Friday, March 29, 2013

The Walking Dead: "This Sorrowful Life"

Our apologies for the lateness of this post! First, our schedules simply didn't match up at all this week (so when I'd complete a section, Josh was busy the rest of the day, and then he'd complete a section and I wouldn't be online). Second, my husband grabbed my computer one day, wiped it and upgraded my Mac's operating system to the latest version, and now I can no longer cut and paste anything and it drops the wireless signal every 3.2 seconds. So that's been fun.

Aside from all that, welcome to the (very late) rundown of the penultimate episode of this Walking Dead season, "This Sorrowful Life" (which is no doubt a tongue-in-cheek reference to This Life, the British TV show that made Andrew Lincoln famous.) But before we get to the episode (Josh will begin this week, make sure you check this out, an amazing comparison between The Walking Dead and Toy Story, showing how similar this horrorfest is to one of the greatest trilogies of all time. Oh, and this:

Josh: Early on in “This Sorrowful Life,” as Merle is searching around the prison for something to get him stoned, he comes across Carol, and they have a conversation about conciliation that is one of my favorite pieces of writing from the show thus far. She begins prodding him about his loyalty, acting the casual instigator, and it's obvious he's impressed by the fearlessness of her character, a quality he recognizes as distinctly different from the Carol he knew back in the camp at the quarry, all those months ago. And he says so: “You don't seem scared of nothin' any more.”

“I'm not,” she answers.

“You're a late bloomer.”

“Maybe you are, too.”

In retrospect, I should have seen this coming. The minute I started sympathizing with Merle several episodes back, right away I should have identified it as clever groundwork and figured out what the writers were up to. But I didn't; they got me again, and they got me good. The folks behind The Walking Dead had an uphill battle accomplishing the redemption of Merle Dixon, but as far as I'm concerned, they nailed it, from beginning to end.

Raise a glass, friends. Let's get this wake started.

Nikki: Remember, long long ago, probably, oh, two weeks ago or something, when we all would have danced the dance of joy and happiness to see Merle’s rotting one-armed corpse on the ground? Those days are no more. Where the writers were careful not to make him turn over as a completely sympathetic character — which would have been one-dimensional and not satisfying at all — we saw him as a person in this episode. In my notes I’ve written at the very beginning, “Wait… Merle’s giving morality advice to Rick? Hath hell frozen over?!” It’s not Hershel’s dour stare that changes Rick’s mind, but the fact that Merle, the man who everyone would like to think lacks a heart, said that turning over Michonne is something even he couldn’t do.

And then he tries to do it. I don’t actually believe he ever intended to do it. He hadn’t thought it all the way through. Yes, when he first grabbed her he perhaps thought this would get him in with the Governor. But then he thought of his brother and what he would think (thanks to Michonne putting that little kernel into his head). And then he realized what he was running from and what he was running to. But listening to him at the beginning of the episode, talking to Rick and telling him what the Governor would actually do (killing isn’t something that would happen right away), we knew that he knew it wasn’t the thing to do. After that conversation, when he tricked and nabbed Michonne, part of me thought he was actually removing her from the prison until cooler heads prevailed. But it took the reminder of Daryl, and what his little brother would think of him, to make him stop and let Michonne out of the car.

And then… then he goes to the shack, and proves that Rick is wrong: they WERE coming fully armed, they WERE going to kill every last one of them, and Merle instead shows them for what they really are, and saves all their lives in the process. With a knife stuck to his arm and a gun in his other hand, he takes out half of the Governor’s already paltry army, almost takes out the Guv himself, and then dies at the Governor’s hand. And even that, watching Merle finally meet the other end of a gun, didn’t upset me. Merle has done terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad things in his time, and it’s hard to forgive all of that because he’s become that sort of funny, silly racist uncle at the prison that makes you uncomfortable but you just love the big guy anyway.

