Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Walking Dead: Judge, Jury, Executioner

And it’s another week of The Walking Dead with my co-host Josh Winstead, here at Nik at Nite. Sorry it took us so long to get it up this week; first I didn't know how to even start it because I was so shocked at that ending, and then poor Josh first dealt with a sick child, and then got it himself. :( But does this guy love ya, or does he love ya? ;) Here we go! (We have a lot to say this week.)

Nikki: While we usually begin passing this note back and forth pretty soon after the episode has ended, this week it’s taken me a couple of days to absorb what the eff just happened. It rendered me speechless (a rare feat indeed) and unsure of where to begin. Or what to say once I got there.

Dale’s dead. I did not see that coming at all. And from talking to a couple of friends who are fans of the graphic novels, they didn’t see it coming, either. According to one friend of mine, Dale was in there a lot longer, and when he died, “it was an EPIC death,” she told me.

Some people are angry. Dale’s death seemed like a plot device to further the story of Rick’s complex growth as a character, or to show us how Carl will be growing up in a world of evil. It didn’t seem to tie into the overall story. Personally, I was shocked by it and wasn’t as critical of it as many of my friends were, but I do think it would have been more poetic if Dale had died by his own hand. Everyone in the house was waiting to hear the gunshot, and they would have heard one, but it wouldn’t have been Rick’s gun. And imagine Andrea’s reaction – Dale made his choice and followed through; a choice she believes he took from her.

This way he goes out a much more sympathetic character, and maybe a suicide wouldn’t have been in keeping with who he was. But considering he walked out of the room absolutely destroyed over the stark new world he now lived in, saying he simply didn’t want to live in this world, it would have been fitting.

So before we talk about the main parts of the episode, what were your thoughts about the ending, Josh?

Josh: I think it changes everything. Like you, I've had a difficult time organizing my thoughts on this because my gut reaction (sorry) was WHATWHATWHAT?!? like most everyone else. Obviously it's horrible and tragic and needless, but I don't believe it was just calculated shock-for-the-sake-of-shock on the part of the writers, either.

We're only two episodes from the end of the season now, and other than poor Sophia (the death of whom took place mercifully offscreen), no one from the main group has been lost since the CDC explosion, and no one has been violently killed by zombies since Andrea's sister Amy, which was all the way back in the fourth or fifth episode. And as awful as it is when it happens, I think this kind of graphic death is also important in the context of keeping this world in proper perspective.

The title of the episode said it all: “Judge, Jury, Executioner” was not only a reference to Rick or the group as a whole or even simple commentary on the Randall situation that served as its centerpiece. Above all else, I think it was referring to that mudstuck zombie that tore into Dale with no consideration whatsoever for the fact that he spent the last nine hours of his life trying to save another, to be a voice of reason, to buoy the presence of Old World humanity in a place where there isn't much use for it any more. All his proselytizing wasn't directly responsible for his death, per se, but it certainly didn't save him, either. In the end, nothing mattered but that he smelled tasty and was within reach. And these people, with whom he shared his final heroic intentions as well as his last terrible moments, now have to figure out what to do with that.

Mindful of these circumstances, I think the biggest outward ripples we'll see in the narrative as a result of Dale's death will be character-based. And I think that's absolutely necessary. With the possible exception of Glenn (and maybe T-Dog, who at this point might as well be wearing a hot dog costume whenever he shows up), every character on the show has been thinking not of the group or its safety but of themselves, and it's been like this ever since poor Sophia came stumbling out of the barn. Until that moment, they had the search to bond them. When she turned up dead, their collective purpose was instantly extinguished. Now Carol is an empty husk. Daryl's given up. Lori is grating and alienating and obtuse. Shane and Andrea were already talking about forsaking the farm and the group and setting off on their own even before Sophia's fate was revealed (and we see Shane stashing ammo in his trunk this week for what may well be renewed preparations toward that very purpose). Carl, guilty of nothing more than acting like a young boy, likely blames himself for everything that happened with the mudwalker. Even Rick – ostensibly our hero – is willing to kill anyone, no matter how flimsy or morally ambiguous the reasoning, as long as he believes it to be in the best interest of his family.

In short, Dale has been the northernmost point of the show's moral compass since the beginning of the show, and suddenly there is none. The closest thing we have to a group conscience now is wash-my-hands-of-it Hershel. And that can't bode well for whatever is to come.

