Dale tries to save Randall's life by doing his best Jimmy Stewart impression, while Carl goes hunting

By Darren Franich
Updated February 27, 2015 at 07:52 PM EST
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Gene Page/AMC

The Walking Dead

S2 E11
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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 woodsDale proceeded to spend the episode ambling around to every individual member of the Grimes Gang besides T-Dog and giving them a roughly identical Perry Mason speech: “Keeping our humanity is a choice.” He tried that line on Daryl, who quickly shut him down. Daryl explained that he was happily stepping away from the curious society sprouting up on Hershel’s Farm. “Ain’t nobody lookin’ to me for nothin,” said Daryl. The younger Dixon brother also pointed out that he knew that Shane killed Otis, and couldn’t care less. This was all shocking to Dale. Actually, now that I think about it Dale’s main character trait this season has been constant shock. I find myself wishing that Dale could have always carried around a half-full water bottle, just so he could do a spit-take every time one of his fellow survivors disagreed with his ridiculous view on the world.

Because, make no mistake, Dale’s perspective is ridiculous in the context of Walking Dead. Logically, you and I know that killing someone is wrong. But Walking Dead takes place in a fantastical universe that is based — when you put aside the zombies and the farm and the perfect hair — on one catchy notion: The rules don’t apply anymore. Or at least they don’t have to. There was a mass of evidence against Randall. He shot at Rick and Glenn. He came from a violent group of intruders. If Dale wanted to present a legitimate case, he needed to come up with a legitimate counter-argument. Instead, his counter-argument was essentially “Rainbows are pretty, and unicorns cry every time we do something naughty!”

It was much more interesting to see Rick wrestling with a basic problem: How do you execute someone on a budget? There were no electric chairs or lethal injections. Rick practiced with a noose in the farm, but he wasn’t too certain about it. You could tell he was thinking about the worst-case scenario. What if the fall doesn’t break his neck?

Rick’s son was struggling with his own set of issues regarding the prisoner. He snuck in to Randall’s cell and stared him down. It was hard to read Carl’s face — Scared? Angry? Curious? But Carl’s mindset became pretty clear after he exchanged words with Carol. When the perpetually grieving mother noted that her dear departed Sophia was in heaven, Carl said: “Heaven is just another lie! And if you believe it, you’re an idiot!” (With that line, Carl wins this week’s Ingmar Bergman Award for Vituperative Agnosticism.)

Carl ran off to Camp Dixon and stole a gun. He walked into the woods. He found himself a walker, standing all alone by the river. The walker had apparently been there for awhile — his feet were buried in the mud. (Aside: This is the first time we’ve ever seen a static walker, right? Up until now, it’s seemed like the Walking Dead zombies stay perpetually on the move, like sharks. End of Aside.) Carl pointed his gun at the walker for awhile. I thought he was going to pull a Rick and shoot the zombie in the head. Instead, he totally pulled a Lori by screwing everything up. First, his presence instigated the walker into freeing itself. Then, he dropped the gun. Then, he ran off screaming, no doubt leading the walker right back to the farm. Poor Carl clearly takes after his mom.

Meanwhile, Dale approached Hershel to talk about the Randall situation. Hershel had an extremely realistic perspective: He didn’t care. “I want him away from my girls,” said Hershel. As for how Randall would be gotten away with, Hershel said simply: “I don’t want to know.” Now, you can compare this perspective to the old Pontius Pilate “I wash my hands of this” — legislating by not legislating. But am I the only one who finds the current balance of power at the farm interesting? Hershel is, in a sense, the 1 Percent of the Deadverse — he owns the land, but he allows other people to live there, so long as they undertake all the dirty jobs. Again, this might not be morally right, but it’s also a decent reflection of how our own society works. Dale just sputtered and talked some more about humanity.

NEXT: Dale is all torn up inside

Listen, I’m not saying that Walking Dead had to turn the question of what to do with Randall into a philosophical soapbox, Aaron Sorkin-style. But I wish that the show had been a little more willing to let every character have a genuine opinion about the execution. Instead, the cast was split in three distinctive directions: characters who didn’t care (almost everyone), characters who claimed they were only doing what was best for the camp (Shane and Rick), and Dale. And Dale pretty much did get up on a soapbox in the climactic scene, delivering a speech which included the lines “You’re going to kill him to prevent a crime he may not commit” and “Does no one stand with me?”

