This week, The Walking Dead is back to its old tricks, presenting audiences with another episode focusing entirely on one group of characters away from the main plot. It’s now evident that this will be the structure of season 7: rather than condense multiple storylines into each episode, The Walking Dead prefers to take the entire sixty minutes to tell individual stories about the different groups, scattered about the post-apocalyptic wasteland. ‘The Cell’ dives headfirst into Negan’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) world and his community of Saviours, through the shared perspectives of Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Dwight (Austen Amelio).
Daryl and Dwight first met early in season six, and since then their characters have acted as opposite sides of the same coin. While Daryl has been able to emotionally thrive in Rick’s group, Dwight has become cold under Negan’s iron rule. Both men are principled, acting in ways that they believe is right for themselves and their people and coping with the grey areas in between. In today’s episode, Dwight claims that no matter how bad this life gets, it’s ‘a hell of a lot better than being dead.’
In ‘The Cell’, we open on Dwight, who enjoys the comforts of the Saviours’ compound. He takes supplies from other hard working groups in order to make a delicious lunch and relaxes in front of old episodes of Who’s The Boss? Abundant ingredients and television are luxuries that we have never seen Rick’s group indulge in, and they immediately highlight the extravagance of Negan’s community. Who’s The Boss? is an appropriate selection, as Dwight appears to struggle with his position as Negan’s right-hand-man. Dwight’s ex-wife Sherry (Christine Evangelista) appears throughout the episode as a bitter reminder that Dwight must remain loyal to Negan, as it is revealed that Negan claimed Sherry as his own wife as punishment for an escape plot that Dwight and Sherry attempted early on.
While Dwight struggles with the choice that he has made in bending to Negan, Daryl refuses to. It is confronting to see Daryl – a much loved, zombie-killing heartthrob – locked in a cell and treated like an animal while they wait for him to break. The inhuman treatment culminates in a heartbreaking scene when Dwight sticks a Polaroid of Glenn’s bashed-in skull onto the wall of Daryl’s cell, and blasts Don McLean’s ‘Crying’ into the cell. Norman Reedus’ performance was exquisite and evoked an immense amount of pathos from me.
While watching, I suddenly remembered that Daryl and Glenn had been on this post-apocalyptic journey together from the start, and the guilt and grief of losing a friend of that duration was skillfully rendered on screen. It was also a relief to see a member of Rick’s group react to the death of Glenn (and Abraham), and let out their grief. Last week, we followed Carol and Morgan in The Kingdom where nobody even suspected that anything tragic had taken place. It was a somewhat cathartic moment to see Daryl cry about what was taken away from him in the season premiere.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of ‘The Cell’ is the headfirst dive that we take into the Saviours’ compound and Negan’s leadership. Negan asks his men, ‘Who are you?’ and they reply, ‘Negan’, showing that his leadership goes beyond tyranny and into the realm of cult worship. It’s a terrifying glimpse at the lengths that Negan’s men will go to for him – but at what cost? Have they all paid a price like Dwight’s?
Towards the end of the episode, Negan asks Daryl, ‘Who are you?’ and Daryl simply replies, ‘I’m Daryl.’ It’s a moment of defiance that reminds viewers of how they came to love Daryl in the first place, but it’s also incredibly tense. Negan provides the ever present threat of violence—the sense that Negan might bash Daryl’s brains in just for defying him, and that’s the kind of fear that you want an honest-to-God villain to illicit in you while you watch television.