The latest colony explored on The Walking Dead is Negan’s dispiriting dictatorship, a world of gunmetal grays and muted greens and blues whose residents exude an air of beaten-dog obedience. Angela Kang’s screenplay efficiently establishes both the riches that are available to the Santuary’s elite and the price paid by one and all for their relative safety and comfort.
The stage setting starts with the opening scene, in which Dwight (Austin Amelio) moves through the compound to build a sandwich, taking bread from a group of chefs in a big kitchen, adding mustard so unnaturally yellow it can’t be homemade, and passing by a bunch of chickens to get tomatoes and lettuce from a garden. The room where Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) receives people is a time capsule from the pre-walker world, with its comfy armchair, bookshelf, and matching kitchen cabinets. Luxuries like booze and cigarettes appear to be plentiful, at least for Negan and his inner circle.
But not even Negan can reanimate the telecommunications system, so the cell of this episode’s title doesn’t refer to anything as potentially transformational or hopeful as a functioning cellphone. It’s just another damn cage—in this case the windowless room where Negan has deputized Dwight to attempt to break Daryl’s (Norman Reedus) spirit by penning him up, feeding him dog-food sandwiches, and blasting peppy pop music at him 24/7.
The episode’s dialogue is often numbingly literal or unnecessary, like when a doctor assures Daryl that Negan will “take care of you.” There’s at least some ambiguity to that phrase, which could work as a promise or a threat, but either way it’s redundant, since it doesn’t tell us anything we already don’t know. And when Dwight and his wife, Sherry (Christine Evangelista), lie to each other about how well they’re doing, a scene that could have been poignant winds up feeling merely expository, thanks to on-the-nose dialogue like “We did the right thing. It’s a hell of a lot better than being dead.” The soundtrack choices can be a bit obvious too: When Daryl finally cries, overcome by the guilt-inducing Polaroid—depicting Glenn’s pulverized head—that Dwight tosses into the cell, he sobs to the sound of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.”
In keeping with The Walking Dead‘s customary focus on power structures, “The Cell” clearly outlines the hierarchy within the Sanctuary. As Negan explains in gloating detail, there are three kinds of people there: the inner circle of minions, like Dwight, who get first dibs on everything Negan sees fit to grant them; the less compliant residents who earn whatever they get through points as they work to get into Negan’s good graces; and the rebels and misfits. The people in the first two categories are motivated far more by the stick than the carrot, terrorized by the memory of what their leader has done to them and fearful of what’s in store if they don’t fall into lockstep. And if they should ever forget, all they have to do is look at the people in the third category, who have been executed and chained up on the other side of the fence for use as practice-fight dummies after turning into walkers.
“The Cell” is at least as much Dwight’s story as it is Daryl’s, beginning and ending with scenes shot from Dwight’s point of view and following him as he grabs a quick smoke with Sherry or carries out a string of grim duties for Negan. In the process, he emerges as a sympathetic character and a potential ally for Rick’s expanding circle of anti-Negan rebels. Maybe Daryl won’t always have to regret the mercy he showed to Dwight and his group when he encountered them in the woods, though he’ll probably always bear some guilt for the fact that Dwight killed Denise after he spared him—adding insult to injury by using the crossbow he took from Daryl.
In fact, Dwight and Daryl, two capable men of few words and deep loyalties, appear to have more in common than not. Negan’s gleeful recounting makes clear how Dwight’s self-sacrificing love for his wife is what motivated him to join Negan’s inner circle, and shots of Dwight’s ravaged face—especially an extreme close-up as he shoots a former comrade on the road outside the compound—reveal a wary weariness that show him to be a harried man, not an uncaring monster. The bad guys may have the upper hand for now, but it’s beginning to look as if the good guys have them outnumbered.
Even that cry Daryl had in solitary was a hopeful sign. Unsettling as it was to see one of Rick’s staunchest soldiers give in to his emotions, that doesn’t mean Negan is succeeding at breaking down his defenses. If Daryl can, like Carol and Morgan, get in touch with the grief and guilt caused by the things he’s had to do to survive, he will only get stronger and be better able to make clearheaded decisions. Most importantly, he’ll be safe from The Walking Dead‘s scariest threat: the possibility that that title will eventually apply just as much to the human survivors of the plague as to its undead victims.
For more recaps of The Walking Dead, click here.