The Walking Dead | The moral dilemma that changed everything

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The 11th episode of The Walking Dead season two, Judge, Jury, Executioner, changed the show’s trajectory forever. AJ looks back at an essential instalment…

Come the concluding half of The Walking Dead’s second season, audiences were looking at a very different series from where it all began back at the pilot, Days Gone Bye.

The showrunner who first led the charge of adapting Robert Kirkman’s successful comic series, Frank Darabont, was gone. Though initially pressing on to develop a 13 episode second season after the ‘mini-series’ proof of concept, almost, of the first year, Darabont was fired from his role as showrunner by network AMC for unethical business practices, triggering a difficult lawsuit. 

His replacement was experienced staffer Glen Mazzara, who brought aboard numerous key behind the scenes writers and production staff who would develop the series long after he had moved on – Scott M Gimple, David Leslie Johnson and Angela Kang (two of whom would inherit the showrunner mantle at a later date). Though Mazzara himself didn’t stay in the role for a long time, stepping down at the end of the third season, he undoubtedly as much as Darabont established the template for what The Walking Dead would be.

Despite these backroom changes, the cast of The Walking Dead by the final stretch of the second season remained largely in place from the pilot episode. Andrew Lincoln and Jon Bernthal’s tense dynamic as the principled Rick and hot-headed Shane, with Sarah Wayne Callies’ Lori between the two, formed the core of the series. Scott Wilson as cautious farm owner Herschel helped give the characters a base for the year from which to further develop, and begin building out the rules of the post-apocalyptic world. 

A romance between his daughter Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Glenn (Steven Yuen) already began to supply the series an emotional heart that was otherwise lacking, the two becoming key figures in episodes to come, as would Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon and Melissa McBride as Carol Peletier, though arguably both remain in the process of finding themselves at this stage. They became iconic, long-running staples of 2010s television, let alone the backbone of The Walking Dead, but by the end of season two all of these elements were still in their nascent stages.

The reason I’ve chosen Judge, Jury, Executioner – the 11th episode of season two – as an essential episode of The Walking Dead is because it gives the series its first moral quandary, channelled through the character Dale Horvath.

Dale Horvath, as played by Jeffrey DeMunn. Credit: AMC.

As played by respected character actor Jeffrey DeMunn from Days Gone Bye onwards, Dale was something of an eccentric; the oldest of the group, useful for his mobile Winnebago as much as anything else, he was never someone people seemed to take all that seriously. He lacked the Christian import of Herschel in his prognostications, for example. Dale was a bit kooky, fixated almost unhealthily on an imagined father-daughter dynamic with Andrea which, especially after the death of her sister Amy, began to creep her out. Dale clearly wanted to give, but he simply came off rather desperate.

All of this explains why Kang’s script makes Dale, in what would prove to be his final hours, the series’ moral conscience. He finds himself the outlier in a collective plan to execute Randall (Michael Zegen), the captured member of a seemingly vicious group of survivors encountered in a previous episode, as a means of ensuring their enclave is never discovered. Given the horrors many of them will later encounter, this all sounds beautifully naive, but at this point in the series it makes sense as a dilemma.

Without the rule of law reflected in former sheriffs Rick and Shane, the only arbiters of murder in the apocalypse are each other’s morality. Though their actions come from fear, having escaped the swell of the dead in Atlanta and on the road, finding a calm place they can exist with Herschel, Dale nonetheless believes in order to maintain a sense of right and wrong there needs to be a ‘process’ they follow. “The world we knew is gone, but keeping our humanity? That’s a choice,” Dale says as he visits each of the main players in the group in turn, lobbying them to his cause.

Characters react in different ways. Rick is pragmatic, torn on a moral level but aware the safety of the group – not to mention his wife Lori and son Carl (Chandler Riggs) – is of paramount importance. Shane, having steadily grown more erratic and morally vacant across the season (in part after leaving a fellow survivor to die at the hand of a horde), is ready to pull the trigger. Andrea is lying to herself, struggling with Dale’s moral hectoring as he attempts to remind her of her past as a civil rights lawyer, defending the innocent – a barely mentioned fact about Andrea that never quite rings true.

Perhaps the most interesting scene is where Dale visits Daryl, at this stage intentionally distant from the group, having yet to reach his own point of quietly heroic catharsis. He has little faith in any of the people Dale’s trying to lobby. “This group’s broken,” Daryl claims, his only tether being Carol, who he helped to try and save her already-turned daughter Sophia. Dale sees something in Daryl that will eventually become apparent. “Torturing people? That isn’t you. You’re a decent man.” He’s right, but Daryl can’t see it yet. We’re fundamentally supposed to be on Dale’s side in this moral debate, even as Randall is portrayed as weasly and manipulative, attempting at one point to convince the impressionable Carl to help him.

