‘The Walking Dead’ – ‘Judge, Jury, Executioner’: Over hill, over Dale

A review of tonight’s “The Walking Dead” coming up just as soon as I make some new arrows

“The world may be gone, but keeping our humanity? That’s a choice.” -Dale

After last week’s episode succeeded with a more narrow focus, “Judge, Jury, Executioner” expanded its scope again, returning to the farm and bringing in every character to deal with the question of what to do with Randal. But for the most part, it stuck to two points of view: Dale as he tried to convince the others(*) to let Randal live, and Carl as he wandered through this new violent world like it’s just a big, amoral playground. 

(*) Though, as usual, T-Dog drew the short end of the stick. If Dale bothered to petition him, we didn’t see it.

And though I don’t know if it all worked, it was still a step up from most of the earlier farm episodes. It ultimately telegraphed Dale’s demise – when a character talks about how he doesn’t want to live in a world like this anymore, he tends to get his wish – but it did much better by the character than he’d been treated since the end of last season.

Dale has done some very dumb things over the course of this season (trying to hide the guns in the swamp chief among them), and at times he’s come across as either jealous that Andrea slept with Shane, or horribly naive about their situation. Even here, I think he’s ultimately in the wrong – there’s too much risk in freeing Randall, and too many people already tapping into Herschel’s resources – but his ideals are taken seriously. When he goes to Shane, of all people, to make his case, it could seem an absurd gesture, but instead his convictions impress Shane – not enough to change his vote, or, I suspect, to make him keep his word about abiding the results if the vote went Dale’s way, but enough to at least listen to the old man and stop laughing in his face.

And the Carl section of the episode does help argue Dale’s point for him. Carl is being corrupted by this environment, and watching his father put a bullet in Randal’s head would have accelerated that moral rot. There are certain pragmatic choices you have to make in this terrible new world, but the thing that separates the Rick/Herschel group from Dave and Tony’s friends is that while they’ll do what’s necessary to survive, they’ve still held onto some semblance of their morals from the days gone bye. They aren’t raping the women they find – and someone should have thrown that back in Dale’s face when he asked what made them any different from the other group – and if most of them ultimately decide to kill Randal, it’s not a decision that comes easily to anyone but Shane.

Carl’s too young to appreciate that, though. He thinks it’s cool to see a prisoner, and to watch his dad kill that prisoner. He thinks it’s fun to taunt a walker trapped in some muck by the creek – and his actions ultimately encourage the walker (who had given up without the promise of fresh meat nearby) to free itself, kill the cattle, and then kill Dale.

And by sending Dale to talk to the group one-by-one, we also got to see different sides of the other characters. They don’t have the same relationship with him that they do with Rick or Lori or Shane. Where Daryl’s been pushing everyone else away since Sophia died, and he tries with Dale, but Dale at least gets him to talk a little. (And the script also makes it more believable that Daryl would have figured out about Otis than it seemed when Dale made that guess a few episodes back.) And though Rick has, to this point, been positioned as the member of the group who makes the hardest choices and does the killing the others don’t have the stomach for, it’s Daryl who’s the only one who has it in him to put Dale out of his misery with a bullet and a lament of, “Sorry, brother.”

Not all of the conversations make the characters more interesting, though. Carol’s already a character who’s been condemned by the audience for being too passive during the long search for her own daughter, and now she angrily demands to be left out of this huge decision. There’s probably something interesting to be done with a character determined to contribute very little to the group (aside from what she, Lori and Herschel’s daughters do on the domestic side of things), but that’s not how she’s been used. She’s just… there, and here gets peeved when asked to be even slightly more than that.

Dale wasn’t particularly well-used for most of this season, but at least there was the idea of him as a moral counterweight to Shane. It’s a role he strongly, loudly embraced in “Judge, Jury, Executioner,” and though he died not knowing that his words got through to Rick, he maybe did make an important difference in who both Carl and the group are going to be going forward.

Or maybe the lack of a bearded angel on one shoulder is going to make Rick all the more susceptible to the Shane-looking devil on the other shoulder.

A few other thoughts:

* Ace makeup artist Greg Nicotero took on added responsibility this week as the episode’s director.

* This week in “The Walking Dead” Loves “Lost”: after giving Daryl a variety of Sawyer-esque moments this season, he gets to open this week’s episode as the Sayid to Randal’s Sawyer, torturing him for information about the other group.

Finally, let me remind you again of this blog’s No Spoiler rule and how it applies to this show, as I’ve had to delete a bunch of comments the last few weeks that violated it. Basic things to remember before commenting:

1. No talking about the previews for the next episode.

2. No talking about anything else you know about upcoming episodes from other sources.

3. No talking about anything that’s happened in the comic that hasn’t happened in the TV show yet. Dale’s death obviously complicates things, as this isn’t what happens to him in the comic, but I want us to focus on “The Walking Dead” as a TV show rather than making endless comparisons between the two versions.

With that in mind, what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com