In the graphic novels, This Sorrowful Life took place right before the big battle that finally ended the conflict between Rick Grimes's group of survivors and their adversaries in Woodbury. During the story, Rick Grimes and Michonne found themselves captured and subject to various forms of physical abuse.
Would this episode follow suit? Well, here's how it went down...
The episode begins with Rick having convened Hershel and Daryl, to let Daryl know about the Governor's proposed deal to hand over Michonne. Rick has decided to try it, in the hopes of preventing a bloodbath, and Daryl asks if he plans on telling Michonne. Rick says no, that it has to be done today, and quietly. He says that they’ll tell her that they need to talk when she's isolated from the rest of the group, who don't know about any of this. Neither Daryl nor Hershel are pleased with the plan, and Hershel leaves.
Daryl finally agrees after Rick reiterates that this is their only chance to avoid a potential bloodbath. Rick says that they'll need someone else, and Daryl offers to go talk to "him," which of course you take to mean Merle, but Rick says he'll handle it instead. When Rick comes upon Merle, he's ripping apart a mattress in the cell block. Seeing Rick, he tells him that he's looking for drugs, joking that the prison couldn't have been that great a place if nobody was holding.
After a little banter back and forth, Rick tells Merle about the deal the Governor put on the table. He says that he doesn't like it but that it needs to be done and Merle can help with that. He tells Merle that nobody else knows except for Hershel and Daryl.
Merle tells Daryl about his outings with the Governor--about the viciousness of the Woodbury Army and the way the Governor would always cheat and murder people. He tells Rick that surrendering Michonne won't mean her death, just her torture, and asks whether "Officer Friendly" would allow that to happen just on the off chance that a sociopath like the Governor would actually keep his word.
Merle says he’ll need some wire, because Michonne could chew through rope. He tells Rick that he (Rick) doesn’t have the balls to follow through with the deal. Rick just tells him they need to be done by noon and then walks away.
Outside, Rick joins Carl and Maggie distracting the walkers while Michonne, Daryl, Glenn, and Beth lay traps in the yard and killing walkers along the way. When they finish up and join him, Glenn tells Rick that they found some blown tires that they can use at the gate to slow Woodbury down. Rick says that’s a great idea--one which Daryl is quick to attribute to Michonne. After a beat, Michonne tells them that they don’t have to win but give them as much trouble as possible.
Back inside the prison, Merle looks down at the group in the yard through a window and starts muttering his doubts to himself. Carol overhears him, though, and asks what’s he’s talking about. He deflects, asking if they have any whiskey. Carol challenges Merle, asking if he is with them. Merle just says "sure," but Carol continues to press. Eventually Merle says he is here for Daryl. Carol tells him that Daryl is there for them so it’s not time to do shots; it’s time to pick a side.
Merle says Carol isn't the same person she was when they first met--that she used to be scared of her own shadow. She tells him it was her husband that she was afraid of, but agrees that she isn’t scared of much anymore. She’s a late bloomer, Merle says, and she suggests that maybe he is too.
Outside again, Daryl walks up to Glenn and asks if he’s seen Merle and Glenn just ignores him. This leads to the scene we've all seen in previews, wherein Glenn tells Daryl that there's no reconciling himself with Merle after the way Merle allowed Maggie to be abused by the Governor. Daryl picks up his crossbow and walks away.
Looking for Merle inside, Daryl calls out to his brother, finding him in the engine room. Merle tells him he’s just looking for some crystal meth. Daryl asks if Rick has talked to him, and Merle says that he did, and he’s in, but he doesn't believe Rick has the balls to go through with it. Daryl is nonplussed, saying that if he flops then he flops. Merle asks if Daryl doesn't want to go through with the deal but Daryl defers to Rick.
Merle laughs at him and asks what happened to his balls. Merle is very balls-centric this episode.
Daryl asks Merle what happened with Glenn and Maggie, to which Merle says he has done worse and Daryl needs to grow up. He likens what they’re planning to do to Michonne to his own choice to bring Glenn and Maggie to the Governor. He says that you've got to do what you have to or you die. Daryl disagrees, saying it doesn’t have to be that way; he seems to have become the Rick of the group, a bit; the one who is trying to hold onto hope and goodness in the world. Merle says that the group just needs someone like him to do all the dirty work that the rest of them can’t do. Daryl says he just wants his brother back, and Merle says get out of here man--then Daryl walks away.
Merle grabs a telephone (is it Lori's phone?) and places it in a bag with a rifle and some other things. Back at the group’s cell block, Hershel is praying with Beth and Maggie while Rick is walking the yard looking for some wire to use to bind Michonne. He finds some and begins to roll it around his arm, but before he can finish he looks back toward the gate and sees Lori watching him.
He tells himself that she isn’t really there but looks back up and still sees her. Finally drops the wire and re-enters the prison, passing Hershel. The old man calls out to Rick to ask about the Michonne trade, but Rick tells Hershel that he can’t and won’t do it, and keeps moving.
In the Tombs, Merle and Michonne are searching for the breach in the prison's defenses where Tyreese’s group got in. They take out some walkers and when she's distracted, Merle jumps Michonne, knocks her unconscious, drags her into a room, binds her hands and puts a bag over her head.
