It’s hard for me to get mad about indecisiveness. Since the sight of something as innocuous as an extensive takeout menu has been known to leave me crippled with doubt, it’d be uncharitable if not downright dishonest of me to demonize Rick for his constant hemming and hawing. Furthermore, it’s not as if black-and-white thinking necessarily makes for good television, let alone good leadership. Having a Decider in Chief sounds nice, but it’s a slippery slope from sacrificing Otis to, say, invading Baghdad. Fallibility is what binds us to our favorite small-screen antiheroes, whether it’s Tony Soprano’s knack for whacking, Don Draper’s softness for soft flesh, or Steve Urkel’s inability to lay off the Boss Sauce.
But even with my devotion to gray area, one thing is painfully clear: Rick is a horrendous leader. This is a guy so perpetually wracked with doubt he makes J. Alfred Prufrock look like Winston Churchill. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Wham! T-shirts make him nervous or that his favorite breakfast is a giant plate of waffles. It’s not just that Rick consistently makes terrible decisions, it’s that he doesn’t even have the backbone to stick with the terrible decisions he’s made. Nothing has made this more teeth-grindingly apparent than his treatment of Randall, the boy who got caught up in a roving band of dangerous Philadelphians. (This is legitimately terrifying, by the way: Mobs of Eagles fans are feared for their abusive fits of pique, whether it’s power-eating chicken wings or talking themselves into Bobby Hoying.) Rick’s first plan was to shoot Randall when he, along with his adopted family of Phanatics, was busy trying to do the same to Glenn and Hershel. Then, when Randall found himself yakitoried on a metal fence post, Rick decided the only humane thing to do was to take the kid back to Ennui Acres for some magic healing and a tall glass or six of fresh buttermilk.
Last week’s admittedly improved hour was focused on Rick and Shane’s pointless field trip with Randall all Abu Ghraib’d in the trunk. After caring for the kid for a week, the decision was made to drop him somewhere, alone and unarmed, to fend for himself. Rick reversed course on that, too, when Randall let slip that he wasn’t actually from Philadelphia and thus had no opinions whatsoever on hot-button issues like The Hooters or Hoagiefest. Which brings us to this week, in which all of our old friends debated Randall’s fate, which, you know, was actually a really heavy metaphor for human civilization, for 98.5 percent of the episode. Cool! More circular chatter and name-calling. With Rick Grimes in charge, watching The Walking Dead is like tuning in to a football game where both teams punt on every down.
Clearly, there’s something in Hershel’s soil that transforms hotheaded NRA survivalists into petty ethics debaters who’d be laughed out of a middle school Model U.N. conference. At this point there’s no other explanation for what happens to these dopes when left alone there. “Judge, Jury, Executioner” opened with Daryl mixing a little Sayid with his usual Sawyer, punching Randall senseless in pursuit of information, information he’d probably have been more likely to give back when they were tending to the gaping hole in his leg, not when they’ve already tried to kill him. (Actually, much of this episode was lifted beat for beat — and beating for beating — from Lost. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out Randall isn’t just a member of the sinister Others — he’s actually their leader! Which would make him … Howard Eskin?) Instead, Daryl uses his fists of fury to batter out a few stories about the bad crowd the kid was running with, a gang of no-hopers who raped some women in the woods in front of their father. Randall insists he’s not like that, but instead of sending in Maggie or Hershel to talk to him — people Randall ostensibly knows — Rick decides now’s the time to prove that he’s not just all hat and no cattle, most likely because he gave his hat to his son and Hershel’s cattle are all running away to escape the boredom. So: Off with his head!