Nikki: Great points, all. But during the riverbank-zombie scene my husband and I were yelling at Carl to get the f&$k out of there for god’s sakes; it’s not like the kid’s grown up in a bubble and doesn’t know what zombies are, what they’re capable of, what they just did to Sophia, how dangerous they are, and that they’re basically just brute force and if you poke one long enough it will PULL ITS BLOODY LEG OUT OF THE MUCK AND COME AFTER YOU. (And I will admit, I said, “Well NOW I can see that he’s Lori’s son” as he was throwing rocks at the thing.) That said, we’re supposed to say he’s just being a kid, and it’s what boys do. That’s the argument everyone keeps making to me, and I just think what he did was stupid. Yes, it’s what boys in our world do. This isn’t our world anymore; that was the point of the episode. Typical boys don’t know any better; Carl does. I was a little upset with the writers that they made me dislike a child so much; the actor was great when he was near death’s door in the first half of this season, but since then I’m finding him pretty grating. Maybe it’s just seeing him in that damn hat. But when Dale got it, I was really upset with Carl. And I try to tell myself he’s just a boy, but I can’t help it. You shouldn’t have thrown rocks, kid. YOU KNEW BETTER.

But I’d rather focus on what I thought was an absolutely extraordinary section of writing – the “courtroom” scene in the parlour. Just stunning. The writers pulled off the remarkable feat of creating a discussion that showed every facet of a massive question – what exactly is this new world and how are we supposed to act within it? – and turned it into something truthful, compelling, heartbreaking, infuriating, and real. It was impossible to choose sides in this scene: they were all right; they were all wrong. This scene, of course, came after Dale approaching everyone – even Shane, for god’s sakes – pleading with them to spare the life of this young man.

• Does he pose a threat? Maybe.
• Could he hurt them? Yes.
• Could he bring back other people? Yes.
• Is it possible he won’t? Yes.
• Do they have the right to self-preservation? Yes.
• But can they play God?

That’s the unanswerable question. You look at it from the point of view of a group of people who’ve all been through too much, and taking out Randall seems to be little more than getting rid of an annoying walker: he’s in their way, get rid of him. But the one message that’s been hammered home to us time and again is that there’s a big difference between walkers – who are dead creatures that have nothing of the original human being left in them – and human beings. What they’re suggesting is murder.

There’s a child murder trial happening in Ontario right now, a short distance from where I grew up. Those who know the case know how horrific it is, and while I’ve tried to stay away from the details, other parents are telling their kids the details as cautionary tales and then they’re taking them to school and telling my daughter, who’s telling me. Those who don’t know about the case – I’m not going to say anything more. There are certain things in this world you can’t unhear, and I’m not going to inflict the horrific nature of this case on anyone. Suffice to say, whenever I hear what was done to this gorgeous (and I mean gorgeous) eight-year-old girl, I wish the same pain inflicted on the two perpetrators. But does that make me as bad as they are?

Dale would say yes. In a civilized society, you put these people on trial, and if you find them guilty, they go away for life, in solitary confinement so they’re not killed. Interesting how well they’ll be treated in relation to how well they treated her.

But in the case of Randall, he hasn’t actually done anything yet. If he had killed someone or raped one of them, the decision would be much easier, and even Dale would have a tougher time arguing his side. But Randall simply represents the potential for danger. When Shane argued that he could go back to his friends and bring them all back to the farm and kill all of them (or worse), he’s arguing from an actual fear of what he thinks could happen. He’s trying to protect himself, his friends, his loved ones… everyone. But Dale sees it differently – Randall had a mother and a father. He was loved. He’s lost people. He was once a baby, a small child. He was once no different than Carl. And for all they know, he’s still no different than Carl. He’s just running with the wrong crowd, perhaps.

And then he’s got to go and tell the story about how the other guys raped two girls and forced their father to watch (upon which my husband said, “That’s it. Just shoot him in the nuts right now”). Why would he tell them such a thing? Why admit to that? He said he had nothing to do with it. Rick and company say that by simply standing nearby and doing nothing, he’s as bad as the people who did the raping.

Carol has just lost her daughter. In the pre-zombie world, a mother is given space and love and time to grieve the loss of a child. But Carol hasn’t been given that. She’s been given no time to mourn, people are looking at her strangely, she’s been offered no hugs or condolences or anything. Have we seen a single scene of anyone approaching her and offering her their deepest sympathies? No. Daryl has yelled at her and blamed her for Sophia’s death; Carl told her that any solace she was finding in her faith was ridiculous; Rick, Lori, and Shane were too busy rushing off to accuse Hershel or fight off zombies in town; and the others just avoid her completely. She’s done; she’s just a shell of who she once was, and she says no, she can’t be a party to this. She’ll stand in the parlour and watch them make a decision, but she won’t be a part of it.

