The writer of record on this week's installment of THE WALKING DEAD was Scott Gimple, who will be next season's TWD showrunner. "This Sorrowful Life" is very much a mixd bag, bit it has a head up on much of the rest of TWD in that it not only has something to say but has something to say that's worth saying.
Two week ago, TWD wasted an episode on a completely ridiculous "peace
conference" between Rick and GINO. The writers had done nothing to
establish any reason for the characters to talk. GINO's substantial
crimes against Rick's people--kidnapping, terror, torture, murder--had
been entirely unprovoked, nothing more than the determined whim of a
madman. Not only was there no reason for Rick to do anything but shoot
GINO on sight, there was every reason to do just that, and no rhyme or
reason in doing anything else. When, mere moments into the proceedings,
GINO made it clear he
was only there to accept the prison group's surrender, anything less
than a hail of bullets into GINO's brain amounted to a character
assassination of Rick. In the midst of the staring contest that
followed, which didn't include any hail of bullets, the writers threw in
a subplot in which Merle, back at the prison, argued the group needed
to trek to the meeting and kill GINO while they could. He tried to get the others to go
along with him. His idea was presented as stupid and was violently
That's how you know TWD's writers don't want you to think about
something--they put it in the mouth of a Designated Villain
character. They did the same thing last season. As the search for Sophia
had dragged on well past the point there was much chance of ever
alive, it was becoming dangerous to continue. The idea of calling it off
needed to be soberly considered. Instead, the writers put that
sentiment in the mouth of Shane, who, by then, they'd turned into a
cartoon villain. Rather than getting a fair hearing, one that could lead
to a tough call that could
alienate the viewing audience, the idea was made merely the devious
thought of a
heartless villain. Two weeks ago, the writers realized the entire
premise of their present episode--the abjectly pointless "peace
non-starter, and were trying to self-servingly justify it by making the
idea of simply eliminating GINO an emanation of the brain of a dumb,
Way back in my original article on TWD, I wrote:
"TWD would be a difficult property for most commercial television
outlets. It's a very dark story, set in a bleak, unforgiving,
relentlessly dangerous world that, on a regular basis, forces tough
decisions on its characters, the kind that could utterly alienate a
mainstream television audience."
In season 2, the writers used Shane to get around this. Once he
was reduced to cartoon villain-hood, he was made to solve all of the
manufactured moral dilemmas on which the writers spent the season,
keeping the tough calls out of--and the consequent blood off of--the
hands of our heroes. He dealt with their problems, then, as a designated
villain, could, himself, be eliminated with no muss and no fuss.
"This Sorrowful Life" makes a plot-point of addressing this way
of doing business. Appearing, at first, to continue it, the episode ends
up refuting it. It's a direction that's definitely commendable. The getting there is a bit too TWD to earn unalloyed applause, though.
These days, GINO wants to lay his vengeance upon Michonne,
and offered to let the prison group live if they'd turn her over to
him. It was a bullshit offer, and there was absolutely no reason to
believe he wouldn't, upon receipt of Michonne, just kill everyone
anyway. Rick knows this and says as much, and, of course, immediately
decides to turn her over anyway.
Those who have been paying attention will immediately realize
that the creators wouldn't, under any circumstances, ever allow anything
like that to happen. Michonne had proven herself a valuable addition to
the group, and had stood with them even after they'd treated her rather
badly. A consistently-written Rick wouldn't have even considered such
an offer, but then, again, neither would he have suffered a GINO to
live. As I've noted many times, there is no "character development" on
TWD. There are barely even any characters. Those who serve the function
of characters are, at no point, conceptualized as human beings. They
are, instead, written as being whatever the script for the week requires
them to be, without regard for who they were the week before or will be
the week after. Rick's entertaining of GINO's offer was a return of the
spineless, indecisive idiot version of Rick the writers had invented
and arbitrarily imposed back in season 2, a Rick that should have never
existed at all, and certainly a Rick the current Rick should be well
beyond. He returns because he's the only version pathetic enough to
engage with this ridiculously phony moral dilemma of handing over
Michonne. The mechanics of TWD absolutely forbid him from this course of
action, which makes the entire exercise one of merely burning through
screen-time, but the attitude in the writer's room seems to be that the
screen-time has to be filled by something, that they don't have anything better, and that they aren't going to trouble themselves to come up with anything, either.
