There are big spoilers ahead for The Walking Dead's "Judge, Jury, and Executioner," so you should probably watch the episode before continuing with this article.
Stunned! One thing the second half of The Walking Dead's second season has going for it is that the first half never really showed any teeth until Sophia shambled out of the barn in the midseason finale and Rick shot her in the face, making any substantial events that occur now seem that much bigger. And tonight, a real big one dropped.
"Oh my God, they killed Dale!" You bastards.
When Sophia went down, we all said, "WHOA they killed a kid! No one is safe!" But Sophia wasn't exactly a main character. Sure, she was a survivor. But if you asked me to list off all the characters from Season 1, her name would come up somewhere between Grandma Vato and that Morales guy who decided to randomly leave with his wife one night. She wasn't just a kid, she was a secondary character's kid whose main responsibility was shaking like a leaf and cuddling a teddy bear.
But Dale is just about as main of a character as we have, and he's one of the core members of the group that came over from the comics. Sorry, WAS. He could get annoying at times and often gave my boy Shane the stink eye as though Shane had peed in his Fruit Loops, but he was an extremely important and unique part of the group dynamic. Oftentimes he was the voice of reason in a world where reason had died, and that definitely showed tonight. Everyone was set on ending Randall's life because they thought he was a threat, but good old Dale bugged out his eyes and did that thing with his voice where it hops up a pitch when he can't believe what he's hearing. (By the way, I totally agree with Dale. Randall got the rawest of raw deals.)
So what is the show saying when it kills off the only man who opposed the group's murder plot? I don't think the message is "conform or die," I don't think it's "yellow-hearted pacifists get killed," and I don't think Dale's death was subliminal pro-death penalty propaganda. I think—and hope—the show is trying to say this: If you're a character on The Walking Dead who's not named Rick Grimes, count your blessings every frame of film that you're alive because you can go at any time, and what happened in the comics stays in the comics. That's what this show has to do in order to be a believable zombie apocalypse drama, and to continue to surprise those who thought they knew what The Walking Dead was all about because they read the graphic novels. And most importantly, these deaths have to be random. None of us want to be shorted an "authentic" zombie-apocalypse experience, and allowing Dale, who was so important in this episode, to have what he ate for lunch ripped from his guts by a zombie is about as keepin'-it-real as it gets. I love random, senseless deaths! They keep me on my toes. Even if they happen because someone walks out into the wilderness. At night. Alone. The show needs to work on these lonely walks people seem so intent on taking.
The effects of death are just as important as the deaths themselves, and Dale's demise is going to rattle Carl like a maraca in the hands of a tweaker. Poor little guy. Growing up in a world where the dead eat the living must be tough for a kid. So what's a tyke to do? Of course he's going to harden up real fast. You can't tell him the world is different now, openly discuss murdering someone, and then expect him to quietly play Chutes & Ladders in the corner.
Carl's cold heart was on display during the scene in the barn with Rick, Randall, Daryl, and Shane. Gotta say I wore out the edge of my seat watching that one. I was already uncomfortable because I was vastly opposed to their actions (I'm a lover, not a fighter, and believe in prisoner rehabilitation), but seeing Carl stroll in to say "Do it!" like he was watching a cockfight made me full-on squirm. When Shane goes El Pollo Loco it's one thing, but when Carl does, it's brutal. I believe the children are our future and all that, and this future looks pretty bleak. Again, this is something the show had been hinting at doing for some time now but didn't have the balls to go all the way with in the first season and a half. The Walking Dead is a much better show now than it was in 2011. So much better.
And to make things worse for Carl, his zombie plaything was the one that escaped and ripped Dale open like a Christmas gift. This kid is going to be supremely messed up. I don't know if what happened will smack the fake maturity out of Carl or make him even more of a stone-cold killer, but he's one of my favorite characters, and whichever direction he goes in will be fascinating to watch. Part of me wants him to go back to being a normal kid and do kid things. That's the happy ending. Another part of me wants him to become the Zombie Terminator and shave his head in the mirror, because, well, seeing a 12-year-old boy fire off headshot after headshot would be pretty badass. Any time a drama throws a kid into a serious storyline, it's a total crap-shoot, but The Walking Dead has the potential to have one of the best on its hands as Carl represents so much more than just a child. Yes, I'm LOVING this storyline.
But hey, Dale's death is only partially Carl's fault. That's what happens when kids stop acting like kids and parents stop acting like parents. For all the whining Lori does to Rick about "thinking about what's best for his son," she sure doesn't spend a lot of time doing things like, oh I don't know, making sure her son doesn't walk into the woods ALONE to play Nanny-Nanny-Boo-Boo with walkers stuck in the mud. Carl is 12 years old, Lori. What's your excuse?
And now for the complaining (sorry!). There were times when I thought the episode was backtracking in quality. Some of the conversations leading up to the big debate club in Hershel's living room smacked of the show's past problems. I shuddered when Dale spoke to Andrea in the RV: "You were a civil rights lawyer. You fight with words, the power of ideas." Ugh. Not this again! "The world has changed! (again)" "Where's our humanity? (again)" Yeah, yeah, we've hard all that before. The Walking Dead has gotten much better about not wasting scenes, but there are still moments when it feels preachy and you begin to wonder, "Would people really talk this way in this situation?"
Those are just nitpicks, though, for another episode that overall was another positive step for the series that had been falling down every open manhole it came upon. It was pretty dark, wasn't it? What the writers are doing with Carl is J-U-I-C-Y. And killing off Dale was a shock that I never saw coming, but in the long run, it was a great move for a series that purports to be a show that can kill anyone. I love that. However, if The Walking Dead so much as touches a hair on Glenn's head so help me God I will hunt down those responsible and murder them myself. Have a good day!
– Look at Carl's face! Look! Doesn't that just break your little heart? If Rick pulls the trigger, he kills any shot Carl has at having a normal life and sense of morality.
– Anyone else miss nice Daryl? His current arc as a grumpy hermit is one of the few things I'm not on board with in the second half of Season 2. Sweet Angel of Death Wings patches on the jacket though, bro.
– So... can the group go ahead and kill Randall now that Dale's gone, or what?
– All of a sudden Hershel is okay with handing off his precious pocket watch to Glenn? What changed his mind? Was it the time he cried to Maggie about freezing up in the face of danger? I would have liked to have seen Glenn do something to deserve it. That scene just came off as unnecessarily cliche.
– I know they're still just on the farm, but the multiple locations being used are showing another side of the property we didn't see before. We're all very sick of that front porch shot. Moving from survivor camp to barn to the lake to the woods to Daryl's hermit-town to indoors was a great way to solve the problem of "GET THESE PEOPLE OFF THE FARM PLEEZ!!"
– What happens to that gun that Carl dropped? Will Daryl notice his is gone?
– I'm still really confused about zombie behavior. So sometimes they sneak up on you and then make growling noises? Other times they're always loud? I just want some consistency, man.
– Hey, T-Dog! What's up? Nothing? Okay, cool. Maybe see you next week, I guess. Seriously, raise your hand in the comments section if you never expected T-Dog to hang around this long.
– Possible comics spoiler re: Dale. For those who didn't read the comics, Dale lasted a lot longer than he did in the TV series. Ditto for Sophia. With its ability to add and subtract characters believably, The Walking Dead is the perfect story to adapt for television and completely tinker with it. I'm loving these differences.
Rick lost his shot at a threepeat by twice not being able to pull the trigger, even if it was the right thing to do. And this wasn't an episode where anyone was particularly badass. So I'm going to go ahead and give this one to Dale, posthumously, because he showed no fear in standing up to the group.
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom