Back at the mid-season finale, I suggested that the stakes in the conflict between Rick and the Governor were essentially the rebirth of democracy after modern civilization’s collapse world: Rick was fighting for an open, cooperative society, while the Governor represented a torturous, authoritarian alternative. That subtext became the text this week with Rick’s big speech renouncing his “this is not a democracy” diktat. Moreover, the episode made a beautiful case for why we should care so much about saving democracy through the unlikeliest of tragic heroes — Merle Dixon.
Let us first sing the praises of Michael Rooker, whose acting was critical helping “This Sorrowful Life” soar well above last week’s atrocious “Prey.” Rooker sold Merle’s transformation from a monster who, in a nice bit of staging, was quite literally shrouded in darkness to a man in existential crisis to, finally, someone willing to sacrifice his own life in a very nearly successful attempt to save the world by killing the Governor. It isn’t easy turn an inveterate racist into someone whose death the audience mourns, but Rooker’s command over Merle’s crisis of conscience, his ability to convey the nuances of the man’s path towards his one good decision is what made that last moment, where Darryl had to butcher a zombiefied Merle, so utterly heartwrenching.
But it’s how and why Merle got to that point that’s really interesting. Merle’s admission at the beginning of the episode that “I don’t know why I do the things I do” came to tell us that he had become a killer for the Governor because, without Darryl, he didn’t really have a good reason to do much of anything. Though he tried to define himself as the bad guy in the midst of his abortive attempt to deliver Michonne for torture to the Governor, she saw right through him: “You talk about the weight of what you have to do, how you can handle it…someone truly evil, they’re light as a feather. They don’t feel a thing.”
Michonne was catalyst for Merle’s final transformation, pointing out to him that while he claims to have killed 16 men, all of those murders happened after he met the Governor. Merle was, as Michonne suggested, in control of shaping the kind of person that he wanted to be. There was nothing but his own choices to mark him as a killer, and nothing but himself to stand in the way of him become something better.
That’s as pure an expression of the assumptions behind the liberal democratic ideal as you’re going to find on television. The best life, as liberal uber-philosopher John Rawls puts it, is determined by your own personal “life plan:” setting out and defining what matters to you, and then working to accomplish it, is what liberal democratic freedom is supposed to free you too do. The assumption behind this, of course, is that we’re in a certain sense radically free to determine what matters to us. So when Merle takes control of his destiny, and tosses off the black hat he had thought surgically attached to his head, it was a defining statement about personal freedom. Having control over your life, the liberty to define yourself in the way that you want — that’s the necessary precondition for living life according to your own plan.
It’s that ideal that connected Merle’s sacrifice to Glenn’s proposal to Maggie and, ultimately, Rick’s final speech. When Glenn asks Hershel for his daughter’s hand, he does so not to live up to some marriage ideal, but to define what their bond is. Especially given that they all might die in tomorrow’s war: “I want her to know. Before.” The loveliness of Glenn’s proposal (and really, who thought that a proposal with a ring hacked off from a zombie’s hand could be so romantic?) is that it’s a pure expression of who he and Maggie are as a couple, about them living life on their terms and giving fuck-all about impending gubernatorial doom. Just like Merle’s death, their union gained a level of moral poignancy by the assertion of pure freedom of living life inherent to the act.
And it is the same sort of freedom of self-definition, albeit at the collective level, that Rick praises in his closing speech. Self-definition, for Rick, is the most valuable thing that’s left to them — and preserving the freedom to choose who we are is what’s so important about democracy:
What we do, what we’re willing to do, who we are – it’s not my call. It can’t be. I couldn’t sacrifice one of us for the greater good because we’re the greater good. We’re the reason we’re here, not me…how we live, how die – it isn’t up to me. I’m not your Governor. We choose to go. We choose to stay. We stick together.
In next week’s season finale, we’ll see just how well our incipient democratic theorists face in their long-awaited war.