The reappearance of season 2 Rick also, it turns out, signals a
revisiting of that season's theme of questioning Rick's leadership. Rick
keeps GINO's offer a secret from the larger group. He brings Hershel
and Daryl in on his plot to turn over Michonne. Both are abjectly
opposed to the notion, but, proving themselves moral cowards, go along
with Rick anyway. It's when Rick turns to Merle as his fourth
conspirator that things get interesting.
Merle understands the metatextual "rules" of TWD; he knows Rick
turns to a Designated Villain like him to do his dirty work, and knows
Rick can't be allowed to be responsible for such a terrible thing, so,
while agreeing to help, he jumps the gun and takes matters into his own
hands--he kidnaps Michonne himself, with the intent of taking her to
GINO. It makes no real sense for Merle to do this, as he knows better
than Rick that giving up Michonne won't deter GINO. For the ep to work, one just has to go with that part of it.
On their way to the rendezvous with the forces of Woodbury, Merle
and Michonne start to talk. At first, it's a rehash of Shane's litany.
Rick is too tender-hearted. He won't do what it takes to keep his people
safe, and would back out of this deal. It takes a bad dude like Merle
to git 'er done. But then, as an intelligently-written Michonne
conjures some thoughts that become a needle beneath his skin, things
start to change. For the first time, Merle steps out of the background,
is given some depth, and becomes an almost interesting character. Careful observers of TWD know what that
means. It would be nice to report that, for once, TWD broke with the
cliché, but the telegraph, unfortunately, tells the tale yet
again--Merle's emergence from unidimensional villainous redneck-ism
signals only his impending death.
Before things get that far, though, there's the rest of a tale to tell.
Back at the prison, Rick does, indeed, have a change of heart. He just can't make himself do such a terrible thing.
by the time he gets off his pot, Merle has absconded with Michonne, and
it may be out of his hands.
He gives what I'm sure Gimple and the other writers felt was an
effective, impassioned speech to the group about his own leadership
failures. In practice, it's yet another of TWD's usual ludicrous,
overblown orations, delivered, by Andrew Lincoln, with an air of grand
pomposity as if he was addressing throngs of faceless followers, rather
than just the handful of intimates actually present. "We're the reason
we're still here"--an actual line from it. He was wrong, he says, not to
tell them about GINO's offer, thus proving that he hasn't a clue as to
where he actually went so terribly wrong in that matter.
Democracy, he says, is restored. The "Ricktatorship" he declared at the
end of season 2 is no more. Ding, dong, the witch is dead! Whatever.
The significant part--and the part least likely to last--is that
they're now going to take responsibility for their own actions.
on the road, Merle decides he's not going to do GINO's dirty work for
him anymore. He cuts Michonne loose. He tells her to go back to the
prison, that, to follow the cliché to a fault, he has something he needs
to do first. That something, of course, is to redeem himself. He makes
his way to the rendezvous with GINO with a zombie horde in tow
and does something else Rick has been unwilling to do--starts kicking
ass and taking names. Unfortunately, the last name taken--written
he can kill GINO--is his own.
With its many inanities, it's impossible to call this a good
episode, but it can't help but look better compared to the absolute
garbage that has preceded it week after week. The repudiation of that
habit of letting Designated Villains make the hard calls, even if (as I
believe likely) it proves only temporary, was welcome. The ep does
feature, mixed in with the usual rubbish, some better-than-TWD's-average
dialogue, and some particularly solid work by Danai Gurira (Michonne) and
Michael Rooker (Merle). As in "Clear," Gurira shows what a crime TWD's
writers have committed in so badly mishandling Michonne. There's a real
actress, there, and she deserves better. Rooker, the central focus of
the episode, is just a rock-solid talent, and always has been. His time
as Merle has always been an essay on how a talented actor can take
nothing--the substance he's consistently been given by the writers--and
turn it into something worth a moment of your time, and for all its
other problems, this ep was definitely his high-point in the part.
Is it possible that in some early version of the script, he may have
taken Michonne in order to get her away from all of it, rather than to
turn her over to GINO? One scene, wherein he uses her sword, strongly
suggests he wants her to escape. It would have been a nice touch to have
made this his intention, but there really isn't anything in the ep to
support it beyond that one scene and the illogic of what he does.
 Gimple is the only one of TWD's writers who has ever written Michonne as anything more than a caricature.
Merle shows some solid tactical thinking in his confrontation with
GINO's thugs, and earlier in the ep, Michonne had, as well, pointing out
that the prison can be made defensible by making it too costly a prize
for any attacking force.