Except before Randall can be killed, insufferable Dale must flit around the set like a bearded, censorious Tinkerbell, trying to get people to join him on the anti-execution picket lines. As usual with The Walking Dead, Dale isn’t wrong: Willfully murdering a kid you just saved doesn’t make much sense, and just because all the civil-rights attorneys (!) like Andrea are now pistol-packing suicide advocates doesn’t mean due process should fall out of fashion like the Edsel (and the descendants of the people who drove the Edsels, all of whom are currently flesh-eating nightmare monsters). But in typical fashion for this screwy show, Dale goes about it backwards, embarking on a graduate level seminar on the nature of humanity instead of just using brute logic. There’s really no reason to think this kid will lead a murderous revenge party back to the people who saved his life and then attempted to lecture him to death because (a) it’s hard out there for a pimp-ly teenager (b) aren’t there plenty of other farms, many of them potentially filled with living people who aren’t terrible?
Anyway, it’s all for naught. Daryl won’t go along with Dale because, in his sage words, “Rick ain’t stupid.” Shane won’t go along with Dale because he’s a testosterone-jacked rage junkie with Hyundai motor oil in his veins and a pleasing scrim of Prell on his freshly shaved dome. (But that doesn’t stop the show from indulging in one of its go-to scenes, Dale and Shane growling at each other like a pair of incontinent bears. “You got balls, I’ma give you that,” Shane snarls. Get a cave, you two!) T-Dogg won’t go along with Dale because he’s T-Dogg and no one even bothers talking to him at all anymore.
Rick draws this whole charade out long enough for Carl to go wandering off on his own, pick up a stray handgun, and toss rocks at a walker who is, much like the show itself, stuck in the mud. Far be it from me to give parenting advice, but it’s hard not to shake the feeling that Carl would be considered dangerously unsupervised in a Scandinavian hippie commune, let alone behind a patchy fence in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. Anyway, Carl moseys back to base camp just in time to force his dithering dad to lower the handgun he had been pointing at Randall’s face and kick the plot can down the road yet again. And then, in an effort either to teach Carl a lesson about consequences, or Dale a lesson about clinging to outmoded concepts like decency and bass-fishing hats, the suddenly unstuck woods walker sneaks up (?) on Dale and brutally disembowels him.
And so the one oft-repeated criticism I can’t make this week is that nothing happened. Sure, it took nearly 39 of the show’s 42 minutes of run time to get there, but yeah, something happened, all right. (Those of you who are already watching The Walking Dead like porn — you know, fast-forwarding the talky parts until you get to the bits where people’s hands start forcibly entering other people — could feel particularly justified in your decision last night.) Dale’s demise wasn’t exactly surprising, but it was horrifying. Give Glen Mazzara credit here for returning a long-absent sense of danger to the show. (The idea that a bunch of barbed wire was keeping these people safe enough to start arguing over laundry duty instead of basic survival was always laughable.) To witness a main character being ripped open like a sack of Fritos was affecting, no matter how long it took to get there or how aggravating he was beforehand. But it also spoke to the rotten secret lurking at the heart of The Walking Dead and most mass-market horror stories: These characters are never meant to be people, only potential victims for the next cool moment.
Watching Dale squirm in unimaginable agony was bad enough. But Rick was wrong yet again when he asked Hershel to get his medical kit to save his doomed friend. A decent person would have sent Hershel off in search of anything to help decrease the suffering. That Daryl put a bullet, point-blank, into Dale’s familiar face was a waste of ammunition and our emotions. It diminished Dale in a way that may have been intentional — for all of his moralizing about humanity he was, in the end, put down like a animal — but it also diminished the living who stood idly by while their redneck chum pulled the trigger. The screen went to black, but the bad taste lingered; once again our supposed heroes were portrayed as being both unprepared and unlikable. The producers and Rick are in for the same rough lesson, I fear: bad decision-making has real consequences.
(Note: a major plot point regarding the survival of one of the leads was accidentally spoiled this week by AMC. Since my job is to cover this show week to week, I’m going to ignore it until it occurs on-screen. For the sake of your fellow un-undead watchers, please refrain from referencing it in the comments below! Thanks.)
Read the rest of our The Walking Dead coverage here.