No, it’s Daryl finding his brother. I just keep forgetting that they turn when they’re killed. I didn’t even think of Merle as a walker, I thought Daryl would find him. And boy, he found him all right. Eating the flesh of another dead human being before that person could get up and walk (okay, for nitpick purposes, he died AFTER all of those people, so technically they should have been feasting on him but let’s let that one slide!). Daryl says his brother’s name, as if — like the Governor — he believes somewhere in there is the brother who loved him. And for a split second, WE begin to believe it too, when Merle stands up and begins lumbering towards him. But no, he’s a flesh-eating monster, and like Carl, Daryl has to destroy his loved one to stop him from going any further. And by the time he’s done, he’s stabbed Merle in the head repeatedly, for abandoning him, for becoming such a prick, for endangering his friends, and, most of all, for dying just as Daryl was beginning to get to know him. THAT is the moment where Merle’s death hit home, and where this episode was raised to the operatic level it achieved. Best episode of the season.

Josh: Hands down. And maybe – maybe – my favorite of the series thus far. I feel that way for many reasons, at the forefront being the masterful way it addresses all the fundamental questions not just of the season but the series as a whole: what gives us our humanity, and what constitutes an ally, a family, a home. How the way we treat others defines us. Rick said it best: “I couldn't sacrifice one of us for the greater good, because we are the greater good. We're the reason we are still here... not me.”

Since the Governor made his offer, I'd been very pragmatic in my analysis of the situation, focusing on the legitimacy of the deal and figuring the outcome would hinge on whether or not they trusted him to keep his word. The writers, however, wisely kept Rick's reasoning – and Hershel's, and Daryl's, and Merle's – solely about the act itself, about the moral and emotional implications as opposed to any more tangible fallout. And of course that is exactly as it should be; if one can't shoulder the psychological ramifications of such a devil's bargain, then nothing else matters.

I loved the sequence with Hershel reading to the girls from the Bible as Rick dug through the trash, looking for the wire to use for Michonne's bonds. The selection he chose was Psalm 91, the so-called 'Psalm of Protection,' and therefore relevant for obvious reasons, but I found its use particularly poignant due to a different Biblical congruity. Psalm 91 was the same Old Testament text that the devil quoted to Jesus during His temptation in the wilderness, attempting to corrupt His integrity, to convince Him to sacrifice His righteousness for pacification. The parallel is undeniable, even before Rick's vision of Lori appears like an angel above his shoulder, sun framing her head in a halo of light, to give him the final push in the right direction. “You're not there,” he says – to her, to himself – but she was, too. Just not in body, and not up on that fence-lined walkway. Somewhere closer. Where all those whom we've lost linger on, the place inside us where they'll always be waiting when we need them.

Nikki: Well put! I, too, thought that entire montage of events was beautifully executed, with Hershel’s verse the perfect backing soundtrack. I wasn’t sure how far they were going to take the Lori thing, but this episode brought it all around. The entire time, she’s haunted him like a demon: taunting him on the phone, standing above him silent in a harlot’s gown, standing just outside the fence, luring him to the walkers… but that just didn’t make sense. Why was she that person? Turns out, it’s all in the interpretation. She was appearing to him at his lowest moments, and he thought it was to drag him down further. But, not to go all “Footprints” on us all here, in fact she was appearing in the times when he needed her most, and she was trying to be a sign to him, a sign that everything was OK, that he’s a good person, and that he’ll lead his flock to safety. As he quickly devolved into madness this season, he was losing sight of the person Lori once was to him. And only this episode, when he was about to do something that went entirely against his character, did he stop, look up at her, and see her for what she is. Not in an ethereal gown, not a disembodied voice on the phone, but Lori, in her plaid shirt and white tank top and jeans, carrying her baby. He felt her watching him, and smiling at him, telling him to go with his gut, and not do this thing.

That scene then led to the scene of Rick giving his counter speech to last season’s, “This is NOT a democracy!” speech. Instead, he’s been through the ringer, and knows that maybe this group doesn’t require one leader, but an advisory committee. He’ll still lead, but not alone. Only when they speak to each other do they figure out how to do the right thing. “I’m not your Governor,” he says flatly.

The dictatorship is over.

