BY ERIC DEGGANS
Times TV/Media Critic
Even though she hasn't yet seen the episode, Walking Dead co-star Lauren Cohan knows all about the poignant, emotional action that floored viewers in Sunday's episode of AMC's zombie drama – as fan favorite and all around jerkface Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker) sacrificed himself to save his loyal brother Daryl.
"It's a shame because we'd all just begun to love the character and understand where he is coming from," said Cohan, who plays tough farmgirl-turned-zombie killer Maggie Greene on the show, which airs its third season finale on Sunday. "To make this ultimate sacrifice for his brother and have everybody be wrong … It comes at a time when we could be wrong about Michonne and – big surprise! – we were wrong about Merle."
The episode was a slow reveal, focused mostly on the band of heroic zombie apocalypse survivors led by Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), anticipating an armed conflict with the show's increasingly twisted villain, The Governor (David Morrissey).
Merle, always shown as a racist, violent thug (and once The Governor's enforcer), spent last Sunday's episode admitting to Rick that he doesn't know why he's driven to make impulsive, often horrific life choices. Stuck with Rick and his people in an old prison because his brother Daryl insists on staying there, Merle first tries to give up a fellow survivor, Michonne, to The Governor, to stop an attack.
Then, he decides to try killing as many of the villain's men as possible, getting killed in the process and turned into a zombie "walker" his own brother must put down.
It has become a trademark of the show. Just as we get to know – and care about -- a sketchy character, he gets killed, deepening the audience's shock.
"It was such a shame, even with Iron E (Singleton, who played survivor T-Dog), you had a moment of 'Oh he's becoming more noticed' – not more noticed, actually -- but he's becoming a more prominent leader in the group, and then he goes," said Cohan, an American-born, England-raised actress whose British accent flavors her words. "It's so flipping sad. But everybody goes out as a hero."
Cohan, scheduled to appear April 7 at the Tampa Bay Comic Con with fellow castmember Emily Kinney (Beth Greene), gave me a much longer interview for a later Tampa Bay Times story on that event. But she also was willing to talk a bit about the shock of losing Rooker as a castmate, and how the cast always seems to be in mourning -- a bit like the characters they play.
"The thing about Rooker, even though his character is such a baddie, he's one of the softest castmembers ever … such a little pussycat," she said. "It's kinda how you go through life thinking 'Well, if I love less or don't love as deeply, maybe it won't hurt as much when I lose someone.' But it kinda doesn't work like that. You kinda just have to live life fully and, well, it's a very difficult show to do, sometimes."
Sunday's episode seemed to nearly complete a season-long arc, in which Rick and The Governor started as seemingly very similar figures and now have landed in very different places. Rick embraced his humanity by deciding against giving up Michonne and pushing away visions of his dead wife, while The Governor has become more of a monster – biting off Merle's fingers during a fight and secretly holding former lover Andrea in a torture chair at his Woodbury compound.
Some critics say the show struggles because it has no story. But I remember people saying similar things about series such as Mad Men and The Sopranos at different points, mostly as a protest when the storytelling got too slow.
The eternal question that hung over The Walking Dead this season: How much of your humanity can you retain in a world gone insane, while still keeping yourself and your family alive?
Rick's answer seemed to come in bringing an end to the "Ricktatorship," telling his group they would make choices by majority vote in the future. Assuming the Governor finally gets his comeuppance in the upcoming finale, the question remains how some other characters – Michonne, Tyreese, Milton – will get folded into the family, if at all.
For now, fans are left to simmer over the poignant sight of Daryl killing his brother Merle – whom The Governor shot dead in a way that ensured he would return as a zombie "walker."
"It's kind of a call back to (Rick's son) Carl having to shoot (his mother) Lori," Cohan said. "We always go at the hand of our closest, I guess. I just (realized that) as I said it."