The Walking Dead: Top 100 Moments

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Michael Rooker as Merle Dixon, The Walking Dead (2010). Photo: AMC
Michael Rooker as Merle Dixon, The Walking Dead (2010). Photo: AMC /

80. Daryl Puts Down Walker Merle

Episode 315 “This Sorrowful Life”

Original Airdate: 3/24/2013

Submitted By: Charlotte Anne

“This Sorrowful Life”, the penultimate episode of season 3, gives a great exit to a character we loved to hate. Merle goes out with a bang when, instead of going through with his plan to deliver Michonne, he turns on the Governor. His suicide mission to wreak havoc on the Governor and his men is amazing to watch, even though we know it can’t end well for Merle. Knowing the Governor and his twisted mind, we can only assume that he intentionally lets Merle turn by shooting him in the chest.

Then comes the big moment when Daryl, who had insisted to go find his brother alone, comes face to face with his zombified brother. Even though it is not really a surprise, and we all know what’s coming, the choice of the writers to have Merle’s face hidden for a few seconds before he looks up to face Daryl is very efficient. It is a great build-up to one of the climactic scenes of season 3.

That Daryl should be the one to put down Merle is, of course, quite predictable, but also fitting in many ways. Daryl has changed a lot since season 1, but he always had Merle on his mind as a very ambiguous presence: both as an abuser and as the only person who ever cared for him. Merle was like an overbearing father figure, whom Daryl loved but also needed to free himself from in order to grow past his demons.

Confrontation with Merle in any form had been a recurring theme of Daryl’s story. Back in season 2, in “Chupacabra”, Daryl’s mind kept resorting to an imaginary Merle taunting him with abuse and mockery about how worthless he was. That helped him survive, but also showed how trapped he was in a pointless quest to prove his worth to his older brother. Then, there was the episode in the fighting pit, where Daryl was forced to fight Merle: he had never looked more terrified, and we were left in doubt as to whether he could have done it or not. Of course, this was followed by the most significant confrontation between them, when Daryl finally found it in him to claim his independence from Merle and decided to go back to the prison. Daryl still couldn’t let go of Merle, however, and he basically forced the group to accept him even though it was likely to cause trouble.

Putting down Merle as a zombie was the final step in Daryl’s evolution. It was a devastating moment, but also a necessary step for him. Merle’s final redemption and sacrifice was probably the best way he could help Daryl. It was a way to show him that he had got the message and he could do some good. But it was hard to imagine Merle becoming a nice guy, and his continued presence in the group would only have caused tensions, holding down Daryl and threatening his hard-won integration in Rick’s group. In the end, Daryl did not have to kill Merle, but putting down his walker self was a symbolic way for Daryl to put his past behind him and embrace his new family. Daryl’s initial reaction is shock and panic, and at first, he just pushes Merle away, refusing to face the truth. But eventually, he finds the strength to stab Merle, and breaks down in what seems to be a mix of pain and relief.

The way Daryl repeatedly stabs Merle’s face beyond recognition is also reminiscent of an earlier scene, from season 1: when Carol similarly destroyed Ed’s face before he could turn. It is no coincidence: both scenes feature a character getting rid of a love/hate relationship with a character who abused them and held them back. Both scenes are simultaneously heartbreaking and cathartic. But because Merle was a great character who had been around for far longer than
Ed, this scene is even more powerful.