Dale’s time to shine (and also die): The Walking Dead 211


In Judge, Jury & Executioner (episode 211 of The Walking Dead), Dale Horvath takes a bold stand against his own group, only to die horribly and randomly shortly thereafter.  What was that all about?  In a way, it’s about maturity.

As the episode begins, we see a barn as a center of controversy yet again (apparently The Walking Dead has something against barns).  This time it’s not a barn full of walkers, but a barn containing a physically torturous, verbally abusive Daryl Dixon, and his pleading captive named Randall.  In the middle of the torture, Randall mentions an incident with his former group:  Some of them had kidnapped and raped two teenage girls and forced him to watch.  It’s a strange thing to mention when trying to convince people not to torture you, but Randall no doubt intended to gain some sympathy as a witness to violence.  Instead, it convinces Rick and the others that Randall is a threat, due to his undesirable associations, and should be killed.  Well, almost all of the others.  Dale Horvath is very much opposed to taking the young man’s life, and very vocal (and principled) in his opposition.  Dale ends up seeming like the adult conscience of the group, making everyone else look like fearful children.

An obvious question is:  Does Randall pose an imminent threat, or merely a potential one?  Dale emphasizes how killing him will change the dynamics of the group.  Initially, Dale argues how there’s a dozen people at Hershel’s farm but only one captive.  When Shane argues that Randall has a group of 30, Dale notes how killing him won’t change that.  He adds “But it changes us.”

Specifically, he argues, “This is a young man’s life, and it is worth more than a five-minute conversation! We kill someone because we can’t decide what else to do with him? You saved him and now look at us. He’s been tortured. He’s gonna be executed. How are we any better than those people that we’re so afraid of?”

Randall on the receiving end of "justice." (AMC's The Walking Dead)
Randall on the receiving end of “justice.” (AMC’s The Walking Dead) /

He layers on more reasons, such as how it sets a bad example for Rick’s son, Carl.  It’s only fitting, as what the group does will undoubtedly shape what happens to Carl.  Unofficial precedents and general standards will be set.  Also, for me, it is annoying to see the entire group taking cues from Shane.  When Hershel claims Randall poses a threat to his daughter’s safety, I feel genuine frustration.  Believing this one person poses such a terrifying threat demonstrates the power and value of fear.

This is precisely how people like Rick and Shane attain more power than they deserve.  They convince everyone else that their ideas are the safest, and that even one weak link in the chain will instantly break everything down.  What validates the leader validates the group.  Similarly, what invalidates the leader invalidates the group.  It’s a problem that people choose to create for themselves, in addition to whatever actual problems accrue out there.

This is why, in an odd way, Hershel’s barn situation is almost the heart of the group.  When Randall pleads with Carl to release him, people see him not merely as a potential threat to Carl (though the group made that choice practical for Randall), but as a thorn in the side of group dynamics.  If Randall were to hold Carl hostage as a bargaining chip, there would be no denying that both Rick and Shane have failed, and that their wisdom does not actually keep everyone safe.  In a way, then, it is not only Randall being held prisoner.  Everyone on the farm is his or her own prison, constructed by the faltering power struggle between Rick, Shane, Hershel and their own independent impulses.

Young Carl seems to be aware of this.  What he has seen makes him increasingly lash out, wanting his own independent will to be recognized.  The problem is, everyone else will think this is merely rebellious child behavior, when in fact it probably has little to do with age.  It’s a natural outgrowth of witnessing the horror and insanity of the surrounding world.  This is largely why he lashes out against Carol’s talk of Sophia being in heaven.  It may have seemed like a harsh reaction, but Carl sees the world no in the harshest terms.  Everything good seems like a lie, and anything positive is at best a half-truth.  The creation of doubt in Carl was all but unavoidable, unless he was to remain a completely oblivious, stupid child for the rest of his days.

