Perhaps it's because it originally set its own bar too high: “The Walking Dead” was so good out of the gate, such a great mixture of genre and sophistication, that its current episodes feel like a come-down. The show has practically become bipolar: At once both morally sophisticated and challenging, at the same time it is tin-eared and leaden, particularly in this week’s episode, “Judge, Jury, Executioner.”
The problem posed by tonight's episode could not be more difficult: Having brought one from the "other" group back to the farm, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) has to face the fact that he is a moral threat. The question becomes whether or not to kill the kid.
The group to which the kid belongs is evil, although he himself is sweet and scared.
Rick's position here -- that the innocent must be killed in order to ensure the survival of the group -- is, of course, what Shane (Jon Bernthal) has been arguing all along. Strategically, this is the only tenable position; morally, it is entirely unacceptable.
Good stuff, right?
Alas, much of the episode is argued rather than dramatized.
There are literally lines about losing humanity, the rule of law, and (I'm not kidding here) "the death penalty." It's as if we were back in television's first supposed Golden Age, when issue drama was being written by Reginal Rose and Sterling Silliphant.
What this show could and should have been is exemplified in its treatment of Carl (Chandler Riggs) -- who goes off (in a rather dumb, unmotivated way) and tortures a walker for pleasure. Now, there's the moral-cost pragmatism: The boy's response to a world of monsters is to become one himself.
That subplot is far more effective than the words that Jeffrey DeMunn's Dale uses in his attempt to counter Rick's decision. Dale is nothing but a straw man here and, as if in acknowledgement, the writers kill him off at the show's end. (Again, after Dale does something stupid. This is not a good sign.) I've loved DeMunn's work from the first time I saw him on the Public Theater stage; I'm going to miss him greatly.
In the end, killing Dale was the safe move. The writers seem unwilling or unable to allow Rick to become Shane. He pulls back at the last moment. It's at once the best moment in the show (he does so because of Carl's monstrosity) and the worst.
The great thing about television is its ability to do deep, long-term character work. But for whatever reason, “The Walking Dead” is protecting Rick in very old-fashioned terms. He's becoming more of an archetype and less of a character.
The abyss is still there; it's just that the show seems to be taking a half-step back from the precipice.