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I was worried, going into this episode, that spending an hour within Negan’s realm might be enough to put me off The Walking Dead for good. Instead, the show did something incredibly smart. Rather than spending additional time learning just how awful Negan can be (although there was some of that- and it was the weakest part of the episode), Angela Kang centered the episode around Dwight, a much more complex and interesting man than we first thought.
There’s a pattern on The Walking Dead that I think we can all recognize by now. A seemingly indestructible Big Bad arrives on the scene. Rick and company want to fight, but aren’t sure how they can against this particular type of evil. When all seems lost, there’s a chink in the armor of the Big Bad, and we learn that someone on the inside wants to bring the villain down. Through a set of circumstances, Rick is able to win because of that person on the inside, and the good guys move on to fight another day. Now, I assumed, as I’m sure many people did, that Daryl would be that man on the inside. That he would bend the knee to Negan and work to figure out where the fissures lie within the Saviors. But after “The Cell,” it looks like Negan might have engineered his future downfall all by himself.
The major reason I haven’t liked the Negan arc so far has been that Negan isn’t a compelling character. Sure, Jeffery Dean Morgan is doing a great job spouting off Negan’s speeches, but the show has made it clear that this isn’t a character imbued with nuance. He’s not the Governor, with a sympathetic backstory and some sort of humanity. I understand that the writers might believe that Negan can be an effective villain if all we know is that he relishes his power over all people, but that actually has the opposite effect. A villain without any internal reason for what he does becomes a hollow shell of evil, and the audience cannot relate to him. The writers have already made it clear that they are willing to cut corners with character development when it comes to our heroes (seriously, the kindest thing the show ever did for Michael Cudlitz was to kill Abraham in the premiere, so that he could play a character with some depth in the future). If Negan is meant to become the greatest villain ever, we need to understand what makes him tick. And, despite spending significant time with him this week, he still seems to just be unhinged and violent.
On the flip side, the decision to show us the inner workings of the Saviors through Dwight’s point of view allowed us some insight into how Negan’s empire will eventually fall (and we all knows that it will eventually come crashing down in a bloody battle). Dwight is the perfect example of the inner spy who will eventually turn on his leader (or, at least take that one crucial step to allow the good guys to get into the compound). It’s hard not to feel for Dwight. Seeing how the Saviors break their captives, I know I would have broken in his situation, especially if I had people depending on me. To lose literally everything in his life, save for his actual life, and to then decide to work for the man who took it all from you? There is a lot of psychological damage to work through there. And I suspect seeing his former friend willing to die rather than go back to the compound had a profound effect on how Dwight will operate moving forward. Austin Amelio was excellent in showing how conflicted Dwight is, particularly after witnessing Daryl’s refusal to submit (and the personal guilt that came along with that for Dwight).
It’s a bit strange that I haven’t spoken more about Daryl in a review of an episode that was advertised as one about him, but that wasn’t the real case. Yes, Norman Reedus did great work throughout (he remains one of the few actors that can do more with a silent look than with an entire speech), but Daryl was there more as an example for Dwight- a man he could judge himself against and find himself wanting. He was there for the audience to emotionally connect with. I suspect Daryl will eventually make it out alive and live to fight another day. But until then, I think his relationship with Dwight will come to be a major part of the series. And that is something I’m interested to see unfold.
— The one moment in the episode that really annoyed me was Negan’s speech to Daryl, laying out Dwight, Tina, and Sherry’s backstory. It makes sense that Negan would be so socially tone deaf that he would relish making such a speech, but it was incredibly clumsy writing. When the episode had laid down more than enough breadcrumbs for us to understand the whole story before the speech, reiterating it gave the story much less impact. If they hadn’t been so heavy handed with showing us what happened throughout the episode, perhaps the speech would have landed better. But it just seemed like a waste to reiterate what we had already figured out.
— As compelling as it can be to watch Norman Reedus stare into the distance (and it certainly can be), I can’t help but think it would have made a more interesting story to allow Daryl to play double agent. At least it would have given Reedus a chance to stretch his acting skills a bit.
— Another negative side effect of the premiere: I find that I’m numb to Negan’s threats of violence now. We know the show won’t just let him knock off a character every few episodes, so I don’t find myself particularly worried when he threatens to do so.