The worst thing about zombies, and the thing that has been exploited most in just about every zombie narrative ever, is that they are not a truly faceless enemy. They are a corruption of the real world, the reawakening of a loved one or friend as something mindlessly malevolent. Vampires or werewolves have the capacity to recall their old lives, perhaps feeling remorse for their killings, while zombies simply consume, leaving just the physical husk of your former acquaintance as a lurching reminder of your loss. It must be terrifying to see someone you care about laid so low, so horribly altered, subjected to the ignominy of a restless death, turned into something no more human than an ant or a shark.
This is one of those ideas that The Walking Dead has toyed with more than it has explored. One a very basic plot level we have watched people have to deal with turned loved ones, and yet we’ve never really felt the emotional impact as much as we did this week when Daryl hunts down his brother Merle after Merle takes Michonne to see the Governor. It is the culmination of a lot of stuff that makes no sense, and yet that final moment, when Daryl sees what has become of his brother, that is the strongest moment since the stellar episode Clear. It rescues this episode from feeling like just another placeholder leading up to the eventual war.
The bafflement begins when it turns out that Rick, in spite of his stirring St. Crispin’s Day speech about the coming war, is planning on giving up Michonne. I don’t know when he came to this decision, as we only saw him but briefly in last week’s Andrea-centric show, but he decides to tell Daryl about the choice, as well as Hershel. Hershel doesn’t seem up for it, nor does Daryl, especially when Rick decides to get Merle in on the action.
It’s interesting to see Merle tearing around the prison, looking for long-stashed caches of drugs to indulge in, and even more interesting to hear him and Rick hash it out, but the entire reason behind the exchange seems pointless. Why would Rick ever trust Merle? If he didn’t feel comfortable asking Glen for help, why would he think this was a good idea? At the very least he is giving Merle power over him by making him a party to privileged information. At worst, he’s just given Merle a reason to go after Michonne… which he does.
This is, of course, after Daryl goes out of his way to offer up some evidence against the prisoner trade, and after Rick predictably folds his position. Merle told him, chillingly, that he didn’t have the stomach for the trade – while also dropping some hints about the Governor’s sadistic side – and Rick acted accordingly.
After this asinine setup, however, the episode picks up some speed. The conversation that grows between Merle and Michonne shows a lot of smart character work, and serves to humanize Merle. It also leads to one of the more effective zombie attack scenes that we’ve seen lately, as Merle’s tinkering with a car leads to the alarm going off, drawing a herd. Michonne, tied with wire (which she can’t chew threw) to a post is still capable of defending herself, and Merle likewise proves his zombie-slaying worth.
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