Last night’s Walking Dead did something that it’s been shying away from for this entire season: It killed off a main character. A distraught Dale went for a stroll in an empty field in the dead of night and got gutted by a zombie. Because under normal paranormal circumstances, that’s the sort of thing that happens when you do that.
Of course, that didn’t happen until three minutes until the end. The previous 40 minutes were some of what had to be some of the most filler-est filler we’ve seen yet. And I am aware that what I am calling filler, the show is calling the gradual and necessary progression of tension between the impulse to be a compassionate human or a savage animal. I know that if I were to meet the Walking Dead at a party, it would explain to me that those first 40 minutes were necessary in order for us to feel the true weight of Dale’s, the show’s last moral holdout, death at the very tippy toe end of the show. I get it, okay? But at the same time, watching it felt like listening to your 2-year-old explain their day. They say “Elmo. Ears. Push!!!!” and you translate it into, “I had a lovely time on the swing shaped like Elmo’s head today.” It felt like I was automatically filling in the holes based on superior versions of this story line that I have seen elsewhere before. Just because I am already aware of the existence of complicated ideas doesn’t mean that the show doesn’t have to still try to convey them in a complicated way.
The very large majority of this episode is spent with Dale going from character to character, trying to convince them to spare Randall’s life. He basically wanders around the farm, asking each of them for a one-word sentence that describes their motivation, like a TV land census taker. He checks in with Daryl to make sure he’s still doing his “new role in the group” thing. Daryl says yes. He checks in with Andrea while she’s searching high and low for her bag of guns that she misplaced. She’s not happy about keeping Randall alive, because her No. 1 most favorite hobby is making guns go boom, but she agrees to guard him, while holding a gun, because that’s her No. 2 most favorite thing to do. She is so excited to guard, in fact, that she forgets to change out of her perplexing sweater/cargo pants combo that she pulled on that morning while doing her laundry. Dale also references her former life as a civil rights lawyer (a detail we were possibly told in the first season but it was probably the same episode during which we learned that it’s bad to get zombie blood on you, so you know), but because he’s Dale and he’s nice-ish, he doesn’t add that she was presumably terrible at that job considering how, with all her stomping around, she has never once said a word about T-Dogg’s nonexistent role in the group. Grimes is next, and Dale, ever the mechanic, makes sure his character is humming along at a consistent clip. “Think about Carl.” “Carl is all I think about.” Check, check, check. Shane, meanwhile, is grumbling to Andrea about why Grimes is the leader, which means, as I predicted, he totally set his DVR wrong and just missed last week’s episode entirely. Honestly, Shane, you didn’t miss much. Other than the fact that everything you guys talked about this week could’ve easily have been talked about then. Or during that whole week when Randall was bedridden and playing video games. But (all together now) whatever.
Meanwhile, inside the farmhouse proper, Hershel is rehearsing for a local production of Penny Marshall’s Awakenings that he plans to put on in the spring. He quietly sings a nursery rhyme to the Daughter Hershel, who’s (hilariously) still in bed, once again reduced to her mute, lobotomized state. Dale asks him what he thinks of the Randall situation, considering how strongly he felt in support of even the sanctity of zombie life just five episodes ago, but Hershel says that Dale must not have gotten the e-mail he sent using his high-speed wireless connection. He listens to Grimes now, whatever Grimes does is fine, he was a fool, he’s seen the error of his ways, whiskey is tasty but bad, immigrants are now good, and if he will just excuse him now, he has to get back to sitting helplessly by his daughter’s side. Oh, and also to tending to some conveniently materialized farm animals.
Carl has a bunch to do on this week’s episode. First he stares weirdly at Randall for a while and then he utters a bad word (starts with S ends with A) to Carol and gets in trouble. Those scenes functioned like Pac Man gobbling up his power pellets until the clock wound down, but I actually liked the scenes involving the zombie a lot. The way he taunted him felt very authentically childlike to me, as did the not telling his mom about it when he got home. And in theory, the role he ultimately plays in Dale’s demise is nice.
The episode culminates in all the characters having a story meeting about what to do with the Randall plotline. One of them says, “You can’t kill someone just because we can’t decide what else to do with him.” Another says, “We’re just going to keep going around and around in circles.” T-Dogg waits for a gap in the screaming so that he can throw his lone line into the mix. The writers decide to have Andrea change her mind, so she does. If you’ve ever seen Twelve Angry Men, this scene is nothing like it so I’m not even sure why I’m bringing it up as a comparison. I mean, I could compare it to Three Men and a Little Baby and it would have about as much in common. It is baffling to me how simultaneously terrible this show is at writing dialogue while at the same time prioritizing it above all else.
I will say that at least this scene offered up a few spelled-out arguments for why Randall might have to die. Up until then, I had been really confused. I mean, again, I knew in theory why he might be bad news, but it wasn’t like that was reflected in his actions. All we had seen was that he was an affable, X-Men-like creature capable of assembling his own cells back together and also a whiz when it came to not getting lost on a one-way street. That spells asset if you ask me. But the gang comes up with a couple of not terrible reasons why he has to go, and then Grimes and Shane and Daryl take Randall to the barn in order to quickly complete this task without second guessing themselves so they can move on to the next one in an efficient manner. As is their way.
Gotcha! Grimes can’t go through with it, of course. And we’re left with an odd feeling of exasperation instead of relief since every act of humanity that Grimes manages to achieve means at least three episodes of feet dragging for us to then endure.
The end of the episode is also the end of Dale. It’s funny how quickly things change. It was only last season that many of the show’s fans were rooting for him to be the one to go and now I think I’m actually going to miss him. This show has always known its way around a zombie attack. In Dale’s final moments, you see such terror in his eyes. Talked out after those 40 minutes spent blustering about, he is for the first time unable to find words, and thus departs his ravaged earth as untethered by language as all those who came before him … and all those who will come now that he is gone.