Dale’s untimely departure marked a turning point in The Walking Dead. Credit: AMC.

There’s an interesting off-screen undercurrent to Judge, Jury, Executioner which gives Dale’s mission extra import. DeMunn had been furious at how Darabont had been treated by AMC, given that DeMunn was Darabont’s friend and had starred in several of his projects – including his three Stephen King adaptations, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and The Mist. The actor even requested that he be written out of the series. As DeMunn told The Plain Dealer some years later, “I spent a week not being able to take a full breath. And then I realised, ‘Oh, I can quit.’ So I called them and said, ‘It’s a zombie show. Kill me. I don’t want to do this anymore.’ It was an immense relief to me.”

Kirkman therefore agreed that Dale’s death would serve as a key emotional pivot point for the series, following this moral dilemma. Kirkman explained to The Hollywood Reporter that he was sad to lose DeMunn, since he had no original plan to write Dale out. “Dale has become the moral centre of the group, and especially in this episode for him to be going around and saying, ‘Let’s retain our humanity,’ he’s the last guy that’s preaching that at this point with Rick making the decisions he has been making of late,” Kirkman said. “To lose this guy at this moment means so much for this group. It’s going to be such a monumental death that it’s going to affect things a great deal moving forward. It seemed like the right time and that to me, all the stories that are going to come out of this that people haven’t seen yet, are worth losing the Dale/Andrea relationship.”

In the original comic, Dale and Andrea’s relationship eventually becomes sexual, with Dale surviving long into the future of a story that was otherwise faithfully adapted by the TV series, with characters dying or surviving being the primary change. It’s hard to imagine how DeMunn and Holden’s performances of on screen Dale and Andrea could have translated their awkward parent-child dynamic into a sexual relationship. Whether Dale surviving would have altered Andrea’s trajectory as she falls under the charms of the sinister Governor in the third season also remainsunknown. Dale’s role ends up, in many senses, being filled by Wilson and Herschel.

Given these revelations around DeMunn leaving the show, we could almost read Dale’s final plotline as DeMunn lobbying to save the soul of The Walking Dead itself, in his impassioned plea to a broken group of actors who’d struggled with behind-the-scenes problems and multiple creative changes. The show was a success almost immediately – who doesn’t love zombies? – but this early on, there was no guarantee it would evolve into a decade-long show that could spawn an entire extended universe. It could have flamed out under Mazzara, and DeMunn’s departure feels like the beginning of the changing of the guard. Jon Bernthal would be gone by the end of the season. Sarah Wayne Callies early into the third year. Holden by the end of that season. By the fourth year, The Walking Dead would truly begin to emerge as the series most people understand it to be today – an intensely dark, horrific and intense exploration of humanity in a world with barely any hope.

Dale nonetheless fails in his determination to prevent this group of people, none of them evil (even Shane), being prepared to cold-bloodedly kill an innocent man in order to preserve themselves. “I won’t be a party to it,” Dale promises, leaving as DeMunn walks out of a series that would, in his eyes, do wrong by his friend. He ends up felled by the only zombie we see in the episode, a lone ‘Walker’ who Carl – in a futile attempt to prove his mettle as a gun-toting ‘man’ (whether he wants to be Rick or Shane unclear at this stage) – accidentally frees from a boggy swamp. Dale is ripped apart, suffers, before Daryl does the one thing even Rick couldn’t end up doing to Randall – apologetically putting a bullet between his eyes.

Who is the “sorry, brother” Daryl ends the episode for? Dale or DeMunn? Could it be both? It is an apology on multiple fronts. Daryl will slowly become the true north of Rick’s group, his closest brother in arms, and one of the most honourable anti-heroes in TV history, and this serves as his first moment of such a trajectory. He encapsulates the truth here, that Dale died having lost hope in humanity, as DeMunn had lost hope in the series. Whether Randall lives or dies becomes immaterial. Dale is the real loss, and what he represents. His death is an end to order, to civility, to the idea that these people can still abide by the same rules of society from the world they have lost.

That is why Judge, Jury, Executioner is one of The Walking Dead’s finest hours. The show is never quite the same after it.

Read more: The Walking Dead essential episodes | Exploring its intense 2010 debut

You can find A J. on social media, including links to his Patreon and books, via here.

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