Earlier, I made a reference to Twelve Angry Men, the famous and oft-adapted story of one juror trying to convince eleven other jurors to change their minds. (If you haven’t seen the 1957 Sidney Lumet movie — featuring Henry Fonda and basically every awesome character actor of the ’50s — then do yourself a favor and rent it immediately.) In theory, Twelve Angry Men sounds a lot like last night’s episode: A force of moral good crusades for justice! In actuality, though, the lone juror in Twelve Angry Men isn’t a crusader. He’s just curious, and a little bit skeptical, and he wants his fellow jurors to ask some serious questions about the case. You barely see the defendant in Twelve Angry Men, and for all you know, he was guilty.

But the criminal-justice system isn’t about right and wrong. (If it were, there’d be a lot more rich people in prison.) I’m not surprised that only Andrea stood up to join Dale — if I were in a room with him, I’d probably vote against him just out of spite. And so, the vote was cast. Randall would die.

(Also, Glenn and Hershel had a kind conversation where Hershel gave Glenn his daddy’s watch in order to bless Glenn’s relationship with Maggie. This concludes your Glaggie news update for the week.)

So Rick took Randall into the farm, and asked for his last words. Rick stared down the barrel. Would he pull the trigger? Really, that’s the question that hangs over every episode of Walking Dead. This show has dynamite source material filled with characters who do horrible things in order to save their own lives. It positively oozes “Look ma, I’m on cable!” swagger. And yet, has it ever really pulled the trigger? Rick shot a little girl, but she was already a zombie. Shane shot an innocent man, but he was semi-justified (they both might have died otherwise), and everyone has basically forgiven him at this point. Would Rick really do something so obviously horrific as to kill an unarmed man? Heck, kill a guy who was barely out of his teens?

NEXT: Rick fails to pull the trigger over and over againNaturally, Carl showed up at just the right moment. “Do it, Dad! Do it!” he said. Naturally, this made Rick realize the horrific nature of his actions, and he called off the execution. As near as I can figure, this means that the entirety of this episode was for nothing. Actually, as they took Randall back to his cell, I had a sudden notion that Walking Dead was going to become Groundhog Day, and every single episode Shane would announce his intention to kill Randall, leading Dale on an extended moral rant.

Well, now we know that’s not going to happen, for one simple reason: Dale was destroyed by a walker. I’m sure there’s a certain gorehound segment of the viewing population that mostly watches Walking Dead for the zombie attacks, and they weren’t disappointed last night. Carl’s zombie reappeared right as Dale was setting off on his own, and proceeded to play a little game of Operation with Dale’s stomach. The Grimes Gang ran up to save him, but it was too, too late. Daryl Motherf–ing Dixon achieved a rare double-double. First, he killed Carl’s zombie with a knife to the head, earning the week’s Zombie Kill of the Week. Then, he took Rick’s gun away when Ol’ Grimesy once again proved incapable of pulling the trigger, and earned himself the Human Kill of the Week by sending Dale off into the great beyond with a simple, sad farewell: “Sorry, brother.”

Dale’s death can’t help but complicate our understanding of The Walking Dead. If I’ve been ragging too much on the character in this recap, it’s only because I’m joyously dancing on his grave — with him gone, the battle lines in the Grimes Gang have become quite a bit more stark. His death could also indicate that the Mazzara Era of Walking Dead is going to be decidedly more kill-happy than the Darabont Era. (It’s worth pointing out that Jeffrey DeMunn, who played Dale, is a Darabont regular…as is Laurie Holden, come to think of it.) It’s hard to believe that Dale will be the last character to die with two episodes left to go this season.

Even more intriguingly — SPOILERS for people who haven’t read the Dead comics — Dale’s death marks yet another major departure from the source material. Dale was a prominent member of the Dead cast for several of the major story arcs. At this point, it may make more sense to just look at the TV Dead as a completely separate work. (Even the characters who exist in both TV and comic book seem totally different at this point.)

Fellow viewers, what did you think about the Death of Dale? Were you as happy as I was to see him die in a spectacularly bloody fashion? Who else would you want to kill off? T-Dog? Lori? Hershel’s wacky suicidal step-daughter? And what did you think about the Great Randall Debate? Doesn’t it make more sense to keep him alive as a bargaining chip? Or has a weekend of playing Mass Effect 3 utterly scrambled my moral code? What would you have done in that situation? Don’t worry: Now that Dale is dead, this is officially a judgment-free zone.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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The Walking Dead

AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.

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