And according to Dale, that’s no different from actually shooting Randall in the head. The others look at him like he’s a big meanie. But isn’t that exactly what they’re accusing Randall of being guilty of? Watching and doing nothing?

I thought that scene was some of the best writing I’ve seen on TV all year. It was complex and forced the viewers to put themselves into the situation and imagine what they would do. As I said to a friend the other day: so many people think this is just a mindless zombie show. I think it’s one of the most philosophically compelling shows I’ve ever seen.

Joshua: I've been doing something the last couple of days that I don't usually do before we write these up, and that's reading other people's reviews and comments from various sources around the internet. The reason is that I too thought this final deliberation scene was terrific, but like you, I also came down very firmly in Dale's camp when all was said and done. And I'm not sure that was what the writers intended. I got the impression that as viewers we were supposed to be left torn like the others – reluctant but resigned. But I wasn't.

So I went out to see what the rest of the internet thought. Just as I suspected, the overwhelming majority opinion seemed to be that Dale was playing Pollyanna Blue Eyes and that this kid absolutely had to go. But why? Guilt by association? The only truly suspicious thing we've seen him do was to stab that crawler repeatedly with the knife last week, and we were only privy to that as viewers; none of the group saw it. So what is so threatening about this guy whose group valued him so much that they took off and left him for dead? This is not a Benjamin Linus we're talking about, not remotely. No, he probably shouldn't have told that story about the rape. But I think he's terrified and just trying to ingratiate himself to the guys doing all the terrorizing. Who knows how the kid would have been acting around them if they hadn't been universally beating the crap out of him since day one, Rick included.

Logically, I'd imagine that this other group have been combing the countryside looking for them ever since the shootout in the bar, purely on the basis of the previous shootings, and it sounds like they have plenty of manpower to do it effectively. Now all our people have done is take their only source of inside information against what is sure to be an overwhelming enemy and squander it with general mistrust and idle beatings, with a side of bladed torture, all on a fresh bed of the constant threat of death. So yeah, I don't see how our guys are much better than their guys.

I'm sick as a dog right now with the flu and have spent the day in bed, so unfortunately I have to wrap up my part of these proceedings more quickly than I'd like before the glare from the monitor makes me hurl. And maybe it's the fever talking, and maybe it's the codeine cough syrup, and maybe it's just aching all over and generally feeling like a deadly apocalyptic virus is devouring my brain cells, but I am beginning to wonder how much of a hindrance my previous experience with the comics has been when it comes to making an honest assessment of the show. I think it may have instilled a false sense of/unwarranted affection for these variable versions of characters I love and for whom I came to the show bearing an affection that had nothing to do with anything I'd ever seen on the screen. These characters, in these skins, don't make much sense to me sometimes.

I said before that I thought the death of Dale changes everything, but what I really meant is that I HOPE it changes everything. I really hope we see some kind of profound emotional consequence in the lives of these characters as fallout from Dale's death. We need to see it. These events need to resonate through the entirety of the rest of the series. Having this happen – now, and in this way – needs to change people. For better or worse, it needs impact. They need to remember the faces of the dead. It may be their only way to stay in touch with what the world once was, to maintain some semblance of civility, to keep sight of the hope that more than mere survival is still possible for them someday. It shouldn't make them more desperate; it should make them hungrier. It should make them want more than just stumbling into the arms of death as randomly and suddenly as walking into a spiderweb. I hope it does, anyway. Because I think they'll need that to keep them going. I know I would.

Nikki: Poor you! I hope you’re soon feeling much better, Joshua! There’s nothing like writing about The Walking Dead while being one of them. (And if it’s any consolation, you’re still as articulate as ever!)

I was saying to someone the other day that I wonder if the writers on the show are not very good at adaptation, and are better at doing original stuff. That’s why Daryl is such a compelling character, and why these characters always seem more realistic when they’re diverging from the comics. When they’re the same as the comic book characters, they feel stiff and unreal. When they’re doing their own thing – like with Carol and Daryl having their conversations – the scenes are electric.

The last key scene to mention, of course, is Rick holding the gun to Randall’s head. In this scene he realizes talk is one thing; action is quite another. And when Carl steps in the room and says, “Do it, Dad,” it’s all over. Why? Let’s take a look at how much this new world has changed everything.