Carl trying to grow up. (AMC's The Walking Dead)
Carl trying to grow up. (AMC’s The Walking Dead) /

When Carl takes Daryl’s gun and wanders into the woods, he is doing what is necessary to face everyone later on.  He has to get away from them, feel independent and dangerous.  He does not wish to be a child any longer, and knows he’s not living in a world of fun and games.  What better way to represent adulthood than possessing a gun?  When he encounters a walker stuck in the creek bed, he does his best to not be scared, to face his fears.  He throws rocks at it, draws closer to it and points a gun at its head.

If I may get personal for a moment:  It brings to mind a dark childhood memory of throwing rocks at a snake.  At the time, I felt it was an adult thing to do.  However, Carl’s plan backfires much worse than the average childhood experience.  The walker manages to free one of its legs and lunges at Carl, who drops Daryl’s pistol and escapes.  Being embarrassed by the whole thing, Carl doesn’t tell anyone about it when he returns back to base.  His decision has repercussions before the night is through.

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There are other aspects of maturity on the farm.  Beth is seemingly recovering from her suicide attempt, and Hershel is attending to her as a father.

He also gives Glenn his blessing to be with Maggie, and even hands him a family heirloom.  It’s an interesting backdrop to the whole “determining Randall’s fate” thing, but it’s a way of saying, “Whatever happens, the people will move on as they must.”  As Dale debates the subject further, he realizes he’s at an impasse and storms off.  It seems he realizes the folly of seeking democracy in a totalitarian setting.

Sometimes the only thing one can do is walk away, or perhaps force change.  Then again, forcing change may be the problem to begin with — that is, using violence to determine another person’s fate.  In any case, that is what the barn is for.  Out of a false sense of duty, Daryl, Rick and Shane are there now to kill Randall.  As luck would have it, young Carl ventures straight into the barn and urges his father to do it.  This, of course, does not sit well with Rick, and the whole thing is called off.  Shane is predictably disappointed, because that’s all he can ever be.  It’s a very moving father-son-Shane moment.

However, that’s not the end of the episode.  A jaded Dale is walking through a field where he encounters a gutted cow.  His disgust turns into horror as he turns around to find a walker by his side.  The walker forces Dale to the ground, and it rips open his abdomen.  Dale’s cries of pain summon others, including Daryl, who ultimately puts a bullet in Dale’s brain.  At that point, everyone knew Hershel couldn’t work miracles and put Dale’s guts back together.  It was a sad and seemingly random end.  However, it certainly wasn’t so random.  The walker was not just any walker.  It was the one that Carl had encountered earlier.  Had Carl “put it down” earlier, Dale would not have died like a ravaged cow in a field.

Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) - The Walking Dead - Season 2, Episode 11 - Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC
Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) – The Walking Dead – Season 2, Episode 11 – Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC /

Reflecting upon it now, this episode is pretty huge in its scope, and reminds us that seemingly random things still happen, and that tragedy can’t be predicted at every turn.  It’s not that Carl made a bad judgment in fleeing the walker earlier.  He didn’t know exactly what to do under those circumstances.

However, now he has a great excuse to “grow up” and understand what risks everyone takes by not addressing threats.  At the same time, there is great risk that he’ll go down Shane’s path, and feel that literally every possible risk needs to be cancelled (which is ultimately both naive and a risk itself).

The legacy of Dale is that he encouraged introspection — looking before one leaps.  While some consider him the departed moralist of the group, I would say it wasn’t just morality coming into play.  Dale was also a very logical person.  Though he had emotions and was not afraid to express himself, every argument he made while alive also made some sense.  Nor was he guided by any one emotion or consideration.  He was a thinker.  Perhaps he occasionally made questionable decisions (such as preventing Andrea’s death even though she wanted to “opt out”), it is refreshing that he was more protective than assaultive.  The group did not lose its humanity because Dale died.  That would be too dramatic a statement.  However, it did lose its chief humanitarian.

And what a way to go.  Yuck!