By his very nature, Merle (Michael Rooker) is an outsider. I must disclose that he is one of my favorite characters! Not only is he incredibly adept at killing walkers, he also possesses street smarts. He often provides much-needed comic relief. The only member of the group with military experience, he’s the ultimate bad-ass, having established his bona fides before the apocalypse hit. Merle is a mercenary. He’s in it for the adrenaline rush. Due to a lack of good judgment, however, he ends up, as Michonne observes, “taking out the trash” for men like the Governor who don’t have the stomach for it.
In season one, he alienates himself from the group on the rooftop of the abandoned building in Atlanta by abusing and threatening other people. After hurling racial epithets at T-Dog and attacking him, they handcuff Merle to a pipe. In the ensuing melee to escape a horde of walkers, he is left for dead after T-Dog accidentally drops the key down a hole. After the others have left, Merle—ever the survivor—hacks off his own hand to escape. He fashions his remaining stump into a sharp weapon he easily plunges into the undead. After forging an uneasy alliance with the Governor, he finds himself the odd man out at Woodbury, still maintaining his outsider status. He draws parallels from his own situation to that of Andrea’s; they were both left for dead, after all, he on the rooftop and she in the chaos at Hershel’s overrun farm.
Merle demonstrates a modicum of humanity when he reconnects with his younger brother Daryl, but at the same time he’s able to dispose of human obstacles with nary a thought to the moral consequences. During his hunt-and-kill search to dispatch Michonne, for example, he shoots a young man (Gargulio) in the group without a moment’s hesitation when his agenda differs with his. He also kidnaps Glenn and Maggie to take them back to Woodbury, where he knows they’re in for brutal treatment at the hands of the Governor. He then gleefully tortures Glenn, locking him in a room with a ravenous walker. Yet even Merle is not wholly devoid of humanity.
|Merle and his bad-ass arm embark on yet another dirty mission.|
He returns to Woodbury to kill the Governor, using Michonne as a decoy. En route, Merle frees her to run his own suicide mission. He sacrifices himself for the good of Daryl’s group by luring a pack of walkers to Woodbury to take down several of their key men. Unlike the Governor, Merle’s final expression of humanity comes from his self-awareness (and Daryl’s reminders) that he will always be flawed. The Governor, on the other hand, will do whatever it takes to ensure his own survival without any hint of a guilty conscience. As Michonne explains to Merle, “A bad man, someone truly evil, they’re light as a feather. They don’t feel a thing.” Merle knows he is the eternal outsider. He will never be fully accepted by either group of survivors.
Toward the end of season three, Daryl warns Merle that one “can’t do things without people, not anymore, man.” Post-apocalypse, individuals cannot act independent of other people; their very lives depend on getting along. He’s trying to convince Merle of the value in maintaining relationships with others rather than antagonizing everyone. “I just want my brother back,” Daryl says. Merle growls at him to go away, unnerved by Daryl’s emotional display. Merle’s lack of humanity and his inability to connect with others ultimately proves to be his undoing. TWD fans were sad to see him turn.