Let’s move over to Glenn and Maggie. Despite being the most unique acquisition of an engagement ring EVER (or, as my friend Colleen put it on her Facebook page, “Well that gave a whole new meaning to People’s Jewellers”), the proposal that followed was probably the sweetest moment of the season. Trapped in a prison surrounded by zombies, Glenn found a way to get the ring, get the father’s blessing, and get the girl to say yes. People will be talking about the finger slicing for years to come, but this quiet, subtle moment was there to remind us that maybe life can go on. Lori gave birth, but she had to die in the process. Somehow Glenn managed to do this the old-fashioned way, as if the world wasn’t coming to a sudden and horrible end. I absolutely loved that.

Of course, over at the shack, we were reminded of how much had changed when the batshit crazy Governor bit off Merle the same two fingers that Glenn had sliced off the zombie. And then you shudder, the romantic moment is over, and you do a quick salute and say, “Yeah. Good luck with that, kids.” But it was a lovely moment nonetheless.

Josh: Glenn's tearful speech as he asked Hershel's blessing was great as well. In particular, his astute acknowledgement of the way that the state of the world had rendered such long-term symbolic commitments relatively pointless but that he felt the need to do it regardless, just because “I want her to know,” was so sweet and perfect and exactly what any father would want to hear. Their exchange also contrasted splendidly with the actual proposal, as Glenn didn't speak at all, and didn't need to; Maggie's simple 'yes' was the only dialogue necessary. (On a related note, I am somewhat surprised to find that the upcoming finale episode is not titled 'A Wedding and Four Funerals.')

As you said, the ringbearer (ringbiter?) wasn't the only party to lose fingers this week. Despite the degree of atonement Merle earned by foiling the Governor's ambush, he's still said and done enough terrible things that his eleventh-hour heroism would have felt unbalanced if he hadn't gone out hard. And hard he went, with an absolutely brutal hand to hand fight between he and the Governor. Excuse the pun. Philip, who seems to be growing more deranged by the hour at this point, acted positively feral here, not only in the savage (and more than a little symbolic) way he crunched Merle's digits free and then spat them aside, but in every aspect of his behavior during their struggle. In fact, I'm pretty sure I heard him snarl like a dog at one point. Though it wasn't expressly implied, I'd guess that the intensity of the Governor's anger stemmed in large part from the simple ruination of his trade-off trap; the discovery that it was his old first mate Merle doing the ruining was just indignation icing on the fury cake.

But frankly, I still don't think he should have expected anything else. We've discussed more than once in recent weeks the Governor's brash overconfidence in the effectiveness of this scheme, in his own ability to come across as genuine and sincere even to people who don't know him. Philip certainly possesses a certain animal magnetism, but charisma notwithstanding, you'd have to be either incredibly desperate or woefully uninformed to think that an offer like that, under those strained circumstances, held any legitimacy whatsoever. Rick's desperation (as well as what I believe was an earnest desire to resolve their differences without further bloodshed – excepting Michonne, of course) almost ended them, but against all odds, Merle Dixon saved the day.

So, then, the question becomes what happens now. The Governor is furious, liable to attack at any time now, and in any way. In spite of the fact that she's returned to the prison, Michonne must be viewed a compromised asset at this point, considering she now knows how close they came to turning her over to save themselves. As for Daryl, there's no telling in what kind of mental state this loss will leave him; whether he's functional and focused or reckless and raging, they'll need him back quickly, and ready to think quickly. All things considered, will the sheriff and his prison posse even have the manpower they need for their defense, or will this require some last-minute, outside-the-box strategizing acrobatics? I know what I would do, but I haven't a clue what they're planning.

What do you think, Nikki?

Nikki: Agreed; when the Governor bit off Merle’s fingers, my husband said, “Wow. He’s completely insane now.” And what’s interesting, as you and I have noted in previous installments, is that if you look at both the Governor and Rick, you see a parallel: One man lost his wife before the apocalypse and had to be a single parent when the zombies first rose… a single parent who failed to keep his daughter safe. At that moment his sanity began to unravel further (one assumes there was a slight snap when the apocalypse happened so soon after the death of his beloved wife). He put his daughter in a cage and set about trying to become a powerful man, recruiting scientists to come up with a cure for her while putting together a town of which he was in control.

