Spoiler Theater: The Walking Dead – Judge, Jury, Executioner

Fans of AMC‘s The Walking Dead know that the show has in season two been dealing with a couple of losses: executive producer Frank Darabont and money from the show’s budget (Darabont left in protest over AMC slashing the show’s budget).

Both factors have played into this season being anchored at Hershel’s (Scott Wilson) farm. The producers have only one major set to deal with, which cut costs, and the production and writing team, lacking Darabont’s vision and focus, have largely failed to make the very best of the situation. There have been some solid character moments and great payoffs (the barn massacre and the zombie-filled blowout between Rick and Shane (Andrew Lincoln and Jon Bernthal) but the pacing has been glacial and some of the drama has felt forced and artificial (the zombie in the well and Lori’s (Sarah Wayne Callies) ill-advised foray into town).

The show may have made its most tragic misstep this week in killing off Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn), the group’s rock-steady moral center.

Over the course of season two, the group has crumbled. The loss of Sophia (Madison Lintz) sent the group’s shared desire for safety into overdrive and caused several characters to compromise (if not wholly abandon) their principles and make choices that they normally would not have made — and some, most notably Shane and Andrea (Laurie Holden), don’t care. A little dirt on their souls is a small price to pay to keep themselves alive. Even nice guy Glenn (Steven Yeun) was in favor of executing a living, breathing person to eliminate a theoretical threat.

Throughout it all, Dale stayed true to his humanity. He challenged every ethically dicey decision and fought to hold onto his humanity — and did his damnedest to make sure his friends held on to theirs too.

In Judge, Jury, Executioner, Dale scored a small but important victory: he convinced Andrea to oppose the execution, in doing so keeping her from crossing the line Shane crossed ages ago.

Everyone else? Well, Dale’s arguments fell on deaf ears. The only thing that brought Rick back to his senses was the realization that his young son Carl (Chandler Riggs) was losing his humanity.

And then the show swerved in a very unexpected direction by having a rogue zombie literally gut Dale, forcing the group to kill him to put him out of his misery.

(While Dale’s death smacked of random shock value, it did provide a nice bit of ironic turnabout; the group was ready to kill a complete stranger out of fear but spared his life, and then had to kill their friend in an act of mercy.)

The story now stands at a precarious tipping point, and how the writers handle the aftermath of Dale’s death could spark a major recovery for a show that has lost a lot of what made it so incredible in its first season, or become its Jump-the-Shark moment.

The characters have this season been on a downward progression, careening toward hitting rock-bottom, which is a standard dramatic scenario; you throw ten tons of shit at a character, break him down to his lowest point, and build him back up. What we’ve seen so far in season two has been the downward progression, and the teaser for next week’s episode hints that the group could be ready to pull its collective head out of its collective ass.

That would be one of the smartest things the writers could do at this point: use Dale’s death to get the characters back on-track, because the show needs that as much as it needs Darabont back in the driver’s seat and a generous budget increase.

It’s not uncommon for a character on a downward spiral to become unsympathetic to some degree, but if the character loses all likeability, then the audience won’t care whether he pulls himself back together — and right now The Walking Dead‘s cast of characters is almost entirely unlikable. This needs to be corrected fast, and definitely before the season finale, and Dale’s death can accomplish this if it’s treated as an inspiring, galvanizing moment rather than Sophia’s Death Version Two, or else there are going to be a lot fewer viewers coming along for the ride in season three.

C’mon, AMC, fix the show. Your current slogan is “Story Matters Here,” so it’s time to prove it.

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