The Walking Dead, Season 3

How The Walking Dead Makes Even Merle Likeable
Talking television.
Feb. 26 2013 6:00 AM

The Walking Dead, Season 3

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

The one-on-ones make me care about these insane people.

Photo by Gene Page/AMC
Merle Dixon, fighting zombies with duct tape

Ever since zombies saved the protagonists from boredom by overrunning Hershel’s farm, the members of the Grimes group seem to rarely get downtime for one-on-one connecting. Instead, we usually find them fighting zombies or yelling about what to do next or ignoring Hershel as a group. That’s a shame. It’s their occasional two-minute dialogues that truly flesh out the characters and give us some modicum of sympathy for them.

This is particularly true this season for Daryl. We’ve learned a good deal about Daryl’s backstory and character from the one-on-one exchanges he’s had with other characters. When Daryl and Carl were clearing a cellblock together earlier in the season, we found out that Daryl’s mother was an alcoholic who died in a house fire. This didn’t just offer a greater glimpse into Daryl’s rough childhood; his attempt to connect with Carl illustrated his empathy, and you could just hear fans swoon at this demonstration of his daddy skills. Similarly, Daryl and Merle’s scuffle in the woods in “Home” revealed more than details about their fathers’ abuse. It's why they’re so loyal to each other: They both endured the same abusive father, and they each resent the other for his abandonment.

Our interest in Merle relies entirely on little dialogues like these. Without them, he’s just a raving, racist redneck. With them, he’s nuanced: a bibliophile, even a devout man. These well-drawn dialogues tend to reveal a discrepancy between a character and his or her airbrushed group persona. Daryl seems the dispassionate zombie-killing machine, but he’s actually empathetic and wounded. Merle seems the shameless sociopath, but he’s actually remorseful. Rick seems the level-headed leader (well, not anymore), but he’s actually overrun with guilt.

There’s a psychological controversy known as the person-situation debate. One side argues that individuals’ inner personality traits determine their behavior. On the other side, the “situationalists” argue that people act so inconsistently across situations that it’s not very meaningful to ascribe personality traits to them. The truth is probably somewhere in between, but I’m glad The Walking Dead is erring on the side of situationalism. It makes a show about zombies and Axel’s titanium, bullet-blocking corpse somehow realer. It’s not exactly subtle, but then The Walking Dead isn’t about subtlety. We do have zombies to kill, you know.

Chris Kirk is Slate's interactives editor. Follow him on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Television

See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 10:44 AM Bull---- Market America is overlooking a plentiful renewable resource: animal manure.
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 30 2014 10:10 AM A Lovable Murderer and Heroic Villain: The Story of Australia's Most Iconic Outlaw
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 10:59 AM “For People, Food Is Heaven” Boer Deng on the story behind her piece “How to Order Chinese Food.”
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 10:48 AM One of Last Year’s Best Animated Shorts Is Finally Online for Free
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.