I’m a damn mystery to me
I never thought I’d say this, but damn am I going to miss Merle! In a world populated by characters so thinly sketched I can see my own hands, bored and twiddling thumbs, through their half-baked motivations, at least Merle had something like coherence. My favorite line in the episode (chosen for the title of this post) was Merle’s quote to Rick: I don’t know why I do what I do. I’m a damn mystery to me. This should be a motto for most of these characters, since why any of them does what they do is beyond me at this point, but at least Merle embodied this mystery. I’m not saying he was a fully fleshed out character either, but watching him oscillate between being a racist bastard and caring brother, angry outsider and betrayed friend gave some kind of depth to his motives. Or maybe it was just that he didn’t stand around talking about his motives, we got to watch him work them out as he went along. Why kidnap Michonne instead of helping the group come up with a plan to take down the Governor? Why let her go at that precise moment? Why go after the Governor alone? All of these sudden turns boarder on the incoherent character sketching and plotting that plagues the show (and no one more than Rick this episode because his sudden certainty to hand over Michonne – in the face of Herschel and Daryl’s objections! – was infuriatingly irrational and out of character, and only slightly less so than his final decision not to go through with it because he sees his dead wife’s pregnant ghost!). But it is a testament to Michael Rooker’s acting skills that they kind of hold together to suggest a conflicted, complicated character trying to figure out what it means to be his own man in this strange dystopia. And watching him rig his zombie trap gave us insight into just what a smart and wily man he is (he did, after all, cut off his own hand and survive in the wilderness). So naturally this would be a good time for him to die!
While Merle was busy tearing up mattresses looking for cocaine (“this place must have been no fun”) and Rick was stumbling around looking for wire to truss up Michonne and pondering the fragile state of his morality, did anyone else wonder what the hell was happening to Andrea in the Governor’s chair? There was no part of me that wanted to go back to Woodbury, but not knowing what was happening to her was effectively chilling, especially when Merle starts waxing on about Philip’s sadistic proclivities. I do wonder if Andrea will be rescued in the end or if she’ll have to pay the final price for her moral weakness and complicity in the Governor’s schemes.
Which means she’d miss Maggie and Glen’s wedding! I have no hope that the show knows exactly what to do with this, but I really love the way this move raises all kinds of questions about what the forms and conventions of the old world mean in this new one. Glen has a man-to-man with Hershel, which, while reaffirming the general patriarchy of the show, also struck me as exactly inline with the pre-apocalyptic world of the Greene family. No one gets to marry a Greene girl except they go through daddy. But then he has to cut off a couple zombie fingers to get the engagement ring (and did it mean anything that the Governor bit off exactly those same two fingers on Merle’s left hand?)! What does an engagement ring even mean in this context? And what does a wedding mean? Even Glen acknowledges that he doesn’t know if they’ll even get married (and what would that look like? They exchange vows in front of the group?), he just wants her to know. To know what? That he would marry her in another world? That he loves her more than anyone else? That he would die for her? I am fascinated by the idea that there is a gesture, borrowed from a dead world, that Glen can make to try and convey something more seriously than simply all the ways Glen and Maggie already live their lives. Can Glen and Maggie reinvent marriage to mean something new, or is it just the resuscitation of a dead corpse?
Any other thoughts this week? Like, for instance, why Michonne isn’t hightailing it out of there when she realizes there was a serious discussion about turning her over for a torture fest?
Thanks for a great post, Kathryn. I can’t better the sarcasm of that first paragraph, and I completely agree about the delicious irony of that line – “I’m a mystery to me [and to the writers too].” If it’s one thing TWD knows how to do at this point, it’s kill off characters who aren’t working, although I suppose committing to that principle would mean killing off everybody. Especially Rick, and isn’t it (mildly) interesting that Lori, who we got to know as a Lady Macbeth kind of character last season, is all of the sudden the voice of Rick’s conscience? I mean, it’s a further instance of a passive female character who mediates a male character’s agency and self-realization, as is also the case with Glen’s journey from shaming to reasserting his ownership over Maggie, but still. At least it’s an ethos, I guess.
I’ve been thinking about the last couple of weeks, which have provided several examples afresh of how schizophrenic this show is. It strives to be a character-based drama, with risible results (as you well point out). But it can be ingenious at particular moments or in particular set pieces. I think of Michonne and Carl retrieving that picture – yeah, it didn’t make a lick of sense that she ducked into a zombie-filled restaurant and was back in three seconds, but I took it as a wink at the audience. Last week’s genre homage – the slasher film sequence in the warehouse where the Governor singlehandedly killed like 30 zombies – was similarly brainless but fun. And this week had two: an awesomely staged attack while Merle hotwires a car, which was both headshakingly dumb but still suspenseful, and the gutpunch of Darryl’s discovery of Merle as a walker.
It strikes me that this illustrates one of the problematic legacies of the great “golden age” era of shows that Alan Sepinwall analyzed brilliantly in The Revolution Was Televised. “Prestige” cable shows have to be character-driven, sociologically rich, and the occasion of myriad thinkpieces. But this has come to mean that shows, like TWD, that are basically extended B movies, have to strive to be more than they are and labor under a weight they can’t possibly bear. TWD can be an awesomely brainless show, or a pretentious, overextended mess. If only it would settle for more of the former.
I don’t have much to add this week, and tend to agree with everything you’ve said. If I had to stab at a reason for why Michonne returned to the prison, I’d have to locate it somewhere in the wider mystery of why she seemed to go along with everything so calmly in this episode. We’ve spoken in weeks past about how the show has been evoking – most likely without intention – imagery from the American slave trade. With Michonne’s hands tied, and Merle walking her around on a leash and threatening to cut out her tongue, that imagery certainly continued this week. In a way, Michonne buys into the structure he creates for her, and then subverts it by forcing him to acknowledge her humanity (and his, in the process). There’s a docility to the way she doesn’t resist, doesn’t try to escape, doesn’t fight him physically at any point. Instead, she calls him to see the part of himself that wants to escape the evil he thinks he is…and once she taps into that, he lets her go. She invites him into a new story, a new way of living in the world.
So, yeah, as you say Kathryn – perfect moment for him to die.
Seriously, what is with this show’s refusal to dig into the rare human moments it creates? I’m surprised it tosses in a wedding narrative as a redemptive arc given the level of its commitment, issues, to tell true.
What intrigued me for a moment about Merle and Michonne’s journey together, however, was the fact that it placed the two sort of single savior messiah figures together. Michonne was facing being offered up, one life as a sacrifice for the many. And Merle self narrated as the scapegoat, or the one who bears the group’s evil – quite literally takes its evil deed away from the camp to keep everyone else clean. With both of them traversing that liminal space between the prison and Woodbury, I can’t help but wonder what themes lie latent in what transpired between them for what will happen next week.
Or, at least, if this were the quality of television to which the show imagines itself aspiring, as you point out, Travis, much more would be packed into that moment. Mostly what it left me wondering was: wouldn’t a buddy-cop drama spin-off with Merle and Michonne be something like awesome?
Oh, and here’s a tip for future viewings: if you’re going to eat lunch while watching the episode, for the love of God, don’t let it be spagetti bolognese…I almost threw up in those final scenes. Leafy green salads while watching from now on for me!
ps: not sure what to make of the double vision of the fingers Kathryn…probably just a meaningless repetition that should mean more but doesn’t??