Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Follow @ComplexPopCult

Glen Mazzara, the newly empowered showrunner behind AMC’s The Walking Dead, and his team of storytellers must be sitting around the writers’ room with a series of fuck-with-me-now grins on their faces. And if they’re not, they should be, because, since the hit show’s midseason return, The Walking Dead has been on fire, raising the zombie apocalypse drama’s quality bars several notches and systematically addressing haters’ common qualms.

Last night’s badass episode, “Judge, Jury, Executioner,” answered the question of, “When will they start killing off main characters?” It wasn’t Shane (Jon Bernthal), nor was it Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) or Rick (Andrew Lincoln); hell, it wasn’t even Glenn (Steven Yuen). Yet it was in fact someone we’ve known since Season One’s premiere episode. And the character’s sendoff was an emotional, gruesome uppercut.

“Keeping our humanity… That’s a choice.”

As “Judge, Jury, Executioner” opens up, it seems as if Randall (Michael Zegen), the group’s constantly bound, potentially dangerous hostage, will be the one punching his proverbial clock. Cast off into one of Hershel’s (Scott Wilson) barns, Randall is subjected to the cruel, physically damaging interrogation practices of one Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), who serves the kid with a flurry of punches and knifes his leg wound.

Daryl, who’s been largely a reclusive non-factor so far within the second half of The Walking Dead’s second season, gets some of the answers he’s looking for, too: Randall’s crew (the one that Rick and Shane don’t want invading the farm and starting a mini-war) runs about 30 heads deep, and, as Randall dictates via a nasty anecdotal monologue, they’re prone to bum-rushing innocent survivors and making the men watch their female companions get sexually violated. To which Randall says he’s never taken part in, but that doesn’t stop Daryl from beating the piss out of him some more.

These threatening pieces of information are told to Rick and the rest of the crew in an impromptu group meeting, in which unshakably moralistic Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) makes his stance known: He’s totally against killing Randall, because to do so would promote a “shoot first, think later” mentality and erase all of their humanity. Usually one to adopt the same outlook, Rick sides with the “murder Randall” camp, even though he’s visibly unsure about it.

Hoping to keep Randall alive, and restore some of the group’s collective soul, Dale spends the rest of the day chatting up several of his cohorts, namely Daryl, Andrea (Laurie Holden), and his old nemesis Shane, all in hopes of swaying them onto his side. His efforts are fruitless, though, and when it comes time to have one final group pow-wow before deciding Randall’s fate, the only one who agrees with Dale’s pleading is, wouldn’t you know it, Andrea, who’s recently been positioning herself as the female Shane. As for the others, the closest they get to showing compassion for Randall is reasoning that shooting him would be “more humane” than hanging him, suggesting that they keep him around and put him to work, or simply keep him chained up at all times. The final verdict: Rick has to shoot Randall dead. Thus, as Dale tells Daryl storming outside on his own, “This group is broken.”

“This is grown-up stuff; just let us handle this.”

The same can soon be said for young Carl (Chandler Riggs), who’s inching dangerously closer to the dark side. The first signs of the little boy’s cold-blooded coming-of-age materializes when he sneaks into Randall’s prison quarters, voluntarily disobeying Shane’s orders to not do so. With Randall trying his best to sweet-talk Carl and get the kid to let him loose, Carl just stares at Randall like he’s Michael Myers’ leering at the dude he stabs into the door near the end of John Carpenter’s Halloween. The awkward moment is broken up by Shane, though, and he warns Carl, “Quit tryin’ to get yourself killed, man.”

Thinking that it’s Opposite Day, apparently, Carl then ventures off to disrespect Carol (Melissa McBride) by telling her that her recently deceased daughter, and Carl’s onetime pal, Sophia, isn’t up above the clouds, and that, “Heaven’s just a lie, and if you believe it, then you’re an idiot!” After getting all heathen-like with poor whipping-post Carol, Carl makes his way to Daryl’s private, ear-ornament-laden campsite, pokes around, and finds Mr. Dixon’s handgun (Way To Get Himself Killed No. 1).

But wait, it gets worse. With the pistol in hand, he heads off into the woods, sees a zombie with its feet stuck in a thick patch of wet mud, and taunts the immobilized walker by tossing rocks and stones at it (Way To Get Yourself Killed No. 2) and then stepping closer and pointing Daryl’s gun at the dead man’s face. By drawing out his taunting, Carl gives the zombie the wiggly momentum to loosen its legs up and spring at him. The youngest Grimes drops the gun and runs for his life, leaving the walker alone, hungry, agitated, and, most importantly, free to roam.

“If we do this, then the world that we knew is dead.”

And the increasingly problematic Carl isn’t done for the night, either. In the barn, where Rick, Shane, and Daryl have moved a blindfolded Randall to finally kill him, Rick displays those good-natured sensibilities that he’s known for, asking the crying, scared-to-death prisoner, “Would you like to stand or kneel?” Daryl forces him to his knees, the perfect level for Rick to point his gun right into Randall’s forehead. As Rick is about to pull the trigger, clearly contemplating the gravity of his action, Carl creeps into the barn and heartlessly says to his pops, “Do it, Dad. Do it.” Realizing that his own kid is becoming desensitized and careless toward mortality, Rick, nearly in tears himself, clams up and lets Randall live. “We’re keeping him in custody, for now,” he tells Lori and the others back at the campsite.

Dale, the guy who’d be happiest about Rick’s news, is off on his own still, strolling across the farm’s grounds and discovering a dying, gutted-out cow. The bovine victim’s assailant: The walker that Carl was toying with in the woods earlier. And, unfortunately for Dale, a killer corpse that the old man meets face-to-face, gets taken to the ground by, and sees ripping his stomach open like his belly was a bag of candy, and his intestines (which we see in all of their gooey glory) were gummy bears. The others, hearing the screams, rush out to help Dale, but it’s too late. Daryl stabs the back of the zombie’s skull, kills it, and leaves Dale for Rick to painfully put out of his dying misery. WHen Rick is unable, Daryl takes the gun out of his hands, tells the doomed Dale, “Sorry, brother,” and unloads a bullet into his head.

As it turns out, Shane was wrong—Carl’s action got someone else killed. See what happens when children play with dead things? Humanity gets ripped apart and shot in the forehead.

By Daryl, no less, a once-outcasted redneck who's slowly but surely emerging as the group's most qualified leader, more so than Rick. He, unlike the former sheriff, is able to do what others aren't thick-skinned enough to execute, such as killing a suffering Dale, or just gutting Randall himself and ending the whole kill-him-or-not debate (which Daryl is clearly about to do before Dale's screams distract him). Rick better watch his throne, so to speak.

Just picture Glen Mazzara, scribe Angela Kang, and effects guru/episode director Greg Nicotero sitting there in the Dead war room, slapping each other a string of high-fives, and driving imaginary knives through all of the now-tired, need-to-stop “Nothing happens” complaints. With “Judge, Jury, Executioner,” The Walking Dead has solidified itself as a show to be reckoned with.

Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Follow @ComplexPopCult