Now look at Rick. When the zombies hit, he was incapacitated, in a hospital, not knowing what was happening. And somehow the zombies just… left him alone. He awoke alone in a complete nightmare, his wife and child gone. He decided to go it alone, not knowing what the hell was happening or where his family was or if they even existed. And when he found them, it was like he got his life back. Where the Governor just lost one thing after another, Rick had a moment in there where he got some of it back, and it pulled him back from the brink of insanity. But then he found out his wife and Shane had been together. And she was pregnant and it could be his, or it could be hers. And when he killed his former best friend/cuckolder, his insanity began to unravel. He shunned his wife, declared the group a dictatorship, and began ruling with an iron fist. The Governor wasn’t as open about what was happening: while Woodbury was a dictatorship, the people were led to believe they actually had a say.

And then… Rick lost his wife. And became a single parent to not one, but two children, one he wasn’t even sure was his. He pulled away from the group, became unbalanced as they looked on, began shouting at invisible things in the dark and became the poster child for World of Crazy.

Meanwhile the Governor, still kidding himself (but having the added stress of KNOWING he was kidding himself), brushed his daughter’s matted hair lovingly each night while keeping her chained up in a small prison, watched her die at the hands of a woman he never trusted, who then turned and took out his eye for good measure. His people began seeing through his posturing, and he lost all kindness… and all hope. His main goal in life — to find a cure for his daughter — was useless now, and he gave that up to follow another one: the torture and murder of Michonne, and everyone associated with her.

And when the Governor showed up at the prison, shooting bullets willy-nilly in the air, and met with the other side at the shack, concocting schemes of mass slaughter, and basically showed Rick what happens when World of Crazy meets Evil Intentions, Rick pulled back from the brink, apologized, found his mind again, and became focused. The Governor, on the other hand, is completely, utterly, gone. I’m so happy that you described him as a feral animal with Merle because that is EXACTLY the word I had written in my own notes. And no, you didn’t imagine the snarl.

So now we go into the season finale with Rick being focused, the Governor’s army severely depleted and the Governor’s mind floating up Lunatic Creek, Andrea either dead or so tortured she, too, has lost her mind, the prison folk strengthened against the enemy, Merle dead, and Daryl (the strongest fighter in the prison folk) going into this battle with the same hellbent revenge the Governor’s been working with all season.

I cannot WAIT to see what happens.


Page48 said...

Security is not tight at "the shack".

I liked Merle's plan right up to the point where he succumbed to the Guv. Just seems to me that, with a little tweaking, he could have taken out the Guv instead of the other way around.

And how about the Guv killing Merle in such a way that ensured he would turn, rather than just blowing Merle's brains out! That's how we make a statement!

I loved the way Michonne kept her cool and used her awesome people skills to work Merle into letting her go.

Merle's survival skills are (were) a little shaky. Lying in a very prone position, hot-wiring a car with the radio blasting in the middle of zombie paradise? It's a miracle he lived long enough to be slaughtered Guvna-style.

My hope for the finale is to see Michonne turn the Guv into one of her jawless, armless accessories...and then kill him.

Efthymia said...

First of all, that "The Walking Dead = Toy Story" is amazing!

Should I assume my heart is as rotten as the walkers since I found the whole Glenn-proposing-to-Maggie thing cheesy rather than romantic/emotional? Also, I don't like their bliss, it makes me even more worried that Glenn is going to be killed off.

I can't say that I got to like Merle, but -as I've said in the past- sibling love is my weak point, and Merle had my sympathy during the last few episodes because he showed that he did care about Daryl more than anything. And Daryl's reaction when he saw his brother as a zombie was heartbreaking, the thought of it still makes me well up a little.
I was certain that Merle would die fighting by the end of the season, but I never thought he would be fighting alone and that he would turn into a zombie.

Rick seems to be getting back to his old self -finally!- and I hope it lasts. I did not like Season 3 Rick.

