Last week, The Walking Dead delivered a tense, streamlined episode that artfully showcased the psychological hurdles the survivors must endure.
This week — with the episode "Judge, Jury, Executioner" — the show served up a bunch of quasi-entertaining scenes of people arguing and capped them off with one of the most accidentally funny closers ever committed to basic cable. Big, crazy-ass spoilers on.
Last Sunday's episode — "18 Miles Out" — followed Rick and Shane's journey to drop off Randall, the injured sniper from the rival camp, well outside of Hershel's farm. Of course, this expedition goes to pot when Randall reveals he knows Maggie from school. Shane proceeds to ramp up his patented Shane Mania (a.k.a. Shania™, not to be confused with this) and decides to execute the kid on the spot.
This doesn't sit well with Rick, and the argument evolves into a fistfight over alpha manhood and who's Lori's baby daddy. Shane gets rage-blind, tosses a wrench at Rick, it hits a window, and BOOM, zombie-o-rama. Indeed, their interpersonal problems will literally be the death of them.
The reason "18 Miles Out" worked well was because it was limited in both cast and scope. We had A.) Rick and Shane's day trip to give Randall the heave-ho; and B.) Andrea, Lori, and Maggie dealing with Beth's suicide attempt. There were two distinct plots, unencumbered with side visits to T-Dog's turnip patch (in the fan fiction in my head, that's what he's doing, cultivating taproots) and filled with zombies and morally nebulous choices. Sure, there was some minor stupidity (such as Lori's expectedly aggravating "do more dishes" speech to Andrea) but "18 Miles Out" stayed on message.
And this week? "Judge, Jury, Executioner" squandered all this narrative leanness and reverted to the "scenes of people bickering about convenient (yet dehumanizing) Shane Choices and righteous (yet risky) Rick Choices" formula, with dull, tortured Randall's life still at stake. Characters talked, mostly because they just needed something to do.
"Judge, Jury, Executioner" had the makings of something special when it focused on Carl's ramble around the farm. Growing up in the zombie apocalypse is going to screw up any kid, but it still felt left-field when Carl implored his dad to blow Randall's brains out.
The episode could've been intriguing if the camera stuck with Carl 100%, à la Billy from The Family Circus. That way, the audience would see the events leading up to Carl being creepily gung-ho about killing Randall. Understandably, Rick and Lori haven't been the most attentive parents as of late — let that catch up with them.
The episode was so loosey-goosey that its crowning moment of ironic tragedy — that ardent "let's not execute Randall" advocate Dale is mercy-killed after a zombie busted his gut — was a gut buster.
Seriously, when that zombie turned Dale's intestines into goulash, I discovered that I must have been an Argentinian soccer announcer in a past life. Even though Dale was right 90% of the time, he was a total drag, popping up like one of Mister Rogers' puppets whenever we needed that same damn sermon about civilization's dwindling scruples.
What does Dale's death mean? For one, no more Jiminy Cricket speeches. No more Mary Worthesque meddling. Finally, no more floppy hat. I understand how this character — who was a stern bad-ass in the comic book, just for the record — was poised to be the show's moral backbone. I also get that the writers wanted to show that Dale is too nice for the post-apocalyptic wasteland.
But having Dale disemboweled while doddering around a field in the dark? That wasn't the way to off the show's most annoyingly sane character. Dale's redeeming quality was his ability to guilt everybody into paying lip service to rule of law; his weakness was his naïveté. Having an escaping Randall kill him would've offered some poetic symmetry. I'm not going to miss this character, but he deserved a better send-off. (Getting shot in the head by Darryl Dixon isn't the worst way to go, but you know what I mean.)
But hey, after another big moment was spoiled last week by a Blu-Ray press release, I'm glad The Walking Dead still has the capacity to surprise. So good night, sweet Dale. May you be whisked off to a realm where fisherman's hats grow by the bushel and entire lyceums of captive students are forced to listen to your rambling nonsense for fortnights on end.