I am not as enamored of the redemption of Merle in the most recent episode of The Walking Dead, as some fans seem to be. “This Sorrowful Life” trots out the old trope of the racist you love to hate, which may have appeal to some folks, but to me the attempt to complicate his character just came off as inconsistent in terms of characterization and sadly consistent in the show’s quiet (and not-so-quiet) reinforcement of ideologies of white supremacy. It seems that even when white folk are outwardly knowingly proudly racist they can still be good—one act erases all that came before it, or at least we the audience are meant to feel something for his selfless and self-destructive actions.
The sudden self-sacrifice on the part of Merle seems wildly out of character for what has been established for him—the glee he seemed to take in terrorizing and torturing folks, in hunting them down and trying to kill them. The choke in his voice when he talks about having killed “16 men” was almost comical. The fact that he kept count is. Remember, it was only that his lie to the governor was outed by Michonne’s survival and return that put him on one side of the fight instead of the where he found himself now.
Even Merle’s decision to bring Michonne to the Governor himself is painted as a potentially honorable act—doing the tough thing that he knew the others (esp. Rick) would not be able to bring themselves to do. It doesn’t matter that life is cheap to Merle and the life of a black woman cheapest, so the decision is not hard for him. There is no moral quandary. And hell, the choice itself makes no sense, since Merle knows better than anyone that the Governor is not one to honor his deals. Merle should be the first to say, he will come here and kill everyone even if you do hand over Michonne.
I am not saying that a redemption of Merle was out of the question. I am not saying that it is impossible for people to change (though change is hard, and as Maya Angelou said, “When people show you who they are believe them the first time”), but that a little more work was needed to accomplish this. You’d think that a serialized episodic television program would be the perfect medium to show this kind of development (and with a character like Carol, they’ve done a great job), but here the writers of The Walking Dead dropped the ball.
Did you see the awesome remake of Dawn of the Dead from 2004? That film did more in 101 minutes to make the redemption-through-self-sacrifice of the dickhead rent-a-cop CJ seem plausible than The Walking Dead did in how many episodes that featured Merle?
What I did enjoy about the episode was getting to spend more time with Michonne. I appreciated her attempts to get into Merle’s head (though honestly, she of all people knew there was not much head there to get into). The powerful moment in the episode to me was not Merle’s drunken death and his refusal to beg for his life (whoop-de-fuckin’-doo), but the indignity of a bound Michonne having to call out to Merle to save her when the walkers are drawn by the car’s alarm while Merle is hot-wiring it. It was in that moment, when this independent and skeptical woman has to call out to a man—twice her captor, once her hunter—for help, that is more interesting than anything that Merle did. It has a lot more emotional weight and displays cunning, as she knows she is no good to his plan dead (even though she knows as well as he should that that the plan is deeply flawed).
My point here is to indict both writers and audience. We get an episode that solves the problem of Merle (popular character that he is) by making him seem heroic in his moment of death. The show is more willing to give him, a white man, this narrative time than to Michonne (who clearly has a fascinating past and some deep personal conflicts of her own) or to Tyrese (with his strange principled obsequiousness, which I keep thinking would a fantastic way to explore DeBoisian double-consciousness in the apocalyptic setting). Instead, we get the cliché —the bad guy who does good in the end, allowing his conflicted brother to mourn him, and allowing those who would have potentially benefited from his actions (all white, save for Glen) to get off the hook for considering selling a black woman for their own safety.