SPOILER ALERT: This recap for the "This Sorrowful Life" episode of "The Walking Dead" contains storyline and character spoilers.
Well, this one hurts. There are several characters on "The Walking Dead" whose deaths might not have had the impact that Sunday night's "This Sorrowful Life" death had. Were you most upset that Merle, the hateful guy you could never really bring yourself to hate, died? Or -- and we're guessing this is it -- were you most upset when Daryl stumbled upon his zombified big bro noshing on some human innards, forcing Daryl to finish the job on the walker version of Merle?
See the heartbreaking scene (at the five minute mark):
We can all agree there were some tears to shed for both Dixon brothers.
But Merle went out a hero, which is a sentence that might not have seemed possible earlier this season when he was unleashing a walker on Glenn and the Governor on Maggie. Here's how we got there.
Merle's going to the mattresses
Why does Rick find Merle in one of the prison cells, ripping open mattresses? Because, as Merle tells him, the best drugs he ever had came from a mattress.
"Do you even know why you do the things you do, the choices you make?" Rick asks him.
Rick tells Merle he needs his help, though. He fills him in on the deal the Governor offered for Michonne and tells him he needs his help to pull off handing her over to Woodbury's psycho leader.
"You don't have the spine," Merle tells Rick.
Rick takes off to the prison yard to find some wire (as Merle advised) that Michonne won't be able to break free of while they're transporting her to the Governor, and Merle stays inside, watching the preparations. He and Carol get into a conversation in which she demands to know what side he's on. He's with Daryl, he says, and then tells Carol she's not the same afraid-of-her-own-shadow woman she was back at the pre-Hershel's farm camp.
"You're a late bloomer," he tells her.
"Maybe you are, too," Carol replies, which is probably when you, too, started getting that oh no, they're hinting at Merle's redemption/they're going to kill him off vibe.
Outside, Daryl is making a pitch to Glenn to forgive Merle. Daryl tells Glenn he understands everything Merle has done, everything that happened in Woodbury, but he thinks all that's necessary is a little forgiveness to be thrown Merle's way.
An angry Glenn tells Daryl he can't, not after what Merle did nearly resulted in Maggie being raped by the Governor.
"I care more about her than I care about me," Glenn says.
Daryl goes off to talk to Merle, then, and finds his brother stalking around a boiler room in the prison. Merle again expresses his skepticism that Rick has the "stomach" to hand over Michonne to the Gov, and Daryl says he'll go along with whatever decision Rick makes.
"Do you even possess a pair of balls, little brother? Are they even attached?" Merle taunts his little bro. He's angry, and points out that what Rick is planning to do, in handing Michonne over to the Governor, is the kind of stuff they accuse Merle of doing, the kind of stuff that makes them distrust him.
Now, not only is Rick planning to do the same thing, but he's asked Merle to do some of the dirty work for him.
"I just want my brother back," Daryl says.
"Get out of here man," which is probably the closest Merle has ever come to expressing affection for anyone.
[Related: 8 Things You Didn't Know About Norman Reedus]
Yep, Rick's having visions of Lori again, but it's a good thing this time. While he's picking up a piece of wire for the Michonne transaction, he sees Lori standing on one of the walkways, but tells himself she's not real, she's not really there.
Moments later, he walks into the prison and tells Hershel the deal's off. He's decided he can't go through with sending Michonne to the Gov. Visions of Lori are apparently now Rick's conscience.
Merle, on the other hand, has no such qualms, which is why he lures Michonne to the tombs to help clear walkers, but really so he can whack her on the back of her head and take off for Woodbury with her. He hasn't gotten the memo that Rick changed his mind about that deal …
Rick, in fact, is just relaying the new plan to Daryl -- "I can't say it was the wrong call, but this is the right one," Daryl responds -- when they realize Merle and Michonne are missing. Daryl tells Rick he's going after them and takes off.
Merle's rogue mission
What does the older Dixon bro have in mind? Yep, redemption. He tells Michonne, whom he has tied up with wire, that if he pulls his plan off, the group might be willing to forgive him.
She tries various ways to get inside his head and make him head back to the prison instead of off to meet the Governor, but none of them work, even after Merle gets the chance to use her katana to slice the head off a walker.
Back at the prison, Glenn sits down for a one-on-one with Hershel, and causes something that almost never happens on "The Walking Dead": a genuine smile. In one of those rare moments when their lives resemble something like what they might have been in the pre-apocalyptic world, Glenn tells Hershel he wants to marry Maggie, "before … you know." With the war vs. Woodbury looming, Glenn wants to put a ring on it before he or Maggie become biter chow.
Hershel not only gives Glenn his blessing, but smiles, genuinely happy for his daughter and son-in-law to be.
Spoiler alert on what will happen a few scenes down the road: Glenn secures a ring for Maggie by taking one off a walker's finger … after he cuts the walker's finger off. That's how you roll when Zales is not available, apparently.
Glenn's big proposal: He puts the ring in Maggie's hand, and she looks at it and says yes. That's how you roll when you have no football stadium Jumbotron on which to propose, apparently.
NEXT: Merle and Michonne's adventure continues...
