I’m going to post one of my infrequent SPOILER warnings for this episode. If you haven’t watched this yet, skip the recap.
For all my complaints about sloppy writing and weak character development, The Walking Dead still manages to surprise me. I held out hope that the survivors might find Sophia alive, that they would see through Shane’s fuckery, that they could do something with the glimmer of interesting buried in Andrea’s character. I certainly didn’t see Dale’s ignominious end coming.
I know that I was one of the few Dale fans in the crowd here, so I’m likely the only one still upset about his death. He was a meddling busy body with a strong sense of moral conviction and a wealth of empathy — things that are in short supply in the survivors’ lives. He meddled because he loved them. He meddled because he needed to protect them. He interfered to keep them from losing sight of the bigger picture. Or the smaller, more precious picture, depending on how important you think humanity is after the apocalypse. Dale is unlikable if you value brute survival over the quality of that survival. He, not Rick, is the polar opposite of Shane’s world view.
Most of the episode is concerned with the fate of Randall, the kid Rick pulled from the fence. After the events of “18 Miles Out,” someone has sent (I’ll guess Shane got to Rick on this point) to interrogate Randall about his camp, and after hearing about their guns and their raping habit, Rick decides the best course of action is to “humanely” kill the kid. Dale is the only one to voice objection.
A lot of time is spent on Dale’s quest to find someone, anyone, who will stand with him and ask to spare the boy’s life. Andrea, the former civil rights attorney, seems the most likely candidate, but she’s been too far traumatized by her sister’s death to see the worth in living any longer. Herschel’s heart and his convictions are newly broken, a fresh wound. Daryl — in one of the big surprises of the evening — refuses to throw in with the survivors anymore, because he knows what Dale hopes isn’t true.
Because he [Shane] killed Otis?… He tells some story about how Otis covered him, saved his ass. He showed up with the dead guy’s gun. Rick ain’t stupid. If he didn’t figure that out, it’s because he didn’t wanna. It’s like I said. Group’s broken.
He even tries to convince Shane, to reach out to that one bit of Shane’s soul left — the part that needed absolution for the incident at the barn. “Killing him doesn’t change that. But it changes us.”
There’s desperation in his voice, in his eyes. Dale wants to save them, so desperately.
The show darts back in forth from the one character with an abundance of empathy, to one who seems to be losing his capacity for it. Carl’s walkabout on the farm, in the dead time while Dale is pleading his case, is both infuriating and illuminating. He sneaks in to see Randall against Shane’s orders and stares at the older boy with dead, cold eyes. He yells at Carol that there is no heaven for her Sophia. He sneaks into Daryl’s camp and steals his gun — which isn’t just theft, but an actual threat to Daryl’s life — and runs off with it.
Taken individually, these are just bratty little kid behaviors. Carl might be excused for them, given that the last time he saw anything beautiful and wondrous, he got shot in the chest. Living like this has got to mess a kid up. But the thing that really got to me was Carl sitting down on the bank in the river and chucking rocks at a walker trapped in the silt. There was something just so cold about it, like throwing rocks at a dog that’s tied up. Walkers are dangerous, but they used to be us. He even taunts it, moving closer and jumping out of arm’s reach, until the walker frees himself and Carl runs away, telling no one he saw a zombie or that he lost a gun.
While Dale begs to save Randall’s life, Carl encourages his father to kill him. It’s not Dale’s argument that ultimately spares Randall. It’s the emptiness in his son.
But don’t you see if we do this, the people that we were, the world that we knew is dead. And this new world. It’s 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. I can’t. Please. Let’s just do what’s right. Isn’t there anybody else who is going to stand with me?
The characters in the show who were being pulled towards Shane’s point of view — Andrea and Rick — are the ones who ultimately push back. Rick spares the boy’s life, Andrea argues for it. And Dale doesn’t get to enjoy his victory.
The zombie that Carl taunted finds Dale out in the field. No one is fast enough to get to him before the walker rips Dale’s guts free, so the camp is all there to watch another living person, someone they loved, someone they lived with and knew, suffer in tremendous agony. And they were all so quick to talk about pulling the trigger just minutes before, but they stare at Dale screaming while Andrea pleads for someone to put him out of his misery.
Rick pulls his gun, so much slower than he did for Sophia, like it’s heavier than it used to be, when Daryl puts a hand on his and takes the responsibility. He’s the decent man Dale claimed he was, shouldering a burden to keep Rick from having to take another thing on. And Dale forgives him, forgives all of them, lifting his head to press it to the barrel of the gun.
It’s no coincidence that the youngest and oldest members of the group have had to be killed. Their past and their future — they didn’t just die. They were put down. Mercy killed. This is a new world now. It’s harsh. And cold. And frightening. Now they have to find their own way.