Posted March 5th 2012 by J. Edison Thomas.
The Walking Dead sucks again, officially. For perhaps the first time since the show premiered, churchgoing fans of The Walking Dead can honestly say that the hour spent singing Sunday morning hymns compared favorably in excitement to the hour spent watching Rick and his family decide whether or not to execute a man they spent the previous two episodes saving from death. Episode 11 - "Judge, Jury, Executioner" is a terrible, frustrating entry in the series that kills the momentum generated from the previous three-episode winning streak, setting back the season and even the series as a whole considerably. Spoilers ahead.
Everything pointed to this episode being a stinker, but I had held out some hope that it would not fulfill its dark promise to make me dislike every last character of the show. Well, technically all but one, but then they killed that one just to be thorough.
The recap on this episode will be short, and here it is: Everyone decides to execute Randall, and then they don't do it. So what we get is an endless dialog revolving around a foregone conclusion, because it is obvious they are not going to actually kill him from the start. If you guessed that Carl would intercede with all his childish innocence hanging in the balance, you are awarded no points. Notably, not a single episode production photo on AMC's website is drawn from this busted plotline. Rather, they all come from the few minutes of subplot, which produced the lone zombie and the lone kill of the episode: Carl walks into the woods and inadvertently lures a walker back to camp, which punches an improbable hold in Dale's stomach.
And yes, Dale's death occurs within the final moments of the episode, based on the working philosophy that 39 minutes of dreck and one good thrill adds up to something worthwhile (Sophia's death is basically this for the entirety of episodes 1-7).
About three-quarters of the way through watching, it occurred to me that the reason everything was so flat and underwhelming is that I didn't believe for a second that Randall was going to be executed. And I don't mean that as some kind of cynical, TV-savvy boast. I mean it literally had not occurred to me until that moment that Randall's execution was a possible conclusion to the episode. I was just watching, waiting for them to complete the process and then move on.
Once I considered it, I realized that the concept could actually make for an incredibly tense episode. I want Rick to be a heroic guy, and executing Randall would be an ugly, disturbing Lord of the Flies turn for the survivors. I had enough emotional investment in the outcome to be swayed; I had simply not been convinced or even persuaded that the gruesome option had any chance of occurring.
In a word, beyond all the bad decisions that led here, the failure comes down to the fact that the whole story is unconvincing. Certainly, the plot is weak and it only makes it horribly apparent that the writers were padding for time to get us to the season finale. But beyond that, it just isn't sold with any conviction at all.
To begin with, there is an argument to make that Randall could be dangerous. For all I know he is a dangerous character in the comic, and viewers of the show I have spoken to have made this very argument. The Walking Dead television series, however, has not.
This isn't something they can leave for message boards to decide. There are quick and easy cues that creators can use to make us feel the right way about Randall, which in this case means that Randall intimidates us. But the way he's been portrayed, he just doesn't. He's a doe-eyed, baby-faced, goofball kid who has spent the majority of his screentime wailing and begging for his life. To even get the conversation going about him, he needs to be established as unsettling and potentially powerful. A creeper glance thrown towards Maggie, a hypnotic monologue of manipulation, an act of sudden hostility; these are not time-consuming tricks, and they signal "Hey, this guy is bad news." Then we can move on to the talk of whether preemptive execution is an option, and however viewers feel, at least the debate rings true to reality.
Because Randall isn't scary, there is a major deficit of tension surrounding the dilemma of what to do with him. And because of this, the writers have to double-down on how much they pretend "THIS is the episode where Rick shoots an injured kid in the face." Anyone who has watched more than four movies has their inverse-expectations alarm go off at that point. Without even deliberately applying any critical reasoning of movie tropes, we've been conditioned to feel more—not less—certain that the good guys will prevail when greater odds are stacked against them. The team that's down at halftime? We're sure they're the winner, and we're more sure about it the more of a disaster they've been in the first half.
