Editor’s note: This post contains spoilers for the latest episode of The Walking Dead! Proceed with caution, survivors. For reals, if you haven’t yet watched this week’s episode, “The Cell,” we highly suggest you do so before proceeding. Okay? We good? Let’s go.
Though it’s a lot quieter than this season’s gore-soaked premiere episode, I suspect this week’s episode of The Walking Dead will wind up polarizing fans just as much as “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be.” Yes, “The Cell” is that frustrating.
After spending last week checking in with Carol and Morgan, and getting a bit of much-needed light comedy with the introduction of the charismatic Ezekiel, the show puts the spotlight on arguably its most popular character, although I’m sure plenty of Daryl devotees wish they hadn’t been subjected to 45 minutes of misery porn starring their beloved bowman. Whereas season 7’s premiere–and the season 6 cliffhanger that preceded it- divided its psychological and emotional abuse among most of the show’s heroes, with Rick the focal point, “The Cell” dumps most of it on Daryl. And since Mr. Dixon’s default mode has long been that of a tormented animal (with Kicked Puppy Resting Face), it’s just about the worst thing a card-carrying member of Dixon’s Vixens could witness.
Placed in a dark cell in “The Sanctuary” by his lonesome, Daryl is stripped naked and fed dog food day after day, until Negan deems him housebroken enough to wear a sweatsuit and eat sandwiches. All the while he’s forced to listen to one of the most nauseatingly sprightly, saccharine pop tunes imaginable. Over. And over. And over. If The Walking Dead wants us to know what it’s like to rot in that cell, well, congratulations, show. Mission accomplished!
Gradually, however, the true protagonist of “The Cell’ emerges, and it ain’t our favorite archer.
When Dwight and his friends were introduced last season as the thugs who stole Daryl’s motorcycle and bow, the blonde, bearded biker was one of the least sympathetic creeps ever to cross our friends’ paths. So the fact that “The Cell” takes at least half of its running time to humanize Dwight, and share with us–through another of Negan’s near endless monologues- the circumstances that led him to become a devoted Savior, is, on a certain level, admirable. As a husband, I can’t imagine the kind of suffering I’d have to endure to reach a point where I’d break and allow a bastard like Negan to come within a hundred miles of my wife; or to shoot one of my friends in the back of the head and watch him spend his days as a zombie in a prison camp. But still, we’re only given so much to care about Dwight, whereas we’ve been given six seasons to care about Daryl- and Glenn, whose grisly murder we’re still recovering from. So I’m not sure this is the right time for The Walking Dead to ask us to to open our hearts to someone of questionable moral character.
Yet Dwight does change throughout the course of “The Cell,” eventually seeing his own life mirrored in Daryl’s sweet sad eyes. Daryl himself, to our great relief, does not change, and refuses to surrender to Negan the only thing he can still call his own–his identity. It’s a victory, to be sure, and one that gives this episode a spark of hope which will hopefully grow into a roaring fire in the weeks ahead. But it’s still more grueling than interesting, damn it.
Part of that is the fault of this season’s Big Bad. Jeffrey Dean Morgan has been acting his heart out in the role of the leather-jacketed, barbed-wire-baseball-bat-swinging Negan, and his performance is an enjoyable one. But as he’s written, Negan just isn’t a very interesting character. Largely because he’s an antagonist with absolutely no trace of humanity. Even the Governor cared about his people, and the heartache he felt from the loss of his wife and daughter was never far from the surface. By comparison, Negan is at best a robot, and at worst a cartoon. An occasionally witty and charming cartoon, but a cartoon nonetheless.
Which is why even more than wishing to see Daryl break out of his prison and join Rick, Carol, Ezekiel and the rest of their friends in a glorious battle against the Saviors, my biggest wish for this season right now is to see Negan be given some kind of depth. Maybe then I’ll be ready to care about Dwight or anyone else who’s been victimized by him.
— “Who’s the Boss?” Cute commentary on this episode’s central dilemma.
— Like many of The Walking Dead‘s more memorable episodes, what’s unsaid in “The Cell” is more important that what’s said. It’s an all too rare and most welcome occurrence on TV, since even in 2016 most shows are far too chatty.
— So exactly how does Sherry happen to appear behind Daryl when he’s trying to escape? Does she just spend all her time hanging out in dark corridors?
— “Is he good to you? You happy?” “Yeah.” “Good.” What a fun place the Sanctuary is!
— I’m guessing Dwight’s gonna either A.) help Daryl break out, B.) try once more to get Sherry away from Negan, or C.) help Rick’s people revolt against the Saviors. I’m also guessing that all of these scenarios end with Dwight getting killed. Sorry, Dwight.
— Negan tells Daryl that if he joins him he’ll live like a king. But since Negan seemingly lives in a tiny, boring, brown-beige dorm room, I can’t tell if his words are meant to suggest he’s delusional. Both Alexandria and the Kingdom enjoy a far superior living standard.
What did you think of this week’s episode? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter (@JMaCabre).