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'Walking Dead' shocker: Horrifying, heartbreaking death … and redemption

As 'The Walking Dead' nears the conclusion of its third season, fans have been bracing for the death of at least one major character. Even so, many of us gasped aloud at the shocking demise of someone we've loved to hate since season one.

You know the drill: spoilers ahead.

Gene Page / AMC

RIP, Merle Dixon. By the standards of the redemption-equals-death TV trope, the villain's fate was sealed the moment he released Michonne. After secretly capturing her -- because he correctly predicted Rick would change his mind about sacrificing her to the Governor to save his group -- Merle had a change of heart.

As "This Sorrowful Life" slowly drifted to its horrifying final scene, a cloud of doom hovered above Daryl's incredibly damaged but increasingly sympathetic brother. Even Glenn, who aside from Michonne had the most reason to hate Merle, seemed to accept him as part of the group -- if not actually forgive him for humiliating his fiancée.

Gene Page / AMC

With Hershel's blessing, Glenn proposed to Maggie, offering another ray of hope -- like the birth of Judith -- in the midst of so much tragedy and conflict. So what if he didn't buy his ring at Tiffany's? (And the bonus of hacking it off a zombie's finger means his bride also has "something borrowed." Win!)

But the Dixon brothers' bond was the true essence of this season's penultimate episode.

Daryl arrived at the Governor's armistice ambush too late to save Merle from his suicide mission. After setting up as a sniper with an army of walkers to back him up, Merle fired on the Woodbury contingent but was inevitably captured. And of course he was fed to the undead by the man who ordered him to kill 16 innocent people.

When Daryl arrived on the scene, it was too late: the Governor's gang was long gone -- and so was his brother. His discovery Merle devouring one of his victims (first revealed with a closeup of his homemade prosthesis) was both gruesome and heartbreaking.

Gene Page / AMC

At least Merle won't distract the troops -- now declared a democracy by Rick -- when they go to war in next week's finale.

Will you miss Merle? Who else do you think will fall in the finale's bloody battle? Tell us on our Facebook page!

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