Moments later, Merle and Michonne are walking down the road, where Merle tells Michonne about the deal the Governor offered Rick. Michonne agrees that Rick wouldn’t have gone through with it, but isn't surprised that Merle would. Merle says that he’s the one to get things done, that he does all the dirty work. A walker comes near, and Merle stops to cut it down with Michonne’s sword. Saying he's surprised she didn’t run when she had the chance, she tells him that she wants to make sure she gets her sword back before she gets away. Merle tells Michonne not to get her hopes up.
Back at the prison, Rick finds Daryl and tells him the deal is off. Daryl says that it’s a smart choice but asks if something is wrong with Rick. Rick says that he can’t find Merle or Michonne, so Daryl leads Rick back to where he last saw his brother. They finally suss out that Merle led Michonne into the engine room and he was able to capture her. Rick says he’s going to go find them but Daryl tells him to stay behind while he tracks Merle, since he's better at it than Rick is. He reasons that it makes no sense for both of them to go, in case the Governor shows up, and tells Rick that he's family, too.
Back on the road, Merle tells Michonne that he wants to stay with Daryl, and that if Daryl wants to stay at the prison then he’s willing to do what he has to do to help keep the prison standing. Stopping to hotwire a van, he tells her what they found is still usable and Merle says that they just have to play the hand (har har) they're dealt.
Michonne tells him that even though he talks a good game, a really evil person wouldn’t feel a thing. Merle responds by telling her he’s killed sixteen men since everything has happened. With no luck on the van, Merle tells her it's time to keep going.
Back at the prison, Glenn visits with Hershel. He takes out the pocket watch and explains that he didn’t know what it meant at first, but now he does. He tells Hershel that he wants to marry Maggie. Hershel gives Glenn his blessing and then Glenn thanks him and leaves.
Back on the road, Merle and Michonne find some cars in front of a building and Merle ties her to one of the building’s pillars. Merle breaks into one of the cars and attempts to hotwire it--the car starts, but so does the alarm, drawing a bunch of walkers to them. Michonne tells him to hurry up, fighting off the walkers and even killing a couple all while tied up. A walker comes out of the building and grabs Michonne, but Merle shoots it and cuts her loose from the pillar, forcing her into the car.
Driving down the road, Michonne asks Merle if all he does is follow orders, either from Rick or the Governor. She says that at least Rick needs and respects Daryl, but Merle chooses to stay on the outside by just doing what he’s told. She tells him that no one will mourn him, not even Daryl, that Daryl has a new family. Merle says if she keeps talking, he'll cut her tongue out, adding that Rick views her as just as much of an outsider as he is.
Back at the prison, Glenn goes out to salvage an engagement ring by cutting one off of a walker.
Michonne asks Merle if he had killed any men before the apocalypse. Merle tells her that he never killed anyone before meeting The Governor. Michonne suggests they should go back to the prison together but Merle hesitates and says he can’t just go back. She asks him why, and Merle stops the car. After a long pause, he cuts Michonne loose and tells her to go back to Rick and get ready for what’s next, but that he has something that he has to do on his own. She takes her sword and gets out as he leaves.
As Michonne makes her way back and Daryl makes his way out, the pair come across each other in a field. Daryl asks where his brother is, or if she killed him, but she tells him that Merle let her go. Daryl rushes off and Michonne just watches him run off.
Merle is in the car, drinking whiskey with some music blasting out the windows and taunting a bunch of walkers. He lures the walkers with the noise and heads to the meeting area where Rick and the Governor were to do the deal--but as he arrives, he jumps out of the car and runs into a building to hide.
Martinez and his men leave the building they're in to check out the noise. The group is panicked by the walkers and start shooting, during which time Merle manages to take out some Woodbury soldiers with his rifle--but Martinez also notices something is going on in the building close to them.
Merle just about has the Governor in his sights when Ben steps into the shot, taking one in the neck. A walker suddenly grabs Merle from behind--Merle kills it but accidentally falls through the building’s door in the scuffle. The Woodbury forces start to kick him while he’s down but the Governor stops them, saying to leave Merle to him. He grabs Merle and tosses him back into the building.
The Governor then beats on him while he’s on the ground, but Merle gets up, gets a few licks in and tries to fend him off. The Governor bites two of Merle's fingers off and spits them out and then breaks his arm back and starts to choke him. He calms down a bit, spits on him and walks away. Merle says he won’t beg, to which the Governor responds by shooting him.
Everyone meets outside in the yard, where they're nice targets for Woodbury snipers, and Rick tells them about the deal that the Governor offered. He tells them that he was going to do it, to keep them safe, but that he changed his mind. He lets them know that Merle took Michonne to the Governor, and that Daryl went after them, but he doesn’t know if it’s too late. He apologizes for not telling them earlier.
Then he recalls the season two finale, when he said that it was no longer a democracy; he says it can't be like that anymore--that what they do is not his call. The decision is life or death and he isn’t the Governor. He tells the group that they vote to stay and fight or they vote to leave, then walks away.
He goes to the watch tower and sees Michonne returning without Merle or Daryl.
Back at the meetup, Daryl is investigating the scene and discovers bodies that have been shot and eaten by walkers. He shoots one walker that was still feasting in the head, then sees another walker eating Ben's body.
It takes just a moment before he realizes that the walker is Merle, with a gunshot wound in the chest. Daryl begins to cry and Zombie Merle comes after him. At first Daryl just pushes him away, still sobbing. After a third attack, Daryl takes out his knife and stabs Merle in the neck, dragging him to the ground. He gets momentarily crazed and aggressive, stabbing the walker's face repeatedly, and then backs off and carries on crying once the walker stops moving.