Friday, March 29, 2013

Behind Blue Eyes: Reflections on the Demise of Merle Dixon

The death of Merle Dixon echoed through the "Walking Dead" fandom like a gunshot. For a moment, there was only stillness and horror as we watched Daryl dissolve into sobbing, inconsolable grief. Then, as the younger Dixon stabbing his zombified brother's face into a messy goo and the credits rolled, the internet erupted.

Admit it. If you ran into a zombie with a knife hand, you'd poop yourself and die.
Even dead, Merle scares the crap out of us.

Original image found here.

Some folks were pleased. They never liked Merle. And honestly, what was there to like? Merle was a drug-using racist asshole who was introduced to us in season 1 as the guy playing alpha male and popping shots off in the middle of zombie-filled Atlanta. When he turned up as the sadistic right hand of the Governor, no one was really surprised. Merle had "henchman" written all over him. The way he pummeled Glenn into mush and then shoved a walker in to finish him really cinched it. Merle was the devil. He recognized that everyone must see him that way, himself, in "This Sorrowful Life."

"Buck up, son. This is still better than if it came to arm-wrestling."

Original image found here.

But Merle had always given hints that he was more than just a redneck stereotype fit only for slaughter. For one thing, whether you love him or you hate him, you can't deny that he's  a complete badass. I don't think a single one of us can imagine having the stones to saw off our own hand, stumble downstairs without fainting, and cauterize the wound on a stove. And even if we could even manage such a thing, I doubt the average Joe would be able to fight his way out of Atlanta one-handed and haul ass to safety while weak from blood loss. No, I think in Merle's situation, most people would've curled up into a weepy, shivering ball of human misery and waited for death to find them.

"I have feelings. Shhhh. Don't tell anyone."

Original image found here

Coming back as a hallucination in season 2, Merle was as antagonistic as ever, haranguing a fallen Daryl with a varied and colorful array of insults to his manhood and fortitude. But even as a hallucination, there was a  sense that Merle considered himself to be acting for Daryl's own good. And indeed, through his stinging hail of verbal barbs, he drove his weary brother up and out of the gorge so that he could seek treatment for the injuries he sustained in his fall.

"And if you do not go, I shall taunt you a second time!"

Original image found here.

When we finally catch up with the corporeal Merle and his shiny new knife-hand in season 3, the only thing our pal Merle can think of once he knows Daryl's still out there is finding his baby brother. And you have to wonder why. Merle's been painted as an unsentimental hardass up to this point. He's not a nice guy, he's not a caring guy, and we'd never actually seen these two interact in the flesh. It seems like a harsh question to ask about any human being, but I had to wonder, did he want his brother back because he loved him or was it a control thing? Did he miss his brother's company, or did he have to have him because he was HIS brother?

*singing* "I can't liiiiiiiive... if living is without you!"

Original image found here.

Honestly, I didn't know until the two Dixons left the group to fend for themselves in "Home." Predictably, despite Daryl leaving the people he'd come to care for and respect to be with Merle, Merle continued to berate and deride his brother. And seeing Daryl spurred to heroics to help stranded strangers escape from walkers doesn't make Merle any kinder. He clearly regarded his brother's bravery as the worst sort of foolishness. But then their conversation takes a turn. Merle is aghast to discover that his brother had taken the beatings Merle used to suffer at their father's hands in Merle's absence. It sets him back, throws him off his macho game, and leaves him fumbling for equilibrium. You can tell he hates that this happened to his brother, and he wants to make things right somehow, but he knows that he'll never be welcome at the prison. In the end, he goes back, because Daryl makes it clear that he's going back with or without him.

"This Sorrowful Life" then gives us Merle in his death throes, thrashing like prey in the jaws of an alligator. He knows how they all see him. Even as Daryl tries to talk Glenn into forgiving Merle for that whole attempted murder business, Merle is aware that the group looks at him as the bad guy and probably always will. There's something particularly wild in his search for drugs in the prison bedding. I saw someone who can't stay still, who can't stay within his own skin without the benefit of a little medicinally-induced dullness. 

