One of the weirder things about The Walking Dead’s second season is that the show appears to have zero interest in bringing back its most fascinating character. Neo-Nazi psycho-biker Merle Dixon tore through the second episode of the series, hurling racial slurs in every direction and lashing out physically until his own allies had to put him in handcuffs. In episode 3, Merle pulled an Evil Dead II and sawed his own hand off, and then he cauterized the wound with a Bunsen burner – this all happened offscreen, unfortunately, or it would have been the bloodiest/awesomest scene in basic cable history.
As played by the famously batcrap-crazy character actor Michael Rooker, Merle was a live wire – and an immediate sensation. Even though the character was created for the TV show, he fit right in with the villainous grotesques who frequently populate the Walking Dead comic book. (There is a popular theory that Merle actually is one of those grotesques: a horrific dude known only as The Governor.) He seemed to suggest a bleak reality about the post-apocalyptic universe: that, without the constrictions of society, some men would be happy to just watch the world burn. Merle stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the Dead ensemble, who – besides Shane the Team-Killer – have mostly proven to be extremely nice people who get along almost uncannily well with each other. Even Merle’s little brother Daryl has mostly transformed into a puppydog with a crossbow.
Last night, The Walking Dead brought Merle back. Alas, the show decided to bring Merle back in the most roundabout and least satisfying way possible. It all started when the Grimes Gang instituted a new plan for Day 4 of the Great Sophia Hunt: A grid system. Daryl, being a total mutant badass, borrowed a horse from the Greene Family Farm and went up a tall hill to get a good look at their surroundings. The horse got spooked by a forest snake and threw Daryl off its back. Daryl proceeded to tumble down a cliff face into a stream. One of his arrows ended up going straight through the left side of his stomach. He heard a spooky sound in the trees. He found his crossbow and tried to ascend the side of the cliff. Then he fell down again. It looked exactly like this:
Daryl proudly showed them Sophia’s toy, which proved that she was still alive. Actually, the exact line was that Daryl’s discovery “cuts the grid almost in half,” which I guess means the Search for Sophia will last forever. Especially in light of the appearance of Dream-Merle, I thought the whole Andrea-shooting-Daryl thing was oddly shrugged off. Dale made a joke about it – “We’ve all wanted to shoot Daryl,” hahahahahaha, thumbs up freeze frame! – and Sophia’s mom slipped into Daryl’s bedroom to bestow an angelic kiss on his bruised forehead.
But the last few minutes of the episode were great. The survivors all came together for a big dinner. No one said anything, and as you looked around the two tables, you could see a whole assortment of secrets and hidden resentments. Maggie slipped Glenn a note: “Tonight. Where?” There was a great shot of Hershel and Dale looking at Glenn, both of them suspicious for their own reasons. That summed up everything brilliant about this episode. For the first time, the characters are taking stock of their fellow survivors…and they don’t all like what they see.
Maggie opened up the note. Glenn, acting like a fifth-grader: “Ever done it in a hayloft?” Cut to Glenn grinning, holding a few blankets over his shoulder as he snuck into the barn. There was a weird sound inside, and a strange smell. He cast his flashlight down. A whole group of dead people screamed up at him. Maggie ran in, and simply explained: “You weren’t supposed to see this.”
I’ve been a big Dead skeptic this season, but I thought this episode had it all: Thrills, chills, Daryl Dixon pulling an arrow out of himself and then killing a zombie with that arrow (which, duh, is the Zombie Kill of the Week and is an early contender for Zombie Kill of the Season). I have no idea why the makers of The Walking Dead don’t just bring back Merle Freaking Dixon – actual Merle, not fake Dream-Merle – and it certainly doesn’t speak to the overall strength of the show that two scenes with Dream-Merle were more interesting than a whole season of T-Dog and Dale and whats-her-face-Sophia’s-Mother and the various members of Hershel’s family, who seem to just keep multiplying when we aren’t looking. But this episode was further proof that Dead has a greatness in its core. Who’s not excited for next week?
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