What We Learned From The Season’s Best Episode Of ‘The Walking Dead’

After the dust settled on filming season three of The Walking Dead, and Robert Kirkman looked at what had been accomplished, I imagine his thought process went something like this: “We have a fun show on our hands. It’s the biggest drama on television. It’s fast-paced, action-oriented, and entertaining as hell on most weeks. The Walking Dead is a good show. But how do we make it great?”

Kirkman must have looked at the evidence, and surmised that the show’s best episodes were mostly written by Scott Gimple, who wrote last night’s episode, who wrote “Clear,” the Michonne-centered episode a few weeks ago, and “Pretty Much Dead Already,” the episode where Zombie Sophie was shot that brought The Walking Dead itself back from the dead. That’s why Scott Gimple, I believe, was hired as next year’s showrunner. Because Kirkman wasn’t happy with a good show. He wanted a great one, and in last night’s episode, he definitely got another great hour out of Gimple.

Episodes like last night’s matter. They make us reconsider the show. It’s not in the same league as Breaking Bad or Justified, and it never will be. But as much as we have bellyached about the show over the course of three seasons, lately its entered into the second-tier of great television dramas, along with Boardwalk Empire. Episodes like “This Sorrowful Life” elevate The Walking Dead, but they matter most because they allow us higher contrast glimpses into the personalities of these people we’ve spent three years with. Merle has never been anything but an evil little sh*t. We like him because Michael Rooker is an outstanding actor, and like most of the prison gang, we accept him because Daryl accepts him. But last night, Merle demonstrated why it is that Daryl accepts him. There is a hero inside of him. Yes, he is a racist, asshole hero, but there is a hero nonetheless.

I also appreciate the refined approach The Walking Dead is taking lately, to, by centering each episode’s attention on essentially one character. It’s such a large ensemble cast that jumping around from character to character within each episode doesn’t give us enough time to get to know anyone. It was easy to break these recaps down into “10 Things We Learned” earlier in the third season because the show would develop smaller arcs for each of the characters within each episode, so it became something of a check list: What’s Andrea doing? What’s Rick doing? What are Glenn and Maggie doing? How’s the Governor, etc. etc. The last few episodes, in particular, have taken the Lost approach: Lasering in on one or two characters and moving the storyline along through that character’s interactions. In Lost, however, we always knew that something monumental would likely happen to the character they focused in on, but folks, with Merle, holy sh*t, I did NOT see that coming.

There’s a tidy through line, however, from Gimple’s last episode to this one. In “Clear,” we got to know Michonne in a way we haven’t yet, and in “This Sorrowful Life,” there was a huge payoff. If “Clear” hadn’t have happened, we wouldn’t have been as torn as Rick was about giving Michonne up to The Governor. Just as importantly, we wouldn’t have put as much stock into the words of Michonne. Michonne and Merle are the group’s outsiders, and both are trying to work their way into the inner circle, so in a way, they speak the same language. That’s why Michonne was able to get under Merle’s skin so effectively.

In fact, the turning point in last night’s episode was a line delivered by Michonne to Merle: “You talk about the weight of what you have to do. How you can handle it. A bad man, someone truly evil. They’re light as a feather.” I think we knew at that point that Merle would own up to his goodness. That he wouldn’t sacrifice Michonne to the Governor. There is some Rick in Merle: Some inner turmoil, a heaviness, and to unload that emotional debt, Merle had to give up his own life.

Gimple also did a brilliant job of setting the episode up in the first half, presenting Merle as a guy in search of his own motivation. Two exchanges were key: In his conversation with Carol, Merle came to terms with the fact that he is on the side of Rick’s gang (an exchange that also highlighted how far Carol has come over the course of the series) and in his exchange with Daryl, Merle found his motivation: To be the man that Daryl once looked up to. It’s funny how Daryl changes around Merle. Around everyone else, he’s a quiet, glowering bad-ass, but around Merle, he’s a little brother, in the same way that many of us fall back into familiar roles when we are around our families. Merle wanted to do something to impress his little brother. At first, he thought that would be to make the hard choice that he knew Rick could not make — to give Michonne up to The Governor — but he realized, ultimately, that the only way to get back into his brother’s good graces was to do what Daryl had promised to Glenn he would do: Something to atone for his sins as The Governor’s lackey. Something worthy of forgiveness.

He came about it in the hardest way imaginable: Merle sacrificed himself to thin out the Woodbury ranks. He took a shot at the Governor, and unfortunately, that miss would cost him his life.

The payoff was emotionally difficult: In a matter of seconds, Daryl must have realized what Merle had done, that he had finally become the older brother that Daryl wanted him to be, and then he had to turn around and kill his zombiefied brother. Norman Reedus was amazing in that sequence. Daryl had lost not the man that Merle had become, but the man that Merle was before the zombie outbreak. It was a gut-wrenching scene, and honestly, it sucks to lose Michael Rooker from The Walking Dead, but at least he went out in an episode worthy of his talents.

There were two other developments in last night’s episode worth nothing, as well. After nearly losing Michonne to the Governor — and coming to an epiphany after seeing Ghost Lori — Rick finally relinquished control of the group in one of the better speeches of the series — “It’s not my call. We are the greater good.” It’s no longer a Ricktocracy. He realized that, if they’re going to be a true family, everyone would need an equal voice. Now it’s just a matter of bringing Michonne into that family, regaining her trust.

Finally, after getting Hershel’s blessing, Glenn asked Maggie to marry him, and she said yes. This is what the best episodes of television do — what Friday Night Lights was so good at: Never letting a great moment sing for too long.They blend the emotional highs (Maggie and Glenn’s engagement) with the emotional lows (the death of Merle) and send us into commercial breaks with conflicted, bittersweet FEELS. Unfortunately, most of us have seen enough of these kind of dramas over the past few years to know that marriage proposals are a show’s way of creating a stronger sense of emotional attachment before they yank another character away from us. No offense, but if one of those two dies next week, I hope it’s Glenn. If Maggie dies, we riot.

In sum, last night featured a great episode of what is now a great television series.