He seemed to welcome the grim, murderous task of delivering Michonne. This was the best they could expected of him, that he would do their dirty work for them. And he decided, when Rick asked him to do it, to live up to their expectations. If they wanted him to be soulless garbage, then he would be soulless garbage and do the thing that none of them had the stomach for. And Merle decided there would be no going back on this. Rick wanted him to be the hooded executioner taking the taunts and jeers of the crowd for him, and he was going to carry out his orders even if they were rescinded. So he took Michonne and bore her off to be their sacrificial lamb.

She did get under his skin, digging in about how he wasn't the man he tried to pretend he was. That he wouldn't lament being a bad guy if he really was one. And truthfully, it was telling that he had never killed anyone before the apocalypse and that he kept count of those he did since then. The count suggested to me a man who felt each death leave a mark on his soul, which wouldn't be the case if he had no soul to speak of. 

When Merle let Michonne go and went on his sniper mission against the Governor's men, we all knew Merle had decided then that he wasn't coming back to the prison. That he wasn't coming back anywhere, if he could help it. But the why of it had people confused. And yet, while I wholeheartedly agree that the motivation behind Merle's final mission could have been much more clearly developed, I completely understood it.

In this episode, Merle realized that his brother had a new family. Daryl had a place in the prison, with these people who cared for him and respected him. They would never feel that way about Merle. He could only linger in the shadows, pissing them off and accepting the brunt of their hateful stares as his due, and be the outsider there by Daryl's grace alone. And chances are, he was going to screw it up for Daryl. I think when he was hunting up drugs, he could feel the restlessness that drives him to sin stirring, wanting to fight and rant and raise Hell. And he may have been trying to resist it, to dull it, but he'd give in eventually and ruin everything. Then he'd put Daryl in the position of choosing between Merle, who didn't know how to treat him well, or the group of people who did. 

It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Merle had come to see himself as the others did, to believe himself incapable of better. And because all he could do was drag Daryl down with him, he did the only useful thing he could think of: he decided to take himself out of the picture and bring as many of those Woodbury bastards with him as possible. 

What he couldn't do was go back and face the group after doing exactly what was expected of him. He couldn't pretend like he was capable of being a better man. He just had to fight as cleverly and as brutally as only he knew how, and hope that his brother would be better for it. 

Which actually showed that he would have been capable of being a good man, if he had only been able to believe it, himself.

"You've got to play the hand you're dealt. I only got one."
-Merle Dixon in "This Sorrowful Life."

Original image found here. 

I wasn't happy that Merle died in the end. I was torn apart by Daryl's reaction, and by the notions of what might have been if Merle had just had an ounce of faith in himself. And for myself, I suspect that even if this had to be Merle's end, it could have done him more justice if we'd gotten to see a few more glimpses of the man he really was beneath the bad guy, the henchman, the racist redneck and verbally abusive older brother. There was more to Merle, and we only scratched the surface. But I was happy to have the answer to my question in the end. Merle did love Daryl, and he loved him more than his own life.

This one's for you, Merle.

"Behind Blue Eyes" by The Who

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Agony and the Ecstasy: What Makes a Tragic Romance Worth the Pain

It seems unhealthy to seek after feelings of crushing anguish and bittersweet misery. Normally, we don't walk into situations and hope to walk back out weeping. And yet, there are times when even the best-adjusted individual may pine after a bit of romantic angst, told so beautifully than one can't even fully regret the ending. So what does it take to tell a tale that destroys hearts, and yet keeps us coming back for more? Well, I'm going to run through three well-known favorites in the realm of tragic romance and analyze what it is about these tales that, in the words of the great Mr. Mellencamp, makes them "hurt so good."


Call it cliche, if you wish, but this story is a classic example of love gone epically wrong. From the moment the young lovers meet and get nailed with a lightning bolt between the eyes, the universe seems to be plotting against them. It's bad enough that their families are bitter rivals who will never let them be together. They manage to circumvent that little obstacle by marrying in secret with the help of a friendly neighborhood priest. But then Juliet's cousin, Tybalt, has to go picking fights and bumps off Romeo's pal, Mercutio. Which, of course, calls for a healthy dose of revenge in the form of Romeo killing Tybalt. So now the in-laws definitely aren't going to approve.

