At the heart of The Walking Dead lies a fundamental battle between altruism and selfishness. When presented with the devastating horrors of a zombie apocalypse, you are faced with the choice of solitary self-preservation or subsuming your own interest for the better of those around you. Merle and Rick both faced this choice in This Sorrowful Life, a confidently gripping and poignant episode that sees the show bounce back from the disaster of last week's Prey. Here was an episode that generally moved the drama forward and brought the season's thematic arc full circle ahead of the group's showdown with the Governor.
Faced with what he sees as no other way of saving the prison folk from the wrath of Woodbury, Rick informs the two Dixon brothers that Michonne will be their sacrificial lamb to the slaughter. Whilst Daryl struggles to contain his displeasure at such a command, Merle openly questions Rick's willpower to go through with such an act, telling his brother that "He ain't got the stomach for it".
Rick might have killed before, dispatching his former best friend Shane at the end of last season, but has never actively planned to rid someone in his group to serve his own purposes. Here once again he has a vision of Lori, haunting him with the burden of responsibility. His conscience wins out and he realises that to commit such an act of treachery would see them lose the humanity they are fighting for. The decision to betray Michonne always seemed unlikely, but it reveals how much Rick's worries over the safety of the group since the death of his wife have pushed him to the edge.
The Bad Guy
The only problem for Rick is that Merle has stringently followed orders already, taking out Michonne and carrying her off for the rendezvous with the Governor. Tied up and dragged along to the destination, Michonne is forced for the first time into trying to escape a situation with words rather than her katana. But Merle is adamant her pleads are futile, saying aloud that he knows his role within the group. "I figure that's why I was back there in the first place, to do the dirty work".
Similar to Rick's moral quandary, it's obvious that Merle will not go through with the act as well, as far too much time is spent seeing the two debating on their way to the barn. In order to fill their quota of at least one zombie ambush per episode, Merle conducts the worst car-jacking in history, sounding off the alarm and attracting every walker in the vicinity. What's surprising is not that he eventually decides to let her go, but that he goes ahead and sacrifices himself for the good of the group.
The typical anti-hero who we'd previously cheered on for his no-nonsense desire for self-preservation, his morals are tested for the first time in this episode before he makes the shocking choice. In an earlier exchange, Merle tells Carol that her growing strength makes her a late bloomer, before she warmly responds, "Maybe you are too".
Rather than the racist monster from Atlanta, who killed at will whilst serving for the Governor - here Merle proves himself a hero as the renegade does the dirty work in his own obstinate style.
Enjoying a last supper of Motorhead and whiskey, he cleverly lures a horde of zombies to the rendezvous point, before picking off the Governor's gunmen in the ensuing carnage. His death at the hands of Woodbury's leader is shockingly quick, as upon being discovered he is beaten and shot off screen. Only reintroduced this season, there's no question Merle was one of the most interesting characters on the show who will be sorely missed after the most honourable of deaths.
His death was not in vain, severely weakening the Governor's position with his militia decimated. The only problem is he'll be out of vengeance more than ever. The question is how will the prison deal with him?
Since the death of Shane whereby Rick took dictatorial control of the group, we've seen him struggle under the immense burden of sole responsibility. The death of Lori pushed him over the edge, but after realising that sacrificing Michonne would be a mistake, he calls a meeting and declares democracy is back on the cards. "I'm not your Governor," he tells the others, highlighting that the reason they've survived so far is because they've looked out for each other and stuck together.
Some are sticking a lot closer than others, as evidenced by Glenn's proposal to Maggie. Their sub-plot has always contained little interest, with the marriage proposal pretty much inevitable. Glenn gets to show his romantic side by prying a wedding ring off a zombie's finger to give to Maggie. The two might be looking forward to a life together, but with the two groups at the prison and Woodbury sure to come to loggerheads in next week's finale, who knows what the future holds?