(This recap features MAJOR SPOILERS for the episode 'Judge, Jury, Executioner.' Stop Reading If you have not yet seen the episode.)
After the well-paced zombie killing antics of last week's '18 Miles Out,' The Walking Dead returns to where it is more comfortable, by focusing on the internal squabbles of the survivors – but this time the argument centers on the worth of a man's life. While everyone else seems to think executing Randall (Michael Zegen) is in the group's best interest, Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) does his best to dissuade whomever he can in 'Judge, Jury, Executioner.'
Randall's future looks pretty bleak from the onset, as the group's resident ear collector (Daryl) puts his apparent apathy to good use by torturing the young man for information regarding the group he was traveling with. Daryl (Norman Reedus) knocks Randall around for a bit, but when he's not getting the right kind of answers, puts his knife in Randall's gnarly leg wound from 'Triggerfinger.' The cringe inducing technique is enough to get Randall to spill the beans on what kind of group he's been with, and the details are less than encouraging (The Governor, perhaps?).
Supported by the information that Randall's companions are both heavily armed and prone to violence toward women, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) finds it difficult to see another solution besides killing him. Naturally, having championed (read: forced) Andrea (Laurie Holden) into choosing life at the end of last season, the sentence of death does not sit well with Dale.
'Judge, Jury, Executioner' takes a David Milch (Luck) approach to storytelling, in that it begins in the morning and plays out until the end of a single day. Most of that day is spent with Dale visiting various members of the group, and begging them to take his side with regards to the execution of Randall. He first visits Andrea, and manages enough of an appeal that the former civil rights lawyer agrees to stand watch, lest anyone (read: Shane) get the idea to remove Randall ahead of schedule.
Next, Dale meets with Daryl and Hershel, but to little avail. Hershel seems wracked with self-doubt after the barn incident and is driven mainly by a need to protect his daughters, so Hershel places his faith in Rick. On the other hand, seeing as how Daryl happily bloodied his knuckles with Randall's face, it's a wonder Dale even bothered talking with him. The discussion does raise the notion that the group is broken, and once more brings up the fact that everyone seemingly knew Shane (Jon Bernthal) killed Otis (Pruitt Taylor Vince), but no one – especially Rick – was bothered by it enough to do anything about it.
While Dale is making his rounds, Carl (Chandler Riggs) decides now is his moment to lose it, and start acting like a complete tool. He began the day by sneaking into the barn to have a brief chat with the captive, and then has some choice words for Carol (Melissa Suzane McBride) about her spiritual beliefs regarding her daughter Sophia.
Following his father's reprimanding, Carl skulks around Daryl's fly-ridden hang out and manages to come up with a handgun from Daryl's belongings. Spurred on by his newly inflated sense of self-esteem, Carl goes exploring and stumbles upon a walker that's gotten himself stuck in the mud near a small creek. After realizing the walker is immobile, Carl proceeds to antagonize it, getting dangerously close while brandishing the handgun. Inevitably, the walker breaks free enough to lunge at the boy, causing Carl to lose the handgun and make a run for safety.
As the sun sets on the day, Dale makes his final appeal to the group as a whole, where even his frequent ally Glenn (Steven Yuen), can't seem to muster the justification to keep Randall from his death sentence. And with that, it appears Randall will be executed in the barn – but Rick's hand is swayed by Carl's arrival and encouragement of his father to pull the trigger. Rick relents, and Randall is once more remanded to custody.
Dale, sickened by what has transpired, walks out into a field in search of solace, but instead stumbles upon one of Hershel's cows that has been eviscerated and is slowly dying. Poor Dale has only a fraction of a second before he is tackled by the ginger-bearded-walker Carl was provoking earlier. Despite the group's best efforts to reach him, Dale is ripped open by the walker just mere seconds before Daryl can dispatch it.
The group gathers around the dying man, with Carl making the connection between Dale's condition and his irresponsibility earlier in the day. Although Rick steps up to handle the unpleasantness, it is Daryl, who after quietly saying goodbye, puts the gun to Dale's head and pulls the trigger.
Although much of the suspense for the rest of season 2 was lessened by a website faux pas earlier in the week, this episode will certainly have many fans talking about Dale's gruesome exit from the show.
The Walking Dead returns next Sunday @9pm with 'Better Angels' on AMC.