To make matters worse, Juliet's dad has promised her to another man. To avoid bigamy, the poor girl is forced to fake her own death. Unfortunately, back in the day, you couldn't send a letter certified mail with return receipt requested, so her poor hubby-in-hiding misses the message that should've let him know that the rumors of Juliet's death have been greatly exaggerated. Thinking his beloved dead, what else is our smitten young hero to do other than buy a dram of poison and pop by the visit the little woman's alleged corpse for some smooching and suicide? And, because their luck would draw dreadful odds in Vegas, Juliet wakes up just as Romeo downs the poison. As the apple of her eye expires, Juliet hurries after, plunging his dagger into her heart.

What makes this tale so compelling that we voluntarily let it punch us right in the feels? I suspect it's the elements of forbidden love and the cruelty of fate. No one can deny the lure of forbidden fruit. The idea that someone who inspires the glowing euphoria of true love would turn out to be an enemy is a powerful one. Suddenly, what should be joyous is threatening and perilous, and new love is pitted against ancient hatred. There are seemingly insurmountable obstacles to overcome, and the romantics among us long to see love conquer all.

Cue the cruel twists of fate that send it all spiraling out of control. One by one, tiny, often insignificant-seeming details go awry. From the skirmishes between Romeo, Tybalt, and Mercutio to Juliet's ill-timed engagement, suddenly these poor kids have a lot more on their plate than their parents' mutual animosity. 

Then the least significant event of all happens: missed mail. We've all missed a letter here and there. A bill might get paid late. A party missed. Maybe even one learns of a sale at Bed, Bath, and Beyond just two days too late to get those new sheets at 20% off. These small tragedies are bearable. But the notion that one missed communication could result in the grief-stricken suicides of two young lovers is gut-wrenchingly unfair. This is when you know for certain that the gods (and possibly the mailman) are out to get you. And  thus two star-crossed lovers become a cautionary tale for parents who let their hatred get the best of them.

Wow, I guess Pat Benatar was right. Love really is a battlefield.

Original image found here.

Further reading: Of course, you can't beat going back to the source, so pick up your copy of Romeo and Juliet today! Also, for a similar tale of family ire turned to lovelorn tragedy, check out the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe as told in Ovid's Metamorphoses.


Perhaps you're a bit cynical at the notion of love at first sight. Maybe you don't buy that Romeo and Juliet could just clap eyes on each other and know they were meant to be together for the rest of their lives. So if love at first sight isn't your cup of tea, perhaps you'd like to try a little love potion # 9?

The tale of Tristan and Isolde has few variations, but it consistently begins with our handsome hero, Tristan, being raised in the court of good King Mark, who is his uncle, mentor, and father-figure. Tristan loves and admires Mark, so when the king asks him to help him fetch a wife, Tristan is at his service. Of course, rather than hopping on medieval eharmony to find a wench who also enjoys gardening and musicals, Mark finds strands of hair that are an unusual shade of red and says, "Hell, I'll take her!" So Tristan is sent into the world to track down a ginger suffering from what is hopefully only minor hair loss. 

It turns out said ginger is a radiant young princess named Isolde whose homeland is being terrorized by a dragon. To earn her hand, one must kick some rampaging reptilian ass. Undaunted by the challenge, Tristan switches gears from errand boy to knight errant and bests the beast, thereby earning the right to haul Isolde off to marry Mark.  

Unfortunately, something funny happens on the way back to Cornwall. Isolde has been given a love potion she was meant to take before her wedding to King Mark. It seems like a reasonable measure to ensure her happiness with the older king who is, at this point, a stranger to her. However, by treachery or mishap, she and Tristan end up drinking the enchanted brew and falling deeply in love with each other. And now life has become truly complicated. Because Isolde is promised to Mark, and Mark is dear to Tristan. So Tristan delivers Isolde responsibly to his uncle, but despite their best intentions, the two end up carrying on behind Mark's back. 

After much suspicion, the two are discovered, and this leads to disaster, betrayal, and the forced separation of the lovers. Tristan goes from being his uncle's favorite and the heir to his kingdom to an exile who must leave his true love behind. He does go on to marry another Isolde- this one called "Isolde of the White Hands"- but he's never really all that into her. And when he is mortally wounded, the original Isolde is the only Isolde with the healing skills to save him. Unfortunately, the new Isolde gets a little jealous about the way her hubby swoons over the memory of his ex. As he clings to life on the strength of his hope that his beloved will come, Isolde 2 is instructed to watch from the window for the ship's approach. If the ship flies black sails, Isolde 1 refused to help him. If the sails are white, his lady love is on the way to rescue him.

