One of the weirder things about The Walking Dead's second season is that the show appears to have zero interest in bringing back its most fascinating character. Neo-Nazi psycho-biker Merle Dixon tore through the second episode of the series, hurling racial slurs in every direction and lashing out physically until his own allies had to put him in handcuffs. In episode 3, Merle pulled an Evil Dead II and sawed his own hand off, and then he cauterized the wound with a Bunsen burner -- this all happened offscreen, unfortunately, or it would have been the bloodiest/awesomest scene in basic cable history.
As played by the famously batcrap-crazy character actor Michael Rooker, Merle was a live wire -- and an immediate sensation. Even though the character was created for the TV show, he fit right in with the villainous grotesques who frequently populate the Walking Dead comic book. (There is a popular theory that Merle actually is one of those grotesques: a horrific dude known only as The Governor.) He seemed to suggest a bleak reality about the post-apocalyptic universe: that, without the constrictions of society, some men would be happy to just watch the world burn. Merle stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the Dead ensemble, who -- besides Shane the Team-Killer -- have mostly proven to be extremely nice people who get along almost uncannily well with each other. Even Merle's little brother Daryl has mostly transformed into a puppydog with a crossbow.
Last night, The Walking Dead brought Merle back. Alas, the show decided to bring Merle back in the most roundabout and least satisfying way possible. It all started when the Grimes Gang instituted a new plan for Day 4 of the Great Sophia Hunt: A grid system. Daryl, being a total mutant badass, borrowed a horse from the Greene Family Farm and went up a tall hill to get a good look at their surroundings. The horse got spooked by a forest snake and threw Daryl off its back. Daryl proceeded to tumble down a cliff face into a stream. One of his arrows ended up going straight through the left side of his stomach. He heard a spooky sound in the trees. He found his crossbow and tried to ascend the side of the cliff. Then he fell down again. It looked exactly like this:
Beaten, bruised, just generally not having a good day, Daryl was suddenly approached by an unexpected visitor: His freaking brother, Merle. Except this was not Merle in the flesh: As if the high-contrast close-ups and eerie music weren't enough of a hint, this Merle still had two hands. No, this was Merle Dixon, the Imaginary Friend. Generally speaking, fans of television are pretty dismissive of Imaginary Friends. Generally speaking, you can track the general downturn in a show's quality by how often it introduces Imaginary Friends. (Just to pick a few examples: Grey's Anatomy reintroduced a beloved dead character as a tumor zombie; Heroes made half its characters into Imaginary Friends, thanks to the least believable portrayal of telepathy in recorded history; and the ridiculous series finale of X-Files was basically two hours of Imaginary Friends staring meaningfully at Mulder.)
But there's nothing fundamentally wrong with an Imaginary Friend. Television is still a fundamentally dialogue-based medium, and the best Imaginary Friend plotlines allow characters to voice their deepest concerns. Battlestar Galactica, Lost, and even The Sopranos used Imaginary Friends to illuminate the darker recesses of their character's brains. And surely there is no darker recess of Daryl Dixon's brain than the one that sounds exactly like his brother. "Look at you," said Dream-Merle, "Lying in the dirt like a used rubber." Dream-Merle served as a voice for Daryl's darkest thoughts: He reminded the wounded Daryl that he was currently working for the man who indirectly caused Merle to lose his hand. "Look at you," mumbled Dream-Merle, "Playing errand boy to a bunch of pansy assess, n---rs, and Democrats." Coming from Michael Rooker, lines like that sounded like disgusting poetry.
NEXT: Is this show aware of its own problems?