I’m of two minds when it comes to “This Sorrowful Life,” the fifteenth and next-to-last episode of this season of “The Walking Dead.” On the one hand, from a storytelling perspective, the whole “ransom Michonne” plot device was flawed from the onset, and came out of an extremely weak episode, last week’s “Arrow On The Doorpost.” The entire concept is ridiculous, and the idea that Rick would actually, seriously consider the offer simply felt wrong. And not just because I think that Rick is such a gosh-darn good guy, but because from a strictly common sense perspective the expectation that the Governor would somehow not betray them is simply unconvincing.
Yet at the same time, despite that weak premise, I thoroughly enjoyed what they did with this week’s episode. It requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but the players all sold it convincingly enough to allow one to overlook that fundamental weakness. “This Sorrowful Life” was less about the ransoming of Michonne and more about this new generation of family and how the conventional bonds of family and friendship have changed so very much. It shared an odd commonality with last week’s “Prey,” even though I found that episode to be wildly uneven and poorly scripted. Even so, the themes of “Prey” continued here, focusing this week on the prison almost entirely, and those themes played out much more substantively and with far more subtlety.
Truthfully, this episode was about choices as much as it was about family and how, in this new world, those two things are now linked. All season long, we’ve watched as people are forced to choose sides, forced to find common bonds and understandings in order to survive. But there’s more to it than living through the ordeal — there’s also living with yourself. “This Sorrowful Life” was about coming to terms with that, with finding your place within your family, and with coming to terms with who you have become. Those choices and changes of heart — particularly regarding Michonne — gave new depth to each individual, and made each of them ultimately better.
Those changes of heart were deftly executed, using the themes of love and family as a vehicle for those them. Herschel, surrounded by those he loves (including Glenn), understanding that his love for them — and vice-versa — is based on him being a certain kind of man, and that man would never surrender an ally to her torment and death. Daryl, with Merle’s willingness to be the bad guy, realizing that Merle really, truly, is no longer the man he wishes to be, even though he still wants him at his side. One gets the impression that what Daryl really wanted was for Merle to refuse Rick’s request, yet that’s not who Merle was at that place and time. And Rick, facing the darkness of Merle’s honest assessment of him as well as the light of the specter of Lori, realizing what we already knew — that as Daryl sagely and plainly said — “this ain’t us.” For once, the vision of Lori actually felt like it had purpose — to put Rick back on the path, rather than to drive him off it. Each of those little encounters was a simple yet wonderfully emotional and affecting moment.
Ultimately, this episode belonged to Merle, and to a lesser extent, Michonne. There was a curious sense of finality to the entire episode, as Merle went through a series of encounters — with Carol, with Rick, with Daryl and finally with Michonne — before finally seeing what kind of man he is. Not the kind of man he wants to be, or pretends to be, but what and who he really is. And the revelation that came with that was as startling for me as it was for Merle, because the truth was that strangely, in this cruel and savage new world, Merle is the only one who can’t find a place for himself. He pushed himself to the limits of his inhumanity in Woodbury and found it wanting, yet can’t live with the guilt of it at the prison. All that’s left for him is Daryl, but Daryl is no longer the brother he once had, nor is Merle the brother that Daryl wants. Daryl wants him in an ethereal, theoretical sense, but Merle now sees that Daryl has changed well beyond what they once were. “We can’t do things without people anymore,” Daryl tells him. And to Merle’s dismay, he can’t find people to accept him anymore.
He learns this through those various encounters, but no one shows him more forcefully, more bluntly, than Michonne. After Merle makes off with her, his redemption — such as it is — really begins. The performances of Rooker and Gurira absolutely owned this episode, giving it the perfect amount of weight and strength, yet never overdoing it. Rooker’s change of heart, his decision to finally be the man his brother wants him to be, is a heartbreaker. He’s right, of course — he can’t go back. He’ll always be a wedge in the group, the festering cut that simply won’t heal. But he can’t fail Daryl anymore, even if he can’t be with him, and delivering Michonne is to fail Daryl yet again. He’s gone too far, done too much. Yet he can, as Daryl promised Glenn, make it right. It will cost him everything, but he can try to make it right.
Of course, that final moment in the car almost lost me. There was another vague “doing something alone without telling anyone anything” moment, the likes of which has brought down prior episodes. The logical choice was to enlist the help of Michonne, a fellow outsider, to help in his newfound mission. Yet much like the overall premise of the episode, we’re sold on it because it’s carried out so perfectly. And that final firefight, with Merle viciously and unflinchingly gunning down his former comrades, felt that much more powerful as his redemptive rage was channeled — even as it ultimately failed. His defiant final moments, in the face of a snarling, atavistic Governor who truly has abandoned his humanity, were harsh and awful and perfect.
Despite all of its flaws, one of this show’s greatest strengths is when it deals with human weakness. It stumbled with its eventual depiction of the Governor, who crossed the line into villainous caricature some time ago. Merle’s arc, however, has been absolutely brilliant, with Rooker taking a reprehensible character and infusing so much life into it and making him riveting to watch. His reappearance has been spectacular, and his redemption, even as futile as it may have seemed, was stunning. It’s what made this one of the season’s stronger episodes, one that was full of power and sadness and depth. It’s a testament to both the show and Michael Rooker that the death of so awful a man could be so affecting, and it sets the tone for the now-inevitable final battle.
This episode was meant to parallel “Prey,” with Merle playing the role of Andrea. They followed the exact same formula — the moments of indecision, the conversations with fellow characters, the departure and moments of clarity, and ultimately the undoing on the steps of the enemy stronghold (at the hands of the Governor in both cases). But this week, that formula was carried out much more cleverly, with greater nuance and intelligence. As the perfect ending, we’re left with Daryl, our favorite character, floored by the utter devastation of seeing not just his brother’s fate, but being forced to deliver the final blows. And now, all that remains is the final battle, and for us to learn what brand of loyalty will have the most survivors.
“You talk about the weight of what you have to do, how you can handle it? The bad men, someone truly evil? They’re light as a feather. They don’t feel a thing.”