Seeing the white sails headed her way, Isolde 2 can't resist muttering that they're black. Tristan then dies of a broken heart and Isolde 1 similarly perishes from her grief when she finds him dead.  Thus while their lives were longer than Romeo and Juliet's, they still ended in tragic misfortune thanks to a little white lie.

This story has some of the same allure that permeates Romeo and Juliet. There's some mistaken identity issues early on and, of course, the notion of forbidden love  to make our hearts go pitter-pat. And here, too, Fate seems bent on wiping the floor with the troubled twosome, who would've been happy in-laws but for swilling the wrong bottle of wine. 

But what really sets this tale apart is the betrayal. King Mark is dear to Tristan, and Tristan would not have hurt him for anything in the world. Or so it was before love got ahold of him. Then, suddenly, he can't stop himself from spitting in the eye of the one person he loves best, all for the sake of a girl he's only just met. His love is poisoned by the knowledge that it causes Mark pain, and thus each stolen moment of joy is also laced with sorrow. And Isolde wanted Tristan before she ever met Mark. Still, she respected her husband, and she wasn't happy to see her beau suffer. The result is enough angst to make the bleakest alt rock album seem downright cheery by comparison.

In the end, while one may normally frown upon adultery, you can't help but feel sorry for these two. Love makes people do crazy things, and in this case, they're at least partly absolved of responsibility through act of magic potion. And that small magic allows us to sympathize with people engaged in illicit actions, finding a way to rationalize two people giving in to their passion at the expense of those they hold dear. This glorious misery contrasts and amplifies the flashes of bravery, romance, and nobility in a way that makes them seem even more precious, and all the more frail.

Who among us hasn't had one too many magic potions 
and done something we regretted?

Original image found here.

Further reading: I have yet to track down a really stellar retelling of this tale, but I have found at least one great resource for those interested in reading a comparison of the original source material


It is said that the Arthurian love triangle may have been inspired or influenced by the tale of Tristan and Isolde. Certainly, the architecture is similar, it's only the scale that is so much grander. In this tale, you have your noble, respected king, only he is no mere King Mark. No, this is King Arthur, wielder of Caliburn, ruler of Camelot, and one of the greatest legendary kings ever to sport a crown. Here is the fellow who the mysterious sorcerer, Merlin, enchanted for, who united the warring tribes of Britain against the Saxons and forged a time of peace and plenty for his people. His greatness was foretold before he was born. 

And what would a bold figure of a king be without a queen who outshines every other noble beauty in the kingdom? His queen, Guinevere, was described as being a rare flower of a woman. And although theirs was a political marriage, prearranged for reasons other than devotion much like Mark and Isolde's, by most accounts, there was admiration and respect between them, if not love.

Enter Sir Lancelot, the bravest of Arthur's knights, and a friend, besides. The legends touted Lancelot as a formidable warrior, the medieval equivalent of the captain of the football team and the unquestionable MVP of any battle. And besides being a badass on the field, he was apparently quite easy on the eyes as well, ensnaring hearts wherever he went. (Just ask the Lady of Shalott!) And though he destroyed many of Arthur's enemies, Lancelot turned out to be the most insidious enemy of them all when he became smitten with the queen. 

It began much as Tristan and Isolde's ill-fated romance: with an act of heroism by the romantic upstart on behalf of the absent rightful husband. When Guinevere is kidnapped by another king and held prisoner, it's Lancelot who comes to save her. And because he's Lancelot and rescuing fair maidens is what he does best, he is successful. One can almost see how a woman might get swept away by a knight in shining armor who spirits her out of danger while her husband is busy elsewhere.

And so begins a passionate love affair between the knight and the queen. Torn by their loyalty to Arthur, and yet hopelessly smitten, they cannot resist a few stolen moments of bliss. Unfortunately, they're not as stealthy about it as they might have hoped. Their dalliances do not escape the notice of Arthur's knights, and it undermines his hold on the kingdom and gives his lurking enemies the opening they've been waiting for.  It all comes to a head when Arthur finally discovers the affair and orders Guinevere burned at the stake. Though Lancelot rescues her, the fallout causes warfare between Arthur and Lancelot that allows Arthur's bastard son, Mordred, to try for the throne while he's distracted. And though Mordred is slain in the end, so, too, is Arthur. Thus passion topples the mighty kingdom and the dream that was Camelot dies with her king.

