SPOILER WARNING – I’M GOING TO TRY AND REVIEW THESE EPISODES AS CLOSE AS POSSIBLE TO THE ORIGINAL U.S. TV BROADCAST. IF YOU’RE IN THE U.K., AND PLANNING TO WATCH THE BROADCAST ON FX THE FOLLOWING FRIDAY, BE AWARE THAT MAJOR PLOT POINTS WILL BE DISCUSSED!
Judge, Jury, Executioner
After the last couple of zombie-heavy episodes, this week’s Walking Dead was back to the zombie-light character drama that has been, on occasion, so frustratingly slow-paced. But this was no letdown; rather, it was one of the most intensely dramatic episodes the show has done in ages. This time, you found yourself really caring about the characters and how they were adjusting to this cruel new world, in perhaps the cruellest episode yet.
As I predicted last week, there was more than an echo of classic BBC post-apocalyptic series Survivors, specifically a similarly talky but nailbiting episode called ‘Law and Order’. The story’s basic structure even resembled it, as it all built to a central ‘trial’ scene at which the group had to debate the morality of, and potential alternatives to, summarily executing their potentially dangerous prisoner.
As an examination of one of the central dilemmas faced by survivors of the collapse of civilisation, the episode pulled no punches. When those who survive have no authority structure left, they must necessarily take law and order – and its prosecution – into their own hands. This is a responsibility that most people simply don’t want, as we saw here – Hershel, Maggie and Carol were all more than willing to take no part in the debate and leave it to others. The trouble was, as Dale put it, that taking no part was tantamount to carrying out the ‘judicial murder’ themselves.
With Rick having thought long and hard, and having come up with no reasonable alternative to killing Randall, it was left to Dale to be the sole voice of what used to be called ‘civilisation’. The first half of the episode showed him roaming the farm and trying to change the minds of the gang one by one. As he said to Andrea, “the world we knew has gone, but keeping our humanity? That’s a choice.”
Andrea wasn’t initially convinced. When Dale reminded her that in the world before she’d been a civil rights lawyer, she simply replied, “who says we’re civilised any more?” But it was Daryl, still tormented, who had the most revealing assessment of the situation. Rebutting Dale’s assertion that the group respected him and his decision counted, he accurately summed up the state of affairs: “This group’s broken.”
It was later to become clear why the episode focused on Dale so heavily; but in the mean time, other characters were getting a little more screen time than usual, particularly Carl. Chandler Riggs has been putting in an amazingly confident and solemn performance for a twelve year old actor as Carl heads into dark territory this year; never more so than here, where for the first time the episode focused strongly on him. Even more so than in the comic, his pragmatic, child’s-eye view is a disturbing foretaste of the way humanity’s next generation could head, even while the aging Dale represents a world now long gone.
From Carl’s disturbing encounter with the desperate Randall in the barn, through his angry denial of Heaven to Carol and ultimately two hair-raising scenes of him taunting a stuck-in the-mud zombie, this was as much Riggs’ episode as it was Jeffrey DeMunn’s as Dale. With the very real moral dilemma taking centre stage, that zombie (gruesomely realised with some excellent makeup) was the only one in sight this week. But it was to take a vital role in the plot as basically a symbol of the very situation our survivors found themselves in.
First though, there had to be the showdown between old world morality and new world pragmatism, in that ‘trial’ that was so reminiscent of the one in Survivors. Dale passionately made the case for mercy, arguing that it was patently immoral to execute somebody for a crime he had yet to, and might never, commit. Shane’s pragmatic approach, with Rick’s agreement, was that the risk wasn’t worth taking.
The look on Jeffrey DeMunn’s face as Dale realised that he was alone in his views, that even his admirer Glenn wouldn’t back him up, was heartbreaking, tears shining in his eyes as he realised his world was probably gone forever. And then, surprisingly, it was Andrea he convinced. After she spoke up, a discussion was had as to the alternatives; keep Randall prisoner (a mouth to feed contributing nothing), dump him somewhere far away (considerable risk to whoever had to take him) or trust him to contribute by working with the group (either meaning someone would have to watch him or running the risk that he’d slip away and bring his thirty heavily-armed friends with him).
In the end, though, just as in Survivors, the pragmatic argument won out over the compassionate one, and Randall was dragged out to be shot. Rick having insisted that he had to shoulder the responsibility of carrying the act out himself gave Andrew Lincoln the chance to look unutterably tormented as he tremblingly held the gun on the weeping, terrified boy blindfolded before him.
And then a surprise, as Rick was confronted with the consequences. Carl turned up unexpectedly, urging his father to go through with it, perhaps with even a hint of bloodlust. And Rick, shamed by facing up to what his son was becoming – and what he might too – couldn’t pull the trigger.
It was a heart-stopping moment in an episode full of them. I was hugely impressed with director Greg Nicotero’s handling of his cast with Andrea Kang’s hard-hitting script; the more so because Nicotero is usually the king of zombies, having begun as a makeup man with Tom Savini on Romero’s Day of the Dead. You’d almost expect a Nicotero episode to be a gore-heavy one, but this was real drama, and sensitively handled.
And even after Randall’s last minute reprieve, the script had one last punch to deliver. Dale, wandering disillusioned out to the fields, was grabbed and disembowelled by a wandering zombie – the very same zombie that Carl had taunted and singularly failed to kill earlier, and may even have led to the farm. And finally, with Rick having been unable to shoot the untrustworthy prisoner, the episode concluded with Daryl having to shoot one of their best friends, just to save him from his death agonies.
It was a jaw dropping shock, and yet another clever example of wrong-footing those familiar with the comics. In the comics, Dale survives much, much longer than this, eventually striking up a romantic relationship with Andrea. Here, a character we thought was safe was ripped from the show brutally. The message was clear – forget what you think you know from the comics, all bets are off.
And it was also a final, nihilistic bit of symbolism in an episode that was full of them. Dale was the last representative of the old, good, compassionate world, and here he was, his guts ripped out by the world that was now, having to be put out of his misery.
This was an incredibly powerful episode for much the same reasons as the Survivors one, but given an extra level of tension by the fact that almost every US state still has the death penalty. In Britain, even in 1975, the debate was old news, but in the US it’s still very much current. What this episode does, as its very title indicates, is ask the viewer how you would feel about it, particularly if you were the one who had to not only make the decision but carry out the execution itself.
And finally, if you have any sympathy at all for the characters, it was an incredibly cruel episode. Rick is confronted with his son turning into a cold-hearted pragmatist like Shane; Carl is left with the knowledge that he may be indirectly responsible for Dale’s death; and Dale himself goes to his grave never actually having been told that his arguments for civilisation ultimately won the day. Good drama works by putting its characters through the wringer – this did that in spades. A superb episode even with only one zombie in it, impeccably written, directed and acted.
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