Merle and Michonne's adventure continues with a stop at an old motel, where Merle breaks into and starts hotwiring a car (no small feat with just the one hand and his stabby arm). Unfortunately, he also sets off a car alarm, which draws walkers from all corners. Michonne's still tied up -- and still manages to take out two walkers -- while screaming for Merle to help. The alarm's drowning her out, though, until a walker tries to eat Merle, and he jumps out of the car to save himself and Michonne. He takes out a few biters himself, gets her into the car, and away they go.
Michonne uses the drive time to try to persuade Merle again to return to the prison. They also talk about how many people Merle has killed since the apocalypse began (16, he says), and how many he killed before (none). And she tells Merle how Daryl's life has changed. "Things are different for your brother … Rick needs him, respects him," she says.
No dice in turning that car around.
So then she gets mean. "No one's going to mourn you, not even Daryl," she tells Meryl.
He shares that the whole reason she's on this trip springs from the decision by Rick to trade her to the Governor for the promise of peace.
"You're on the outside as much as I am, girl," Merle says.
"Maybe," she replies. "But once the Governor's done with me, at least I don't have to live with myself."
"We could just go back … both of us," she tries again.
"I can't go back," he says. "Don't you understand that? I can't," then stops the car, sets her free, and drives off on his own.
The redemption …
Daryl, who'd gone out looking for Michonne and his brother, runs into Michonne as she's killing a walker head. She tells him Merle let her go, and Daryl runs off after him.
Flash to Merle, who's parked at a bar, slugging back a bottle of whiskey and listening to the car radio as hoards of zombies approach the car and try to get at him. He waits until he's good and surrounded and then slowly starts moving the car forward.
He continues this for a few minutes, attracting more walkers along the way, and then suddenly opens the car door, with his sniper rifle in tow, and rolls out into the grass while the car moves on. Aha! As the car rolls on, the scene becomes familiar … it's the same place Rick met with the Governor for the big showdown. Merle has lured a ton of walkers to the area, knowing the Gov and his minions will be there, set up for the meeting in which Rick is supposed to hand over Michonne. Merle goes inside the barn, and while the minions and the Gov start picking off the biters that are approaching, Merle looks out the window and starts picking off the minions.
He even has a perfect shot at the Governor, but just then, that pesky Ben -- Allen's kid, from Tyrese's group -- moves in front of him and gets hit (fatally, as was confirmed on the "Talking Dead" aftershow). And just as Merle goes to take another shot, he's attacked by a walker, which draws the attention of the Gov and the minions, and leads to a Governor vs. Merle showdown in which the Governor bites off Merle's finger (guess who's not having the best week ever? Fingers!), spits it out, and then starts to choke him.
Finally, the Governor tires of Merle, and pulls his gun out and shoots him as the screen goes black.
Back at the prison, Rick gathers everyone and tells them the truth, that he had lied to them about his meeting with the Governor. The Gov wants Michonne, he says, and Rick was prepared to turn her over to him. That was wrong, he says. It was the wrong decision, which he hopes he's not too late to correct, and it wasn't his decision alone to make.
That thing he said last year, after they left Hershel's farm, that thing about him being the boss of them? Not so much, he says. "We're the reason we're still here … I'm not your Governor," he continues very pointedly, clearly having soaked in how crazy a little bit of power can make someone (cough, the Governor, cough).
"WE decide," Rick says of the prison crew's plans going forward, telling them they need to make a group decision about fleeing or staying at the prison to take on the Woodbury whackadoo and his army. He leaves them to talk among themselves, and while standing watch at the tower, is happy to see Michonne returning in the woods.
… and the heartbreak
Daryl stumbles upon the meeting site, and sees nothing but bloody bodies strewn across the yard, and a walker noshing on a body. He takes him out with his bow and arrow.
Then he looks up and sees another walker enjoying lunch. The walker looks up at him, and it's Merle. Walker Merle, and as Daryl realizes who it is, and what he now is, his shoulders hunch up and he starts to sob. A brilliant close-up shot of walker Merle's eyes prove he doesn't recognize his brother as anything more than a snack, which breaks Daryl's heart even more and brings about heavier tears while walker Merle comes at Daryl.
Daryl pushes him off a couple of times, but then finally has to stab what used to be his brother. He's so emotional and hurt and angry that he stabs him repeatedly in the head, and then collapses to the ground in tears.
And now, there's just one episode left in Season 3, next week's "Welcome to the Tombs."
Watch a preview of the season finale:
Zombie bites (In honor of the late Merle Dixon, who has had the show's best lines in several episodes this season, Merle's pearls from "This Sorrowful Life"):
- Merle to Rick, upon hearing that Rick plans to turn Michonne over to the Governor: "You're cold as ice, Officer Friendly."
- Merle to Rick, first deciding that he's going to have to take matters into his own hands: "You know, you're right. I don't know why I do the things I do. Never did. I'm a damn mystery to me. But I know you, Rick. Yeah, I thought a lot about you. You don't have the spine for it."
- Merle's final words, said to the Governor: "I ain't gonna beg! I ain't begging you!"
Now, what did our fellow "Dead"-heads on Twitter think about "This Sorrowful Life"?
And we love this idea from @HWShaunna:
"The Walking Dead" airs Sundays at 9 PM on AMC.