A couple weeks ago, I shamefully broke the emergency glass and brought up Lost in a Walking Dead recap. Now, comparing any genre show to Lost is like comparing any cable show to The Sopranos, or comparing any ’90s rock album to Nevermind, or comparing any vaguely mature fantasy series to A Song of Ice and Fire — even projects that do measure up won’t really measure up, because the earlier projects came first, and because they achieved a rare combination of critical and commercial success. Conversely, there’s nothing wrong with comparing Battlestar Galactica to Walking Dead. In some ways, the two series are two sides of the same coin. They both adapted classic genre premises — BSG was a remake of a beloved ’70s campfest, Walking Dead was an open-ended zombie movie — but they both also reconstituted those premises with a distinctly post-9/11 sensibility. (The first issue of Walking Dead hit stands in October 2003, just a few months before the BSG miniseries aired on the pre-misspelling Sci-Fi Channel.) Both series follow a group of survivors attempting to live in a cold, dangerous universe, forever at risk of being killed by a seemingly force of zombies/robots. Both shows force their characters to address difficult moral questions in a lawless society. And both shows have to get creative with a cable budget, although the Walking Dead version of “creative” unfortunately translated into keeping the characters on a sad little farm for the entirety of season 2.
Characters on BSG constantly found themselves embroiled in Socratic debates about civilization. Sometimes the topic was straightforward — abortion becomes an even more hot-button issue when every new baby constitutes a significant percentage of the surviving population of humanity. Sometimes the topics could be a bit more philosophical — one episode in season 3 essentially portrayed a socialist workers’ revolt that would’ve made Sergei Eisenstein blush. But the central debates always had a mixture of narrative urgency and believable character interaction. There was never a clear right or wrong answer.
I bring up BSG partially to discuss why the vast majority of last night’s Walking Dead was disappointing. The episode kicked off with a serious conversation between Randall the Prisoner and Daryl Motherf—ing Dixon. Daryl gave Randall the Jack Bauer treatment. He punched him. He tore off Randall’s band-aid and dug his knife into Randall’s scab. He said a lot of very hurtful things. Randall blinked. He admitted he was part of a 30-person gang, which included men, women, and kids. The gang has automatic weapons. They also don’t play nice. Randall told a story about finding a father with two teenaged girls. “I didn’t touch those girls,” said Randall, with just enough fear in his voice to make it hard to believe him.
Daryl told the Grimes Gang what Randall said. Everyone agreed that the best course of action was to eliminate the potential problem by eliminating Randall. Everyone, that is, besides Dale, who typically expressed lots of righteous indignation. “You’re gonna kill him?” he said. Dale got Rick and Shane to agree to a daylong stay of execution, so that Dale could try to convince the others about the value of human life. “We’ll reconvene at sunset,” said Shane. “Then what happens…happens.” When he said that, I think I actually heard thunder in the background.
So here’s an episode where the stakes are clear from the start. Dale had a time limit: Pull a Twelve Angry Men by sunset, or watch Randall die. Theoretically, Dale had the opportunity to bring up some concrete arguments. They live in a dangerous world, and it’s always helpful to have another set of gun-carrying hands. Randall could have escaped last week, but he didn’t — recall that he was behind the wheel of a car during the Great Shane Rescue. Also, it’s not like killing Randall means that they’ll never have any trouble from Randall’s gang. Better to hold onto Randall as a bargaining chip — or a potential double agent.
The problem is that The Walking Dead hasn’t really been taking place in a particularly concrete universe. Everyone on the show is living in relative comfort, with plenty of food and a functional sewage system and a bottomless pharmacy and even a nearby tavern with free unspoiled booze. (At one point in the episode, Lori mentioned that it was starting to get a bit cold sleeping in the tents, sounding for all the world like a vaguely-annoyed parent-chauffeur on a Boy Scout camping trip.) Whereas Battlestar Galactica made society’s most basic natural resources into a vivid necessity — there were whole episodes just about maintaining the fleet’s food and water supply — The Walking Dead is basically a suburbanites’ idyllic dream of a post-apocalyptic farmhouse.
So, with nothing concrete to argue about, Dale did the next best thing. He acted really, really annoying.
NEXT: Carl Grimes goes into the woods