Walking Dead’s ‘Guts’, and the ‘unhinged white man’

Merle Dixon and T-Dog, The Walking Dead - AMC
Merle Dixon and T-Dog, The Walking Dead - AMC /

In continuing my assessment of Walking Dead’s first season, I should note that I love the character of Merle Dixon on The Walking Dead.

Don’t get me wrong:  If I knew him in person I would hate almost everything he represents.  On the show, however, he does an utterly fantastic job of representing tension.

“Guts” is the second episode of The Walking Dead’s series, and our first introduction to Merle.  I promise to explain why his character is essential to this episode, and how, in my view, he ties it all together.

Of course, other people exist in this episode.  In the opening scene, we learn of Lori’s sexual relationship with Shane, for example.  But even there we almost get a taste of what will happen later on, as Shane surprised Lori in the woods and “took her” on the ground.  It almost seems like a rape scene at first, but we learn she was actually consensual, smiling and whatnot.  This was, of course, a semi-subtle hint of what danger lies ahead.  After all, if even the love scenes look potentially violent, what else can be in store?

Merle Dixon, The Walking Dead, AMC
Merle Dixon, The Walking Dead, AMC /


Well, not quite yet.  We’re back in that dad-blasted army tank with Rick, whose escape from said tank is assisted by Glenn on a walkie-talkie signal.  The walkers,  who previously brought life to the saying “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse,” weren’t hungry enough to successfully scarf down Rick, and he successfully escaped with Glenn into a building.  There they met up with the group, and Andrea hounded him for attracting walkers with his gunshots.  As if to immediately contradict herself, she pointed a gun at Rick, then eventually relented because she wasn’t channeling Clint Eastwood.  Walkers started trying to get into the front of the building, with some success.  At least one of them picked up a rock, demonstrating some primitive ability to use pre-existing tools.  Then we heard some gunshots, and the group fled to learn about them.  And who was it making all that racket?


Merle was the wind beneath this episode’s wings.  He made everything more wonderfully  horrible.  Bam!  Before much time elapsed, he got into a fight with T-Dog over a racist comment.  And, being what he is, he threatened to shoot T-Dog.  Then he used his gun as leverage to attempt to take over the entire group.  Then bam again!  Rick put the redneck in check by striking him with a rifle butt, punching him in the face, and deflating his dreams of white man utopia.  Rick then handcuffed the sucker to a pipe and threw away the cocaine he had kept in his pocket — forever dashing Merle’s dreams of a white dominant, loner cocaine party amidst a surrealistic backdrop of zombie carnage and abandoned hospitals (Hark!  Is that AC/DC I hear singed into Merle’s persona?)

To complicate things more, when the group looked around the building for an escape route, the key to the cuffs were given to T-Dog, who, for whatever reason, was left alone on the roof with Merle while they left. This was perhaps the best dynamic of the episode:  These two characters left alone.  Could they sort it out?  Was there a chance at redemption?  After T-Dog told Merle to try some positivity for a change, Merle hinted at a vague truce if he could get a hacksaw for that pipe.  He laid it out plain:  “It’s nothing personal; just your kind and my kind ain’t meant to mix. There’s no reason we can’t work together in parlay as long as there’s some kind of mutual gain involved.”

Of course, it’s debatable whether Merle might be able to be trusted, or that there would otherwise be mutual gain, so T-Dog didn’t give him the hacksaw.  This is very revealing of what racism and selfishness ultimately bring.  If people spend all their time and energy glorifying themselves and demanding they have all the power, mutual gain becomes harder to come by, and those you threaten will stop helping you out as much — or will only do it as a last resort, which isn’t much better to anyone with self-respect.

When Rick and Glenn chop up walkers to harvest their guts to blend in with the zombie horde, it almost goes with this overall theme.  To them, the best way to get out was to blend in with the enemy — to use them against themselves in order to escape.  This is essentially what Merle would have done with T-Dog.  The problem with this was wonderfully symbolized when T-Dog revealed he had the key to the handcuffs.  Merle had an almost crushed expression on his face!  He knew he was in trouble.

Merle lacks the key to happiness (episode screenshot). /

Even Merle was smart enough to understand the situation.  Had T-Dog freed Merle, he would have been providing a disservice to himself.  Atop that, Merle expresses hatred of everyone like T-Dog, so it would have seemed like betraying all of those people as well.  Then there is the group of survivors, who Merle  also potentially endangered if freed.  If that wasn’t enough, when the time came for everyone to leave, T-Dog accidentally dropped the key anyway, representing random circumstance which brought both jeopardy and possible redemption for the character of Merle on The Walking Dead.

If he were a real person, Merle may have realized deep down that his actions led to that moment, that he was ultimately not only a threat to the group but to himself.  He had created this problem out of thin air, like a racist magician.  His being left on the roof, potentially to die, is a splendid symbol of what can happen if you do nothing but use and abuse people.  You will eventually be abandoned, left to fend mostly for yourself, and will only be able to form alliances when others lack alternatives to using you.  And you will only be used, not truly cared about.  This is the world Merle would know and protect, even when its remnants — including his very self — would threaten to eat him alive.

The rain washed the guts off of Rick and Glenn to reveal what they really were, and the lost key washed the “tough guy” exterior off of Merle, leaving him alone and seemingly gutless as potential prey to a twisted fate substantially of his own design.

Next: Episode 3: Tell it to the Frogs

A reviewer (who I will not name) stated that Merle was “behaving like no one in his situation ever would,” but I seriously doubt that.  In real life, proverbial “Merles” dot the human landscape.  Maybe they’re not a dime a dozen, but there are certainly variations on the theme.  Countless people behave like no one in their situation should.  Maybe that’s what the reviewer meant.