After the relative idyll of The Kingdom, “The Cell” dragged us back down into the bowels of a living Hell, where poor Daryl was languishing at Negan’s sadistic pleasure.
We were introduced to life inside the Saviors’ compound through Dwight, one of the group who stole Daryl’s bike and crossbow last season, now sporting a badly scarred face. The opening montage gave us a glimpse of Dwight’s seemingly cushy life, as he made himself a sandwich using fine ingredients, sound tracked by “Town Called Malice” (fittingly). So far, so upbeat. But Dwight was put off his tasty snack by the sight of some fellow Saviors – dirty and dishevelled, and clearly much lower in the pecking order – wrangling walkers onto the spikes that line the camp’s fence. And anyone still feeling peckish for Dwight’s egg salad sarnie after that would definitely have lost their appetite at the sight of him making Daryl’s dinner: dog food on dry crusts. Yummy.
Repetitive, cyclical, and tense, the structure of this episode mirrored the relentless torture methods used on Daryl. Sensory and sleep deprivation, and a creepily cheerful song called “Easy Street” blaring through the walls of his pitch dark cell day and night were used to break him down, and though there were moments of excruciating suspense, especially when Daryl actually made a break for it (it was clearly a trap, man!) and was re-captured, this was a largely anticlimactic instalment compared with the ultra-violent season premiere. But I guess that was the point. The most effective way to break someone down with minimal effort is by letting most of the horror happen in their own mind, in the spaces between acts of brutality.
Through Daryl’s ongoing imprisonment and humiliation, we came to understand something of Dwight’s own story, and how he became one of Negan’s most trusted henchmen and, of course, it wasn’t a happy tale. The most affecting scene of the episode for me (aside from watching Daryl sob along to Roy Orbison‘s “Crying”) was Dwight’s exchange with an escaped Savior who had decided certain death on the road was better than spending one more day in the service of Negan. Having been sent after the hapless man, Dwight tried to persuade him back to the camp, and when he begged to be shot instead, threatened to make the life of his remaining friends a living hell and desecrate the corpse of his dead wife. These were clearly the kind of coercion techniques learned from a true psychopath like Negan. When Dwight shot the guy in the back after all, it seemed like an act of mercy, which made his eventual return to the gates as a walker all the more shocking. In an episode which posed the question ‘at what point does death become preferable to living?’ it seemed Dwight, unable to protect his wife or sister-in-law, externalised his grief by stripping his former friend of the one thing left to him – the choice to die. Dwight might be alive in the biological sense, but he’s just as much of a zombie as those poor souls on spikes.
Sombre and reflective, this rather depressing affair sets us up nicely for next week, when we finally get to see how Rick’s group are dealing with the aftermath of the opener, and the loss of Daryl. While it was slow-paced and light on action, “The Cell” offered some truly horrific moments, and showcased the performances of its leads.
Final Grade: B-
+ Norman Reedus and Austin Amelio both knocked it out of the park this week. Amelio manages to make Dwight sympathetic even though his character has done (and continues to do) despicable things, and Reedus was by turns heart-breaking and heartening. This is why Daryl Dixon remains a staunch fan favourite.
+ I am always amazed that this show continually finds new ways to make zombies scary, given that we’ve seen about a billion of them at this point, but ‘diving from an overpass’ zombie frightened the bejesus outta me!
+ While some may have been bored by this episode, I thought the atmosphere of malice created without overt use of violence was quite masterful, especially considering how fresh the deaths of Glenn and Abraham are in viewers’ minds.
– While Jeffrey Dean Morgan is having a blast with his character, and no one can deny he is a scary mofo, I felt Negan almost tipped over into archetypal villainy this week. His treatment of women as a commodity to be doled out as a reward, stealing of other men’s wives, and constant assertion that he admires Daryl’s spunk seemed a little pantomime in places.
– And while we’re on the subject, Negan’s long monologue about how he enslaved Dwight was clumsy and unnecessary exposition. Given what we saw of Dwight, Sherry, and Tina last season, it wouldn’t have taken much to fill in the gaps as to how Dwight came to be so badly burnt. We’d already seen Sherry having a pregnancy test and advising Daryl to yield to Negan’s will, so had worked out she had been offered up to save her own life and that of her husband. There was also the exchange where Negan offered Dwight a night with his estranged wife, making the cuckoldry even clearer. At least we got to find out what had become of…ahem…Little Dwight. He’s fine, thanks for asking.
– I would have liked to have seen more of Sherry’s perspective used to fill in the backstory.
Extra Thought: At least if Daryl is on dog food, he’s not eating walker-stuffed pork!
What did you think? Did this episode come out swinging, or was it as painful as an iron to the face? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.