The whole reason the inverse-expectations concept came about is that audiences would find it boring to see a slow, gradual march towards victory. For that same reason, we know that storytellers won't subject us to a slow, gradual slog towards death. This is why even dumb slasher flicks need to give us some expectation that the girl might get away before the killer finally snuffs her out. So when everyone, including Rick, promises that by the end of the episode they're going to lynch Randall, it's an utterly transparent bluff. A complete miss. A little ambiguity would have gone a long way in producing any kind of tension out of this premise.
What really makes this strategy go from boring to frustrating is that it necessitates characters coloring outside the established lines of their personalities. It has been a fact of nature that Lori has an opinion on every single goings-on under the sun, whether it affects her or not, and that she will press Rick to take her side on it without restraint. But that would break this horribly frail plot, so for the first time in history Lori decides to keep her opinion to herself, even when it is directly solicited. Herschel is a physician and Christian who has recently undertaken two conversions: he has learned to see his farm as a sanctuary to be shared with others, and he has re-established his dominance over the farm following his night of renewed alcoholism. But following that model would make it too easy for him to put the skids on this execution, so suddenly he doesn't give a shit about anything. Would you nice fellows like to borrow some rope?
The real tragedy, though, is in Rick. Because really, who cares about Lori or Herschel anyway? Rick is interesting specifically because of his simplicity. You could sum him up in one sentence: he is a man who wants to do the right thing, no exceptions. That's pretty much his character. It's not an original character—you could just as well sum him up as "the hero"—but it's a fun character to watch. Because Rick's convictions accompany him to every strategy session, he has to find a way to make it fit. He's the character who guides us from the onset of a crisis through the story of overcoming it. Without him, there isn't that story element; it's just a bunch of people doing the easiest thing possible in order to survive.
Beyond that, it makes Rick feel more like a real person. We feel like we know Rick more than we know a character like Daryl, perhaps, who might waver in his characterization depending on the necessity of the plot. With Rick, we know where he stands, and that makes him seem more like a sentient thing and less like a prop used to sell advertising space during Sunday prime time.
That was ruined, perhaps irrevocably, in "Judge, Jury, Executioner," where Rick inexplicably suddenly finds it okay to kill in cold blood a man whose life he has saved twice, as a simple matter of convenience.
As the logical endpoint of a group slipping into tribal/feral mentalities, I could buy it. But the show has spent 17 episodes making zero headway in that direction, save for the character of Shane. You can't just play that card without building the hand first. The result is an astonishingly empty episode that doesn't feel like it needed to be made at all, and actually serves to hollow out the series as a whole.
What is maybe most depressing is that "Judge, Jury, Executioner" doesn't leave anything dangling in the distance to look forward to. Usually, even boring episodes are peppered with the promise of exciting developments to come. They don't always keep that promise (I am still disappointed and perplexed that Beth did not become a zombie) but at least they're offered. But in this case that job was left to sneak peeks of upcoming events. It looks like Randall will escape at some point, and because the season finale is coming up, it's entirely likely that this results in a shootout with his gang of 30 rapists. But there's no reason that couldn't simply have gotten going at the outset of this episode, other than it throwing off the timing of where the showrunners want to end things for the second season.
Yes, Dale is dead. What of it? One fewer interesting character on a show that has dangerously few interesting characters? Is anyone really looking forward to the inevitably cringe-inducing scene where Carl confesses it was all his fault? The best we can hope to get from Carl is that he says very little and acts as a visceral catalyst for Rick's war against the zombies. When he speaks, we lose. There's also the perhaps equally-inevitable scene where Andrea honors Dale's memory by once again taking a bizarre personality shift, and yet still managing to be intolerable. When Andrea appears onscreen sans–zombie bites, we lose.
Honestly, what excites me the most is that the sneak peek reveals that T-Dog speaks aloud for several sentences before before relinquishing the spotlight to the white characters with real names and plot lines. It's going to be glorious. And yes, before you ask, one of those lines is indeed, "Oh HELL no." As it stands, the studiously realistic depiction of the modern black American male is the top reason to tune in for The Walking Dead next week.
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