Think about what you have done with your life. Did you go to university? Do you have children? Do you have a job? Why do we do all these things? Well, we went to university to have a better future. We had children because we’re investing in a future and want to leave a legacy behind and have the experience of raising the next generation of people that we love with every fibre of our beings. We go to work so we can make money to feed and clothe ourselves and our children, and we try to save money for the future so we can get bigger and better things, and give our children bigger and better things.

What’s the key word I keep using? Future. The characters on this show used to do exactly what we do every day. But there’s no future anymore. They live in the present. They go to bed knowing tomorrow they’ll be worrying about walkers, that they’ll be living only for the moment. They don’t think about where they’ll be next week or even the next day; they only think about now. Rick needs to shoot that guy now so he doesn’t come back and hurt any of them. This is something he feels like he needs to do right now for the good of the group. It’s something he’s thought a lot about, and he feels that it needs to be done with, and then he can move on. Dale’s the one thinking about how he’ll have to get up every single morning after that knowing that he was complicit in the execution of what might have been an innocent man. The rest of them aren’t thinking of how this might impact them in the future, because as far as they’re concerned, they don’t really have one. They don’t picture a time where the walkers will no longer exist, where they’ll be able to work and live and grow and go on vacations and lie on beaches and enjoy their lives again. They’re living in the moment, for the moment.

And then Carl walks into the barn. And with his arrival comes the sudden realization that there IS a future. It might be a bleak, dark future, but there may be a day when Carl is 25, and he’s got his own guns and is heading up his own group of people. And what will he be like? Will he be a strong, heroic leader? Or will he be no different than the goons in the bar that Rick quickly disposed of the day before? Will he have no conscience? Will he kill without thinking? Will he find love or will he even be able to? Will he be capable of making connections with another person?

All of these things rest on what Rick does in this moment. What he does to Randall could determine exactly what Carl turns out to be. And so… he lowers the gun. Like Fagan in Oliver! The Musical, he thinks he’d better think it out again. So Randall goes back into the barn, and Rick tries to think of another way.

And then… Dale. And now we’re back to where we started.

Only two more episodes left, and I’m hoping they head off the farm to set up the third season, far away and back on the move. I don’t want to be on Maggie’s farm no more.

Thanks for reading, everyone, and get better soon, Joshua!


SenexMacDonald (Cindy) said...

This was a spectacular episode. I too, Nikki, was telling Carl to "stop being an idiot" and "don't tease the zombie!". Did he listen - nope. Guess I should have yelled at the screen - maybe then he would have heard me.

I had a thought as Carl ran off that this zombie might follow him but I kept thinking 'how does a zombie track a person?' If the person can move faster, and I am not sure how far away Carl was from everyone else, could a zombie really figure it out? I had that same idea when Shane and Rick were attacked in the previous episode but since they had a car, then the zombies would not be able to do that. RIght? Guess they need to learn how to drive again.

You are right that the scene in the house was riveting but the icing on the cake was Carl's comment to Rick about Randall. It shocked me at the same time I wanted to yell at Rick - 'See? This is what your boy is becoming.' and that is reflected in Carl's complete lack of comprehension/disregard about that zombie in the mud. He did not care and showed arrogance towards even his own safety. Did he say anything? No, and now he has to live with the consequences of what he did. Heck of a thing for a kid to carry.

And why did Lori not wander about the mud all over Carl's pants and ask him what he had been up to? My mother would have done that. Is Lori so caught up in this Shane (and now Randall) business that she does not wander what her young son is doing?

Yup, this group is broken all right.

Dale's death was so tragic and such a loss to the group. Hopefully they will pull themselves together and realize that together they are stronger than apart. Otherwise, they might as well start picking off each other because there will be no hope at all then of surviving this thing.

Page48 said...

I wanted mudwalker to eat Carl like he was a salted nut. Carl is beginning to overtake Lori on my I-can't-wait-till-you're-lunch list.

Dale's death was a shocker and it's noteworthy that Rick couldn't even pull off a desperately needed mercy-kill, let alone an execution based on nothing more than fear of the unknown.

I, too, hope they pack up and hit the highway before the season ends. And how crazy would it be to whack Randall and THEN leave the farm a week later?

I'm amazed at how resigned these people were to the idea that it was okay to do a pre-emptive strike on Randall. Now their voice of sober second thought is laying dead in a field? I worry about where this group is headed without the Dalemeister.

