*warning: contains spoilers*
The Walking Dead has always been, at its heart, a confronting morality play that forces us to consider, week after harrowing week, what we would do in the face of an apocalyptic terror both unending and seemingly unconquerable.
Would we resort to a survival-of-the-fittest mentality, tossing altruism aside in favour of a base desire to do what it takes to live?
Or would we, the better angels of our nature at our side, hold fast to the crowning tenets of human civility and put the needs of the greater good ahead of our own understandably strong desire to survive?
It is an ongoing struggle for pretty much everyone in AMC’s finely-wrought drama, with the unlikeliest character providing an unexpected answer in this week’s episode “A Sorrowful Life”.
While Rick, who has struggled more than most with what it means to be human in the moral wastelands of the apocalypse, was the instigator of this week’s debate over the primacy of selflessness or naked self interest, with his decision to hand over Michonne to the Governor in the deeply flawed and yes, naive, hope it would bring peace between the prison and Woodbury (a plan only reluctantly agreed to by Hershel and Daryl), it was Merle who provided a most unexpected, and profoundly emphatic, answer.
And in a way that I really didn’t see coming, despite witnessing Merle’s evolution from a one-dimensional redneck character to a deeply complex character throughout this season, and most obviously, in this sterling episode.
He begin the episode in true self-seeking style, the only one to enthusiastically back Rick’s misguided plan, seeing a chance to re-ingratiate himself with the Governor, and he single-mindedly and singlehandedly carrying it out even after Rick, who Merle correctly charged didn’t have the spine to follow it through, called it off.
But somewhere along the road to Woodbury with Michonne, after her probing questions and quiet defiance finally got through to the man Daryl always suspected was there (all he ever wanted was his brother back he plaintively told Merle in one deeply affecting moment at the prison) he did have an epiphany of sorts.
It wasn’t exactly a road to Damascus moment, and was proceeded by a chaotic battle with a herd of walkers at an abandoned motel which still had some of its undead guests in residence (all while Michonne remained chained to a post) but it did represent a major change of heart for the character who finally saw a way to redeem, at least a little, his aimless, blighted existence.
And once he decided what needed to be done in that split second when he set Michonne free and sent her back to the prison, he acted, swiftly, decisively and with deliberate, sacrificial intent.
It was inspiring, deadly, and heartbreaking all at once, never more so than when Daryl, in solo steadfast pursuit of Merle and Michonne, happened upon the devastation Merle had unleashed at the meeting place, only to find his brother, shot in the stomach by the Governor and already transitioned into a flesh-gouging walker, feasting on one of the corpses.
The immediate grief that overwhelmed Daryl in almost debilitating fashion, as what was left of Merle came lurching hungrily towards his brother, ranks as one of the saddest, most profoundly moving moments of this season of The Walking Dead, a drama that for all its brutality and bloodthirstiness, treads lightly, and with real compassion when it comes to matters of raw, simple humanity.
That he recovered long enough to dispatch his brother from his living undead hell was never in doubt, but all his grief, loss and anger at what could have been between them if only Merle could have looked past his own need for self-protection above all other motivations, was clearly channeled into the violent way he repeatedly stabbed Merle in the head, tears flowing down his face, a picture of loss writ large.
A life time of sadness at what could have been poured forth in that shocking, desperately sad scene, and it underlined what a fine, nuanced performer Norman Reedus who plays Daryl is.
It was powerful television, something The Walking Dead is not in short supply of for the most part, and powerfully affirmed that no matter how bad the situation, and let’s face it, the end of civilisation is pretty much as bad as it gets, that selflessness and altuism are not spent forces.
Nor is love, as was evinced in a simply, quiet scene, which in its own way was every bit as powerful as the chaotic action and grief that bookended it, when Glenn, with Hershel’s blessing, and a dazzling diamond ring hacked off one of the walkers at the prison fence (a moment both humourous and macabre) asked Maggie to marry him.
Few words were exchanged as Glenn tenderly pressed the ring into Maggie’s hand, a romantic gesture that was met with a simple, heartfelt “Yes” but this beautiful moment was as affirmative a proclamation as Merle’s epic sacrifice, that humanity is not done with qualities such as tenderness, love and sacrificial intent just yet.
Unflinchingly honest though it may be about the humanity’s dark soul, The Walking Dead once again made it clear with these touching scenes, together with Rick’s inspirational evocation of the prevailing power of “the greater good” in a confessional speech to the prison group near the end, that sorrowful though this life may be, hope remains and it is more powerful, and enduring, than the forces arrayed against it.
* Here’s the promo and two sneak peeks at next week’s season finale, “Welcome to the Tombs” …