WOW! This episode is terribly depressing, but terribly important, and all of the choices they make, up to and including the final gut-kick are in line with all of the established characters and bring about a necessary result that could save this show from emotional ruin.
Wikipedia to the rescue.
This episode did so many things right that it's hard to enumerate them all. I will focus on several key points in bullet form:
DALE'S WALK ABOUT - The decision to give Dale the chance to speak to each member of the group individually so that (a) we could see the source of their pain (b) Dale could leave them all with, what amounts to his final words of wisdom for each of them and (c) the group could have something to bond over in the wake of his passing (yet to be observed...that's next week)...was GENIUS. Each of the characters had their moment with Dale and each of those moments allowed us to connect with their pain and maybe understand why they've all turned away from doing what's right.
- ANDREA knows Dale is right from moment one, but has closed herself off to her feelings because she is still living with the guilt of her younger sister's passing and therefore reacting to every potential threat with entirely too much vigor.
- RICK blames himself for Sophia's passing and for all of the other deaths that have happened on his watch, because, ultimately, each of them could theoretically be traced back to decisions he made while trying to do the right thing and many of them could arguably have been avoided if Shane's advice had been followed, even if it cost them their humanity. His ability to lead the group has been questioned endlessly and he is desperate to hold onto them - especially his wife and son.
- DARYL believes that the group's response to Sophia's passing has proven it to be a fractured entity unworthy of his trust. He declares that the group is broken and that he must fend for himself.
- CAROL believes that everyone in the group is avoiding her because they fear that she's lost her mind...and worse...she thinks it's not fair of others to expect her to make the tough choices right now, given her loss.
- GLEN has been placed in harms way dozens of times because he's a good kid trying to do the right thing. Well now that he's in love with someone, he is not sure how to handle his responsibilities to the group vs. his responsibilities to Maggie. It's robbing him of his courage...at least for now.
- MAGGIE: seems uninterested in anything but huddling on the farm and riding out the storm with Glen...perhaps because she's seen how the walkers affected her father and Glen, and perhaps because she too feels that her personal connection with Glen makes her want to avoid risk.
- HERSHEL describes himself a formerly a man of convictions, but says that he's made too many mistakes living that way and thinks the only way he can protect his girls is to hang on to this group and defer to their leader. The loss of his wife and daughter has made him doubt his faith.
- BETH is now in a sort of mental regression - wishing only to cling on the words of her father and let the world go by all around her.
- CARL is terrified. Too many people from his group - especially his friend Sophie - have died lately, and any shred of hope he once had was tied to his father. With his father feeling hopeless and acting like a coward, Carl's fears have made him bitter. He turns on Carol and calls her stupid for believing in heaven, he glowers at their prisoner in chains, beaten and bloodied...and he eggs on the execution when the time comes. YIKES
- And then there's SHANE. The one man who isn't conflicted and the one man who has honestly accepted that he is looking out for what's his and not giving a damn about prior conceptions of morality.
THE CLIMAX - And all of this leads to a truly heart-pounding series of events including a shockingly rational discussion about what can be done for their prisoner lead by Rick and Dale. Dale begs and pleads with the group to listen to those voices of doubt in the backs of their minds and Rick challenges him to give them all a better idea. Having none at hand, he condemns the group's decision to execute their guest and declares that the group truly is broken. As he exits in a huff, the three leading men (Rick, Shane, and Daryl) take the prisoner to the barn to shoot him in the head, but Carl walks in as Rick is preparing to do it and, as noted above, eggs his father on. At which point, Rick comes to his senses and tells the rest of the group to take the prisoner back to his makeshift cell. The mere site of his son echoing the coldness of this new world he would create for his family is enough to end Rick's delirium...at least for now. And finally, Dale is ripped apart by a walker and Daryl puts him out of his misery (a merciful act, both for Dale and for Rick, who was having trouble pulling the trigger).
CARL - One more comment about Carl here...his little trip into the woods was not, IMHO, motivated by boredom as the plot summary in the above link suggested. He seemed to be testing himself. I don't think he went off with a gun to amuse himself. He did that hoping to find a walker and test whether he could really shoot it down when the time came. He is terrified...only that can explain his behavior with Carol and with his father, his tentative actions when first encountering the stuck walker (tossing stones gently at it, for example), and his desperate desire to confront death in the barn when the execution came. He is desperately trying to believe he's strong enough for the brutal world his father appears to have embraced (up until his arrival in the barn). That is great stuff by the writing team and shows the peril of Shane's leadership style. If you make every choice based on fear...you will die. Even if you survive, it won't be you on the other side of those choices and Rick remembered this just in the nick of time.
The writers had everything to a T here. They had the characters down pat. They had the pacing perfect (the episode began slowly and allowed us the time to form our own judgments regarding this planned execution, and then they had our hearts pounding out of our chests for the final 15 minutes straight). The best horror is ourselves and what we are capable of in the worst of times, and this episode was truly TERRIFYING, even when all they were doing was standing around and talking.
There honestly isn't a thing that I would change about this script given what has happened so far for this group. The dialogue is the strength of this episode for sure.
I actually think Dale overdid it a bit in his final speech...he sounded like he was hyperventilating there for a minute. The rest of the cast, minus Carl (sorry...child actors are hard to find...this one isn't very good), were very impressive this week.
Sometimes it takes a child to remind us of what really matters...and sometimes it takes bravely standing up for your beliefs to put that voice in the back of a person's mind so they'll know what's wrong when the choice is finally laid before them...and sometimes the death of a hero can forge ordinary men into more perfect versions of themselves. All three of those things were needed this week to return the soul of this group and remind them that they are still human beings, not savages. Let's hope Rick's renewed zeal for doing the right thing is properly rewarded this time around.