One episode left... Is it too late to beg, bribe and/or threaten the writers/producers so that they don't kill off Glenn or Michonne?

Colleen/redeem147 said...

I'm sorry that I was right re: Darryl killing Merle. Not how I pictured it, though. I get the Darryl love everyone has now, too.

Philip was as changed by the virus as any walker. In fact, he's become a walker now, albeit a (mostly) sentient one. He's not afraid of the taste of human flesh, and his one compulsion is to kill.

Thanks for the shout-out! :)

Ann said...

At the beginning of this episode when I started to feel a twinge of sympathy for Merle I was immediately convinced they were going to kill him off- and sure enough! A few weeks ago I couldn't have imagined that I would be sad over Merle's death, but I was. Daryl's reaction to seeing zombie-Merle made me teary-eyed for sure.

Rick's speech about bringing everything together in a democracy was great. It definitely made me flashback to Jack's "live together or die alone" speech back on the island!

Blam said...

@Josh: She begins prodding him about his loyalty, acting the casual instigator, and it's obvious he's impressed by the fearlessness of her character, a quality he recognizes as distinctly different from the Carol he knew back in the camp at the quarry, all those months ago.

The women on the show aren't as drawn with as much detail as the men — and, let's face it, almost every character on the show is more a type than a human portrait — but Carol has possibly been the most fascinating to watch as her "arc" has progressed and is the most enjoyable to me when simple conversation is being made.

@Nikki: But it took the reminder of Daryl, and what his little brother would think of him, to make him stop and let Michonne out of the car.

I have no idea if this was intentional, but to me it made for a great little visual that Merle let Michonne out of the car exactly where the lines on the road — solid (no passing) next to dotted (passing) — flipped sides.

@Nikki: THAT is the moment where Merle’s death hit home, and where this episode was raised to the operatic level it achieved.

So it did. People tend to dismiss "soap opera" — which is, frankly, what much serialized entertainment is — but there is in fact opera in soap opera, lulls and crescendos, outsize emotion that almost paradoxically can be rendered intimate on television because, unlike live theater, we get close-up shots where small things are writ large. The "melo" in "melodrama" means music, and the orchestration of the material, both the short movements of individual scenes and their placement within the larger symphony (and of course recurring motifs that can play into as well as against expectations), that's what makes for compelling TV.

Norman Reedus' work as Darryl continues to be one of the show's absolute high points.

@Josh: Rick said it best: “I couldn't sacrifice one of us for the greater good, because we are the greater good."

I loved that line.

@Nikki: not to go all “Footprints” on us all here

Ha! "And where were you when there was only one set of footprints in the sand?" "Oh, I was delivering a baby in the boiler room with our son waiting to put a bullet in my brain."

@Nikki: Despite being the most unique acquisition of an engagement ring EVER

Is there even enough soap in the world?

@Nikki: Rick lost his wife. And became a single parent to not one, but two children, one he wasn’t even sure was his.

Your compare/contrast between Rick and the Governor (Josh's too) are points well made, but I think that a key point is that it doesn't matter whether the baby "belongs" to Shane or Rick — it's the group's, both literally in terms of the necessary caretaking and symbolically. Most of these people would still remain together even if the virus were cured and every walker dropped to the ground tomorrow, rebuilding their lives as a unit just as they've survived as a unit. Rick had to rely on them to nurture the baby when it was born because he thought that he had to bear the pressures of leadership alone, yet in fact that was an entirely contradictory scenario. I mean, yeah, I get why Rick needed to go through his private grief, especially since it involved phone calls from beyond, but dissociating himself from the group, particularly his son, as he dissociated himself from reality was a recipe for disaster.

In the world of The Walking Dead it takes a village more than ever. While I'm not sure that I want the season to end with a battle that sees the Governor driven out and the prison group setting up house in Woodbury, as "new season, new headquarters" is in danger of becoming too pat a trope for the show, I can't deny that they deserve a proper homestead and I'd hate to lose Milton. So I'm curious to see if they actually take the village.

And thanks for that Walking Dead / Toy Story link!

Unknown said...

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