What kind of wishy-washy survival instinct did Dale show us, wandering around Maggie's Farm in the dark by himself? Is this all he's learned about stayin' alive in a zombie apocalypse? Did he think the "no trespassing" sign out at the road would stop those crazy-ass walkers in their tracks? Have all these weeks on the farm left this 'broken' group feeling complacent about their safety?

Yup, it's time they put Maggie's Farm in the rear view mirror, but the RV needs a new driver now that Dale is done like dinner. Randall, can you handle an RV?

Colleen/redeem147 said...

I was struck by Carl's cruelty. We don't know if zombies can feel pain, but we don't know that they don't. Throwing rocks is more than teasing (as I kid I had rocks thrown at me.) Though now Carl is living the plot of Spiderman - who could have stopped Uncle Ben's killer but didn't.

And now the group has lost their moral core. The only voice of reason. That can't go well.

I'm also struck by how quickly women have come to mean people to clean the dishes and be protected. Maybe I shouldn't be so surprised, seeing the speeches in the Republican primary and hearing the words of Rush Limbaugh.

Joel said...

In defence of the rest of the group, keep in mind Randall had attempted to kill Rick, Glenn, and Herschel. Yes, he was part of the "others", but he's not a puppy dog. He's demonstrated his complicity in attempted murder and rape when it would benefit him. By contrast, Rick and his group have made personal sacrifices for others. Shane dealt harshly with Carol's husband for abusing her. Relationships have been consensual. But in Randall we have a person from a group that has not behaved in this way. The situation is closer to capturing a soldier while trapped behind enemy lines. Of course killing the soldier is wrong, but so is letting him kill you - or your wife and child. It's a bad situation with no right answer.

Carl's scene with the stuck zombie was interesting. Here's a chance for him to see a zombie up close. Does it feel pain? Is there anything left of a person in there? Would Sophia have tried to kill me? And he's left a gun in the woods. Can't wait for the final episodes.

Anonymous said...

Great recap you two. I figured there'd be at least one major character death before the end of the season but this was a surprise.

Didn't Randall take a shot at Herschel & Glen from the rooftop when they were behind the bar? That would answer that question for me.

I guess Daryl has a little Sayid in him too!

-Tim Alan

RickR said...

Just FYI- I believe Dale's death had a lot to do with Darabont's firing by AMC last Fall. Jeff DeMunn is a Darabont regular who, I'm sure, was very upset about the situation, and I've heard he asked to be written out of the show.

Batcabbage said...

I debated about posting about this episode, because I have been loving where the series has been going. As an avid reader of TWD comic, I've been a little disappointed with the direction of the show, but it seemed to pick up after the mid-season break. I've really found myself enjoying it. But now, with Dale dead?


Tantrum over.

Austin Gorton said...

Excellent analysis you too, probably the best I've read!

@Nikki: You shouldn’t have thrown rocks, kid. YOU KNEW BETTER.

My sentiments exactly. Look, a zombie's not a puppy, I get it. But hoofing rocks at it for your own amusement is just stupid punk behavior, even before you get into the issue of the fact that he's toying with something that wants to and can eat him.

If Carl had decided to use that zombie for target practice (and actually succeeded in killing him), I'd be fine with it; that's a boy being a boy in this world. This was just a boy being an idiot in a world where he knows better. Was it fun Carl? Was playing with that zombie worth it? Because Dale's dead because you were a stupid kid enough to both taunt a zombie and then not put an end to it.

Like you Nikki, I almost resent the show for making me wish so much comeuppance on a kid.

@Josh: And I'm not sure that was what the writers intended. I got the impression that as viewers we were supposed to be left torn like the others – reluctant but resigned.

I worry about that too. To me, Shane and his sensibilities are very much the villain of the show at this point; Shane's approach to the world is wrong, plain and simple.

But as much as I hear other people, online and even on Talking Dead, it sounds like a lot of people see Shane as this misunderstood hero, and it makes me wonder if the writers aren't trying to make him as villainous as I've been seeing him.

And that's a scary proposition. I don't know if I want to watch a show where Shane's "shoot first, ask questions later" mentality is accepted as correct, let alone heroic. It might make sense, given the situation these characters find themselves in, but that would be no fun to watch.

@Colleen:I'm also struck by how quickly women have come to mean people to clean the dishes and be protected.

Yeah, Lori's conversation two episodes ago with Andrea about how Andrea isn't pulling her weight because she's not doing girl things was almost hilarious in how outdated the sentiment was.

But from what I've read from Glenn Mazzara on Twitter, it sounds like this apparent wave of neo-sexism is intentional, and something the show intends to address at some point.