"This new world is ugly, it's harsh, it's survival of the fittest, and that's a world that I don't want to live in. I don't believe that any of you do." -- Dale
The producers of The Walking Dead have a curious proclivity for the Very Special Episode approach to storytelling that dates back to at least Season 1's "Vatos," in which we learned not to judge a book by its cover. This season we've already had the Abortion Episode and, just last week, the Suicide Episode, in which earnest characters grappled with the Important Issue of the Week, presumably so they'll never, ever have to talk about it again; we're virtually in Blossom territory, people.
"Judge, Jury, Executioner" easily could've gone the way of "18 Miles Out," with the survivors again wringing their hands over the fate of a character the audience cares nothing about (sorry, Beth, but we can barely remember your name). Thankfully, however, writer Angela Kang deftly frames the dilemma so that what's at stake isn't the life of an individual, or even the physical well-being of the group; no, instead it's the moral fabric of the threadbare society.
This week the role of Beth is played by Randall, the young man who's become fortune's plaything, having been rescued from death (or worse) and nursed back to health by Rick, Hershel and the other survivors only now to be marked for execution simply because he might, some day, betray them. He's undeniably unlucky and undoubtedly manipulative, but he doesn't pose an imminent danger to the Greene farm, yet the question of whether he lives or dies weighs heavily on the group -- well, more heavily on some than on others. Dale, who before he morphed into a glaring busybody served as the group's quiet conscience, returns to form, dismayed that the others would so readily resort to torture -- Daryl takes a particularly cruel turn as Jack Bauer -- before so casually accepting Randall's execution as a foregone conclusion.
There is, of course, something to the survivors' fears, but as with so much on The Walking Dead, it doesn't hold up to scrutiny: Subjected to Daryl's fists and hunting knife, Randall reveals his group of 30 is heavily armed and pretty nasty, with some of the members raping some teenagers they found while out foraging for supplies. But there's no indication that the marauding band, which Randall assures Daryl includes women and children, would come searching for him or that, at least before his torture and looming execution, he would be in any rush to reunite with them. Randall, like everyone else, was scared and searching for protection; he just happened to fall in with that group rather than with, say, the Atlanta survivors. No matter, though, he represents a threat to the farm, and therefore must be killed -- as Dale points out, simply because it makes life easier. What's more, despite being shackled in a shed, Randall must be killed soon, providing the episode with a ticking clock of sorts as Dale tries to sway each member of the group before the arbitrary deadline set by Rick.
As Dale tries to plead Randall's case, Carl weaves his way through the episode, sneaking into the shed to observe the pleading prisoner with a cold, almost scientific detachment before being caught by an angry Shane, who shoos him headlong into an unconvincing confrontation with Carol (she's gone from set dressing to weeping mother to irrational squabbler). After being scolded by his father, Carl snatches Daryl's pistol and heads off into the woods, where he finds a walker mired in the mud, the perfect target for rock-throwing torment -- at least until Carl gets too close and the walker frees one of its legs. Combined with Carl's later appearance at the barn, where he encourages his father to execute the weeping Randall -- "Do it, Dad. Do it!" -- it creates a chilling portrait of, well, a young serial killer, a pint-sized sociopath with no regard for the feelings of others. As disturbing as it is, though, it also feels like a bit of a cheat: While the writers have dropped clues to a changing Carl since his recovery from the gunshot wound, again they've skipped a step or two, accelerating the boy's descent into darkness because that's what this episode requires.
Shaken by Carl's encouragement, Rick issues a stay of execution, which would no doubt please Dale, who set off in the dark to be as far away as he could from Randall's death. Stumbling upon a disemboweled cow gasping its last breaths, Dale comes face to face with the very walker that Carl taunted only hours before. Struggling with his attacker, poor Dale is himself gutted, barely able to comprehend what's happening. Daryl tackles and kills the walker and signals for the others, who are unable to do anything for the dying Dale. Rick finds himself unable to put Dale out of his misery, but in a surprisingly tender moment, Daryl takes the pistol and mutters, "Sorry, brother," before firing.
It's a shocking sequence that I hope will have far-reaching consequences -- far more so than the deaths of Amy, Jim, Jacqui (you forgot about those two, didn't you), Otis or Sophia. Dale, as I wrote earlier, had been the conscience of the group, and occasionally its meddling Cassandra, warning everyone of the danger of Shane. What happens with him gone? And what happens now to Carl, who realizes his role in Dale's death?
Grade = A-