Spoilers follow immediately.
Did anybody REALLY like Dale? I don’t mean did you like Jeffrey DeMunn, the wonderful actor playing the role. And I don’t mean did you like Dale the character in the comic. I mean did you like Dale, the guy who has been hanging around the farm all season just being a sanctimonious jabberjaw?
Because I sure as shit didn’t. And it seems like nobody else on the farm did either, judging by the fact that he wasn’t able to persuade anybody but Andrea to his side during the big meeting. To me Dale’s arc in season two has been infuriating - he’s a guy who does nothing but run around whining to everybody, always coming from this condescending place that feels like he hasn’t quite taken true stock of the crazy situation they’re in.
But a backtrack... The second half of season two has been a huge improvement over the first half, and Judge, Jury, Executioner continued the strong run of episodes. I think last week’s 18 Miles Out was a season highpoint - it was certainly the best shot episode of the series to date - but this week continued the moral struggle forward in a good way, while giving us some fun creepy Carl stuff. And that stuff echoed the moral quandary in a smart fashion (at least up until the end, when the deus ex Carl showed up at the barn door. Too heavy handed - he should have been lurking in the rafters the whole time).
The group found themselves having to decide whether to execute a prisoner, specifically the wounded young man Rick saved during the last town excursion. Rick and Shane were going to drive him far from the farm and leave him be, but when they learned he knew Maggie - and thus knew exactly where the group was holed up - he became a danger. However, instead of sensibly killing the kid, Rick opted to ‘sleep on it.’ Which is lazy TV writer code for 'bring him back to the group to create more drama.'
And so this episode he has slept on it and decided to kill the kid. Everybody else pretty much agrees, except Dale, who gets all ACLU about the situation. The writers set up a weird scenario here: the kid almost surely needs to die, and Dale doesn’t get a whole lot of dialogue where he’s convincing. In fact, the episode opens with the kid, under torture from Daryl, confessing that he witnessed his group of survivors rape two very young teen girls. Paired with what Rick, Hershel and Glenn saw in town this makes it a no-brainer - if this kid should escape and bring his friends to the farm (as will assuredly happen in the season finale), everybody is fucked. No question. At all.
So the writers have Dale arguing only from a philosophical point of view, that it’s wrong to kill this kid (despite the fact that he was actively sniping at our heroes) because it would be a betrayal of the group’s humanity. Which is nice on paper, but when we’re talking about 30 heavily armed rapists descending on your camp, philosophy can go fuck itself.
I thought it was brave of the writers to essentially acknowledge this, to have everybody - even sweet Glenn - tell Dale that he was out of his mind on this one. Unfortunately the writers then didn’t have the balls to follow through on their own conclusively argued storyline, and they engineered having Carl show up just as Rick is about to pull the trigger, giving everybody bad feelings in their hearts. I really liked how they had spent an episode building the inevitability of the execution, so pulling back in that way feels like a cheap cheat.
Not a cheap cheat: Dale getting gutted by the walker that Carl unknowingly lured back to the farm. But what does it mean killing Dale this way? His death is not a result of his convictions, and it’s not a result of the group being broken, as he claimed. Thus his death has no real thematic resonance with the issues brought up in the episode, although it symbolically means that hope for a better, nicer life is gone (except that I imagine his death will act as a catalyst for exactly the opposite sort of thing, an attempt to bring the group together to honor Dale). I don’t even know if his death truly thematically speaks to Carl’s subplot, which saw the boy trying to be tough and manly. His feeble attempt to shoot that walker seemed very much in line with any young man attempting to stand on his own two feet and not the creepy, semi-sociopath who was rooting for his dad to shoot a man in the head.
So yeah, I think the episode was thematically confused. And I think that the last second save of the prisoner was a stinky cheat. There are some who will complain this episode follows the show's recent format of 'Nothing happens for 45 minutes and then there's violence,' but I'd argue that this episode was a nice slow burner. Beyond that I’m just so happy to see Dale out of the picture, to know there will never be another scene where he comes whining up behind Rick, that rarely used rifle slung over his shoulder, his big eyes almost full of tears. Go gently into that dark night, Dale, and let’s hope the writers can turn another character into the ‘voice of humanity.’ How about T-Dog? He’s not doing anything except worrying how to bury people.