Season Three, Episode Fifteen, This Sorrowful Life

The-Walking-Dead-Merleby Thom McKee Jr.

Is leadership in the zombie apocalypse any different than it is in our world? Does the constant struggle for survival necessitate harsher types of authority than we have in a world with less chaos?

This is one of the issues that the show has been exploring since episode one. In the past, characters have been assuming roles of leadership by coercion, by intimidation, by persuasion and even brute force. But the result of each of these have been less than stellar. The consequences of this struggle to figure out how to organize have also been very brutal leading to the deaths of many of our characters, including Rick’s best friend Shane at the end of last season.

Consequently, this season has been exploring whether Rick’s new dictatorial style, which he announced at the end of last season, is turning out to be effective or not. Rick is definitely in charge now and the rest of the group has been following him, despite the fact that he is starting to lose his mind. Of course, The Governor, who has already lost his mind, how shown us an example of an even more oppressive and manipulative dictatorial style. But, tonight all of this comes to a head.

A lot happens in this episode. Merle really gets to show his mettle, and actually manipulates the whole group into letting him become a hero. This is something that we have not been used to with Merle up to this point. If you watch carefully, you can see that he plans this almost from the beginning of the episode. Every strange thing that he is doing (tearing up the mattresses, looking for booze and drugs, finding and hiding the phone cord) are all part of his very bizarre plan. Right after he lets Michonne go, we realize that he had planned to do this all along. I actually love the scene when he is drinking whiskey in the car with his death metal music blasting and he pantomimes giving some booze to one of the zombies. Perhaps he knows that he will be one of them soon. (Also look for the awesome Dawn of the Dead homage in that scene) But at least he takes out eight of the bad guys, and almost kills The Governor before he is taken out.

As a result, we get to see Daryl cry for the first time (and possibly the last). Merle is gone now, but his death is actually a reminder that Rick isn’t the kind of leader who can sacrifice one person for the benefit of the many. Fortunately, Merle wasn’t either, and he showed us this when he let Michonne go. Under that horribly cruel exterior, Merle was actually willing to sacrifice his own life for the good of the group. This is the very definition of a hero.

At the end of last season Rick made a speech that he refers to tonight. After he had to put down Shane, he responds to criticism from the group with a pretty harsh monologue.

Rick: Maybe you people are better off without me. Go ahead. I say there’s a place for us, but maybe- maybe it’s just another pipe dream. Maybe- Maybe I’m fooling myself again. Why don’t- why don’t you go out and find yourself. Send me a postcard! Go on, there’s the door. You can do better. Let’s see how far you get. No takers? Fine. But get one thing straight… you’re staying. This isn’t a democracy anymore.

Rick announced his role as dictator in that speech and for the most part he has been ruling that way all season. But tonight his dilemma surrounding The Governor’s proposal about giving up Michonne, made him rethink his rule as dictator. It made him realize that he does not want to be a leader like The Governor. Tonight he makes another speech in stark contrast to the one last season.

Rick: What I said last year, that first night after the farm… it can’t be like that. It can’t. What we do, what we’re willing to do, who we are, it’s not my call. It can’t be. I couldn’t sacrifice one of us for the greater good because we are the greater good. We’re the reason we’re still here, not me. This is life and death. How you live, how you die—it isn’t up to me. I’m not your Governor. We choose to go. We choose to stay. We stick together. We vote. We can stay and we can fight or we can go.

What he proposed in this speech was a form of democracy. But more importantly, what it demonstrated was servant leadership. This is a style of leadership that is rare in this world, but it is something that is taught frequently in the scriptures. In Matthew 20:25-27, Jesus illustrates this when he tells his disciples about this new way of thinking about leadership.

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— (NIV)

What Jesus is talking about here is a way of leading that He Himself demonstrated constantly. Jesus served the people around him and demonstrated this with his amazing acts of compassion. It is also clear that He was spending a large percentage of His time preparing his disciples for leadership, which is not the kind of thing that a power-hungry dictator does. He would illustrate this by doing things like taking the role of a servant and washing his disciples feet. Eventually, Jesus would show it in the most radical way, by giving His life for them – and for all of us.

In a world where most of our models of leadership are demonstrated by radical self-promotion, ruthless political maneuvering and never showing weakness in order to seize power, Jesus’ way seems almost crazy. Servant leadership seems risky in a dog-eat-dog world where there are people lining up to watch you make a mistake so they can take your position.

But Jesus’ counter-cultural words about leadership would become the model that would define the early church (and hopefully the modern church). Several times in the book of Acts we would see this demonstrated by the apostles, the leaders of the church after Jesus was gone. For example, in Acts 6 we would see the apostles solve a practical problem by electing new leaders. In the world, most leaders hoard power, but the apostles not only shared it, they expanded it by giving it to others. In the rest of Acts we would see some of these new leaders become some of the first missionaries (i.e. Phillip). We would also see some of them even become the first martyrs (i.e.Stephen).

The bottom line was that Jesus’ new style proved not only to be an effective leadership style, it became the catalyst for the radical growth of His church. Jesus’ leadership style, along with the Holy Spirit, became the impetus for turning a handful of His followers into a worldwide movement within a couple of decades. Now, (according to a Pew report in 2010) 2.2 billion people, nearly one third of the population of the world, claim to be followers of Jesus. Those are radically impressive and powerful results for such an unconventional style of leadership.


1) We know that The Governor was going to double-cross and kill anyone who came with Rick to deliver Michonne. Do you think Rick knew this? Did Merle know this?

2) Why do you think Merle let Michonne go? Do you think he had planned on doing this earlier?

3) Daryl and Hershel agreed to the plan to turn Michonne over to The Governor. Do you think they really wanted to do this, or do you think that they were just obeying Rick?

4) When Rick finds Merle in the mail room, Merle says that he is looking for drugs. Is that what he is really up to? Why do you think he hides the phone (and the cord) from Rick?

5) Do you think that Merle’s death vindicates Daryl in some way? Does it prove that Daryl wasn’t crazy for seeing some good in him?

6) In Rick’s final speech, he seems to indicate that he no longer wants to be a dictator. He proposes a form of democracy that includes voting. Do you think this is a good idea?

7) Do you think that Rick’s new form of leadership is going to work in this context?

8) Have you ever seen servant leadership work in your context?

9) Why do you think that Jesus taught and demonstrated this kind of leadership? What do you think Christianity would be like if Jesus was more like the leaders in power in His day?

10) If you have met servant leaders in your life, how do you feel about them? How do others around them feel?

11) Is servant leadership something that might solve some of your own leadership problems at home, school or work?

Thom McKee Jr. is a husband, father, pastor… and film geek (and brother of Jonathan McKee). Thom lives in Northern California with his wife and two kids.

About Jonathan McKee

president of The Source for Youth Ministry, is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Teen's Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices, If I Had a Parenting Do Over, 52 Ways to Connect with Your Smartphone Obsessed Kid; and the Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket. He has over 20 years youth ministry experience and speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for youth workers and parents on his websites, and You can follow Jonathan on his blog, getting a regular dose of youth culture and parenting help. Jonathan, his wife Lori, and their three kids live in California.
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