Here, too, we have the usual elements of a compelling tragic romance: forbidden love and cruel fate. Arthur's doom has been written in the stars for as long as his glory has and the legend resonates with the theme that nothing so good and glorious as Camelot can last in the face of human frailty. That the source of Arthur's undoing begins with the actions of his wife and his trusted friend are just the sad twist on the inevitable end of this golden age. And so this tale of woe picks up on Tristan and Isolde's theme of the betrayal of a friend and liege in the name of love, giving our tormented lovers the guilty choice between their own desires and their loyalties. The message of the chaos caused by love is amplified in this tale by the scale of the consequences. It's not just the lovers who pay the price. Because of Lancelot and Guinevere's weakness for each other, and to some extent Arthur's weakness in how he addresses it, one error begets another until a whole kingdom is ripped apart. 

Lancelot: "So was it good for you?"
Guinevere: "Well, it was good, but 
wrecking Camelot good? Probably not."

Original image found here.

Further reading: There's a whole host of fantastic books that are true to the popular versions of the Arthurian legends. However, I've always been a sucker for a good twist. For instance, the series by Mary Stewart that begins with The Crystal Cave is a masterful retelling of the legends, but as seen through the eyes of Merlin. It starts with his childhood and upbringing on through to the fall of Camelot, placing the mysterious enchanter in a human context that makes him relatable. It also has a very historical setting that makes the story more believable and tangible without detracting from its grandeur. Similarly, Merlin's Harp chooses to recount the legend of King Arthur from the point-of-view of the Lady of the Lake's wild Fey daughter, a mage in her own right who manages to innocently meander into the legend while trying to mind her own business. It's beautifully told, and manages to be true to the spirit of the tales without being slavish. I could go on, but, um, I probably shouldn't. ;)


In the end, it's the dire consequences that makes these tragic romances so enduring. We can all get engrossed in the passion and the yearning and the poetry, but there's also something about the notion of the unspeakable grief that can be caused by such love that resonates with a reader. In Romeo and Juliet, it's enough to claim several lives on the way to the final curtain. In Tristan and Isolde, death and shattered trusts are left in the couple's wake. And in the Arthurian legends, love brings out the flaws in great men and manages to crush Camelot in a way no Saxon army could. It speaks to our own awareness of our own frailty, our wariness of being hurt. These tales express our hope that love will conquer all, and the fear that it often doesn't. And in stirring our hearts and smashing them to ruin, these tragic lovers find a unique immortality. We may not remember all the blissful happy endings, but these searingly sad ones have a way of etching themselves into our memories. Some loves and lives manage to burn all the brighter because they burn so briefly.



1. What are your thoughts about tragic romances? Do you glory in the sweet misery of a sad ending or do you feel cheated, as a reader, when there's no happily ever after? 

2. As a writer, do you ever worry that choosing the bleaker ending will alienate readers or are you fairly confident that there will always be those of us who are gluttons for emotional punishment? 

3. As a reader, do you find the concept of love at first sight romantic or just illogical? Do you swoon or chalk it up to hormones? 

4. As a writer, do you prefer to nurture along a slow blossoming of affection rather than go with the love lightning bolt? If so, how do you keep the pace up and keep the reader's interest? 

If you're interested in exploring these topics further, feel free to join @sabrinaslibrary and me (@amandakespohl) on Twitter at the #Plottymouths hashtag on March 16, 2013 at 7:30 E.S.T.! We'll be chatting about crafting compelling romantic plots and subplots. 

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Getting Lucky: A Chat on Writing Romantic Plots

Whether you're penning a tale where the romance is the raison d'etre or just a subplot lurking in the background, come one, come all, and join @sabrinaslibrary and I (@amandakespohl) as we chat about the pitfalls and perils of writing a romantic plot. We'll be chatting on Twitter on March 16th at 7:30 p.m. EST under the #Plottymouths hashtag. Be there or be... well, elsewhere, but still, you'll be missing out!

Back in the day, the chick who could wail on the lute always got the flyest man-candy.

Original image found here.