With the death of Merle, The Walking Dead loses its most compelling character. Merle was a racist, misogynist, bigoted, Garguilo-killing redneck, but, as a man with both good and evil in him, he was also one of the most interesting characters on the show. “Do you even know why you do the things you do, the choices you make?” Rick asked. “I don’t know why I do the things I do,” Merle replied. “Never did. I’m a damn mystery to me.”
In the course of the series, he became less of a mystery to the rest of us. His “sorrowful life” was a testament to the brutality of the world even before the zombies invaded it. Merle grew up under the same drunken, abusive, neglectful father who put scars on Daryl’s back. Unlike Daryl, Merle didn’t have an older brother to teach him to be tough. He cultivated his thick skin, and the unparalleled survival instinct that allowed him to saw off his own hand in Atlanta, alone. “Toughest asshole I ever met, my brother,” Daryl said in Season 1. “Feed him a hammer, he’d crap out nails.”
He was a perpetual delinquent. He found himself in juvie. He joined the military, where he gained the experience that would make him a valuable asset to the Governor, but spent 16 months in in prison for assaulting an officer. He abandoned Daryl to their father, and his subsequent guilt made him extremely loyal to his brother during the zombie apocalypse.
The brothers joined the Atlanta survivors, intending to steal their supplies. After Merle assaulted T-Dogg and Rick, Rick handcuffed him to a roof in Atlanta. Merle sawed his hand off, joined the Governor, and did the Governor’s dirty work—kidnapping Glenn and Maggie and God knows what else. Embracing his own evil, he fashioned himself to be the practical bad guy, somebody who could do the dirty work done. “Maybe these people need somebody like me around,” he said. “Do their dirty work. Bad guy.” And others, even Rick, took him up on his offer.
But at times he seemed less comfortable with his role than the people who assigned it to him. He seemed remorseful, both before and after Woodbury. Appealing to God on the rooftop in Atlanta, he said, “I didn’t behave, I know. I know I’m being punished.”
Reunited with the Grimes group, he found himself a black sheep and struggled to live with the people he once victimized. To deal with his feelings of displacement, he looked for drugs. “This Sorrowful Life” first found him anxiously tearing up a prison cushion in search of it. He felt pathetic about it; when Rick approached him, he was unable to meet his gaze. When Merle didn’t find crystal meth, he looked for booze. “We got any whiskey?” he asked Carol. “Hell, I’d even drink vodka.”
Unable to find something to stupefy him, he went on a suicide mission to kill the Governor. “I can’t go back,” he told Michonne. “Don’t you understand that? I can’t.” Neither bad enough for Woodbury nor good enough for the Grimes group, Merle had no place to belong now that Daryl was an immutable member of the Grimes family.
His demise was a 10-second reenactment of his life: a beat-down that claimed pieces of his body, that left him the most stubborn, prideful, bloody pulp in Georgia. On the roof in Atlanta, he declared to God: “I ain’t gonna beg you now! Don’t you worry about me begging you ever! I’ll never beg you! I ain’t gonna beg you!” Now facing his real doom, he says to the Governor: “I ain’t gonna beg. I ain’t begging you.” If he had the fingers for it, he would be giving him one.
Merle, you were one of the most detestable characters in the history of television. I will miss you.