Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched episode 3 of season 7 of “The Walking Dead,” titled “The Cell.”
Long-range planning isn’t “The Walking Dead’s” strong suit, but “The Cell,” the third episode of the show’s seventh season, is the fruit of seeds that were sown nearly a full year ago. The introduction of Dwight, his wife, Sherry, and her sister, Tina, in the season six’s “Always Accountable” gave us the first inkling of the Saviors’ existence, and his reappearance months later with his face half-covered in burn scars was an ominous portent of how Negan keeps his followers in line. “The Cell,” which was written by Angela Kang and directed by Alrick Riley, uses Daryl’s captivity as its way into the Saviors’ compound, but its real focus is on Dwight, and how a person who once fled Negan in defiance ended up being his murderous right-hand man.
The episode opens with a montage scored to The Jam’s ironically peppy “A Town Called Malice,” which shows Dwight and his crew collecting Negan’s bounty from a succession of glum-looking survivors, each of whom provides an ingredient for what turns out to be one dynamite-looking sandwich. Daryl, unfortunately, isn’t so lucky: Instead of fried eggs and fresh veggies, he gets a scoop of Alpo between two slices of bread, served to him in the lightless cell where he’s being held prisoner. After bashing in Glenn and Abraham’s heads, Negan told Rick that he was taking Daryl as an insurance policy against future misbehavior, but it’s clear Daryl isn’t just a hostage: He’s a recruit.
Dwight has the task of breaking Daryl’s will, a task he attempts in part by periodically blasting him with cloyingly upbeat pop music. (The song you will not be able to remove from your head is “Easy Street,” an unreleased track by Jim Bianco and Petra Haden’s Collapsable Hearts Club.) Daryl holds fast, but Dwight’s treatment starts softening anyway: He’s given clothes to cover his naked, filth-smeared body and a doctor’s visit to care for the hold Dwight put in him with his own crossbow. In the doctor’s office, Daryl crosses paths with Sherry, whom we eventually learn is now Negan’s wife instead of Dwight’s. Returning to the Saviors voluntarily allowed Dwight and Sherry to stay alive, but they paid a heavy price: She had to agree to be “married” to Negan, and Dwight, in Negan’s phrase, “got the iron,” accounting for his half-melted face. When the former husband and wife sneak off for a smoke break, Dwight suggests that whatever sacrifices they’ve had to make, “It’s a hell of a lot better than being dead.” Sherry’s responsive “Yeah” is chilling in its lack of conviction.
Evidently wanting some alone time, Dwight volunteers to go looking for a runaway, and while he’s gone, Daryl makes a break for freedom. He doesn’t seem to question why his cell door has been left conveniently unlocked, but it’s (relatively) when he makes his way to an open courtyard and is promptly surrounded by Saviors that he’s been put to the test, and failed. Negan’s ideal is a prison without walls, maintained through a combination of physical threats and psychological intimidation. His subjects are trained to kneel when he passes, and to give up their own identities: They are all Negan, and Negan is everywhere.
Like “The Kingdom” before it, “The Cell” is an episode rooted in character and an exploration of place. It’s clear that the Kingdom and the Saviors’ compound, along with their respective leaders are being set up as opposite ends of a spectrum, a conflict which if properly managed could stretched for a season or more. (Although he hasn’t shown up yet, Xander Berkeley, who plays the leader of the Hilltop Colony, remains in the show’s credits, so we’ll also be seeing him, and it, again.)
But for all that the show has built up Negan as a one-of-a-kind villain, the Big Bad to beat all Big Bads, the closer look at his methods reveals him to be just another petty tyrant. You’d expect at least some satisfyingly grandiose rhetoric from a man who calls his group the Saviors, but all he offers Daryl by way of enticement is the opportunity to “live like a king.” Granted, that’s more appealing than the other two alternatives: to be killed and repurposed as one of the compound’s zombie watchdogs, or to work “for points” as one of the Saviors’ wage slaves. But the tantalizing hints of a more complex society—the insistence, in Dwight and co.’s first appearance, that they “earned what we took”; the orange letters spray-painted on the clothes of new captives, presumably reflecting some sort of cryptic caste system—never pan out. We’re left with one more menacing alpha male, leading one more group of largely faceless followers.
“The Cell” is a necessary corrective to “The Walking Dead’s” lionization of Negan as the ultimate badass, underlining his monstrousness in ways large and small: Negan offering Dwight a sexual encounter with his own ex-wife as a reward is more chilling than a dozen cracked skulls. (Now they just need to inform AMC’s marketing department, who spent months touting Negan’s arrival with the giddy excitement of a child on Christmas morning.)
But it’s also one of the rare times the show has opened up its scope beyond its core group, and especially done so sympathetically. When the show exiled its regular cast to devote an episode to the Governor, it was to show the making of a monster. Dwight’s done terrible: He did put that crossbow bolt through Denise’s eye socket, after all.
But as “The Cell” shows the depth of Negan’s depravity, it also makes Dwight more complex, and harder to condemn. Daryl’s still the good guy, of course: He resists where Dwight gave in, even though Sherry warns him that it will only makes things worse. But “The Walking Dead” has invested so much in Rick always being right that merely allowing for one of his enemies’ humanity represents a significant and welcome departure.