, satisfying way, one where even if you miss the character moving forward, you know their purpose was fulfilled. My favorite example of this is with Salvatore Romano on Mad Men – a wonderful character, who rounds out the scope of his character arc by the time he meets his pretty swift exit. Meryl has always been a fascinating character to me – someone despicable who has a quality that just sticks. Maybe it’s just Michael Rooker’s charm. But for all my questioning of his motives in this second half of the season, I was truly moved by his departure.
So how do we get there in the first place? We start with Rick, in very shameful behavior, succumbing to the request to surrender Michonne, somehow believing that the Governor would actually just take her and not want anything to do with the prison. He confides this to Hershel and Daryl, both of whom question Rick’s choice, but reluctantly roll with it. We see later that Rick’s sanity is in question again as he wrestles with the inner demon, I guess, of Lori’s ghost and whatever. Rick implies that Meryl would be able to pull off the mission and bring Michonne without further thought, when in fact Meryl is the one person who sees the weight of this decision better than anyone else. We are introduced to Meryl in this episode at a striking low point – ripping apart all the prison mattresses for some dope. As he talks to Rick, he is shrouded beautifully in the shadows, guesstimating (accurately) what the Governor’s evil intentions with Michonne would be, trying to ingrain there is something darker operating there. If there was any greater sign of foreshadowing this was the place, in the cold open, with this amazing wisdom Meryl is imparting on Rick. It kind of plays a little like Lane Price’s departure from Mad Men, where we see glaring signs of foreshadowing in the cold open. But still, at this point, it’s hard to guess where Meryl stands, other than knowing he’s now against the Governor. There’s still the question of what unpredictable act could he unwield against the prison.
Though Meryl shares that he doubts Rick’s judgment in giving up Michonne, he follows Rick’s order to make the surrender happen quietly to appease Rick and Daryl. He lures in Michonne to a walker trap, knocks her out, and drags her out of the prison and begins the journey to get her to Woodbury, per Rick’s orders.
Of course, as Meryl puts the play in action, Rick has his change of heart (someone implies that a good security measure was suggested by Michonne and his conscience suddenly returns to him. wahoo…) Daryl realizes that Meryl has already gone through with the plan and chases after Meryl. But so many steps behind…
The Meryl/Michonne scenes here are great – I love well-executed pairings of opposite characters where the chemistry starts to shift. Seeing the two of them walking alone together, in the car together, trying to fight off walkers to save one another – we start to remember and recognize that technically they’re both outsiders to the prison camp. Meryl was the wild card that they once abandoned and reluctantly took back in, and Michonne is the cold survivor that no one is sure they can trust, simply because she is inaccessible. Even in Woodbury, you can consider the two of them outsiders at a certain end – by the time Meryl’s allegiance to Daryl became known, he became an outsider (also for his betrayal of the Governor by letting Michonne live). And of course, Michonne’s distrust of Woodbury set her oustide that community. They both distrust the status quo, and have a harder time adjusting to a community for their own reasons. They click in their lone statuses together. But then, something amazing happens – though it’s usually Meryl who gets under people’s skin, Michonne pushes Meryl too far. She rags on him for “taking out the trash” wherever he goes, and not being able to garner any respect beyond that. She hints that he will not be mourned when he’s gone, and this rattles Meryl. Now, I was kind of hoping and thinking, based on how he talked to Rick, that his true intention would always be just to let Michonne go and mess with the great war plan, but it is (apparently) only at this moment in the car with her that he simply stops and shifts gears. He opens the door and tells her to go back. Meryl instead pursues the mission he’s been hungry to execute – get rid of the Governor, which for several episodes now he said they should just shut up and do before it’s too late. (If only they listened!)
Meryl’s inner genius emerges here as he executes his impromptu plan, which actually kind of gives the prison stall time. He lures a bunch of walkers to the Woodbury walker pit, rolls out of the car he jump starts, and starts assassinating the Governor’s men. Of course, just as he’s about to out the Governor, a walker approaches and distracts him. This gives the Governor enough time to find him, and brutally attack him, BITING OFF TWO OF HIS FINGERS. I MEAN, WHAT A SICKO, RIGHT? The Governor’s smile as he pulls the trigger is haunting – again, a further reminder that this guy is friggin nuts and one evil son of a bitch.
As if Meryl’s thankless martyrdom wasn’t heartbreaking enough, Daryl finally catches up to his brother’s tracks. We’ve seen the situations before, where people are met with the decision to kill the walker versions of people they love. But with Daryl as a fan favorite (I feel like hair/makeup worked to make him look particularly dashing in this episode), this particular death hits hard. He slowly approaches a rather hungry walker feeding on one of the dead bodies from the sudden massacre. The walker somehow recognizes fresh blood is nearby and looks up – Meryl’s eyes are crazed, and the camera lingers long enough for you to wonder if maybe Milton is right – there’s part of that former self that somehow still lives in the walker’s consciousness. Immediately walker Meryl approaches, and Daryl takes a few moments of crying and swatting before facing the facts and killing his own brother. This scene now puts Daryl in an incredibly vulnerable position – will he react as impulsively and dangerously as everyone else this mid season with approaching the Governor? Also, the exchange between them felt so much deeper and emotional than most other walker killings, that it does make me think about the evolution of the walker at this stage of the zombie apocalypse. Could Meryl still have been somewhere inside there? Regardless, for an otherwise difficult character to fall in step with, Meryl’s exit was appropriate for The Walking Dead universe, dark and still dramatic.
Of course, the other stuff that developed was Rick contending with additional visions of pregnant Lori (yeah, yeah) and Glenn’s proposal to Maggie (oh, thank you cheesy soap opera music cues). The bookend of this episode is Rick’s realization that to lead his group requires more of a democracy and not a dictatorship – which is actually a pretty poignant point to differentiate Rick vs The Governor (I mean, Rick goes so far to say “I’m not your Governor”) Which will win out – Rick’s system of justice, or the Governor’s crazed leadership? Also, now that Michonne knows Rick was ready to give her up, how will she approach the man she just started to trust? It’s a tiring thing to re-examine the prison and their stakes in the war, but I’ll still walk away haunted by Meryl’s exit… but in a good way. I can roll with a satisfying end for a character arc every now and then. Let’s hope the season finale gives us a satisfying, non-soapy war!