Having spent the previous episode exploring the goofy magnificence of Ezekial's Kingdom, The Walking Dead finally showed us Negan's true compound, and what life is like under his rule through the eyes of two characters - Daryl, his prisoner/hostage, and Dwight, his scarred lieutenant… who's a prisoner just as much as Daryl.
This parallel is obviously why the episode is called "The Cell", which, although it wasn't particularly subtle, still made for an excellent episode. Part of it was the way it used the character of Dwight to show how Negan and his Saviors operate, while also revealing what happened to him in-between first meeting Daryl in the woods while escaping (before stealing his stuff and heading back) and him emerging from the woods after having killed Denise with Daryl's own crossbow, with mysterious burns on his face. But the episode also benefited from Norman Reedus, possibly putting on an all-time best performance as Daryl, being beaten down (figuratively and literally) to his lowest point ever.
The episode also begins with the discovery that Daryl has been imprisoned without his clothes, which surely earned a few points for some viewers. For Daryl, it's less of a benefit; he's freezing, Dwight is feeding him dog food on bread and playing a peppy song by The Collapsable Hearts Club called "Easy Street" on a loop so he can't sleep. When Dwight finally gives him some clothes - grey sweatpants and a grey sweatshirt with a large "A" painted on the front - it's a major step up.
However, life in the Saviour's Sanctuary isn't much better for most of its other inhabitants, who get one of three jobs: 1) Working for points, which are basically used as currency for food, medicine, perks, necessities, anything; 2) working directly for Negan, and having access to whatever they want, as long as Negan doesn't mind; and 3) working by getting killed and stuck on the compound wall as a sort of security zombie.
As we learn, Dwight was originally on the points system along with his wife Shelly and her little sister Tina. As you might recall, Tina has diabetes, and her medicine cost far too many points; Negan offered to marry Tina, but instead of taking him up on his kind offer, Dwight stole the medicine and escaped with Shelly and Tina. This is when Daryl first met them, and Tina was eaten by a couple of zombie kids she used to babysit.
With Tina dead, Dwight and Shelly went back to Sanctuary and threw themselves on Negan's mercy (ha). Long story short, both Dwight and Shelly got to live, but Shelly was forced to marry Negan, while Dwight got an iron to the face. Now Dwight is Negan's right-hand man, Shelly is taking pregnancy tests and the two of them get very awkward when they're in the same room together.
So when someone else flees Sanctuary, it's Dwight who heads out to bring him back. After having a zombie literally almost fall on him from an overpass (don't ask; it's very silly), Dwight catches up with the guy, who turned out to be an old friend - at least he was a friend before Dwight started really working for Negan. So when he asks Dwight to just let him go, Dwight refuses. And when he tells Dwight that life is so horrible in Sanctuary he'd rather Dwight just shoot him, a clearly conflicted Dwight grits his teeth and says he'll put everyone the guy ever got along with on the zombie wall. Defeated, the man agrees to return to Sanctuary… but Dwight shoots him anyway. It's freedom, of a sort.
While Dwight is having zombies fall on him, Daryl realises his new guard, Fat Joe, has left his prison door unlocked. I'll give you three guesses as to whether this was a mistake or an elaborate trick by Negan to see if Daryl was broken enough to stay put in his cell that ends with Daryl having the crap beat out of him by Negan's minions, and the first two guesses don't count, also the third doesn't count, because the answer is obviously the latter.
When Dwight returns, he almost seems like he feels sympathy for his beaten prisoner. Hell, he actually empathises with Daryl, in that they both got their friends killed, that is, Tina and Glenn - although that doesn't stop Dwight from tossing him a Polaroid of the pile of chum that used to be Glenn's head, obviously taken while Negan and Rick were having their heart-to-heart. And Daryl, stoic, badarse Daryl, slowly breaks down and cries in total wretchedness. It's pretty heartbreaking.
But by the end, Daryl isn't quite broken enough to pledge himself to Negan, and gets thrown back in his cell. And Dwight is just as trapped, stuck under Negan's thumb, just like his (ex-)wife, just like everyone else in Sanctuary, just like Rick and Alexandria and Hilltop and the rest. And that (ex-)friend that Dwight "freed" by shooting? Dwight sees his zombie stuck to the fence, having obviously brought back the guy's corpse. Even in death, he's still working for Negan.
Daryl and Dwight weren't the only parallel the show was working overtime to present. Having spent last week in the Kingdom, it's impossible not to compare it to Sanctuary. There are the obvious differences, of course - in the Kingdom people are happy, in Sanctuary they're miserable and terrified - but its similarities are also striking. They both seem to have an abundance of resources (food and equipment) at least compared to Alexandria. They both have a formal, dedicated team of warriors, namely the Kingdom's knights and Negan's direct employees. I also enjoy that while Ezekial calls himself a king, it's Negan's subjects that have to kneel whenever he walks by.
It seems as if The Walking Dead is trying to set up Ezekial and Negan as the ultimate adversaries, with presumably Rick and Alexandria (and Hilltop, I guess) caught in the middle. (Here's the point where I remind you that I don't read The Walking Dead comic, specifically so I can judge the TV series on its own terms, so I have no idea what's coming.) Anything that gets me more of the Kingdom is fine by me, but assuming The Walking Dead doesn't suddenly abandon Rick as its main character, it will be interesting to see how he handles the devil of Negan and the angel of Ezekial on his shoulders (not that he would ever join Negan, but whether he would continue to sink to Negan's level).
And it was also interesting - good, even - to see Negan without the crushing weight of WhoDoesNeganKillGate suffocating his character. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is still an amazingly likeable arsehole in the role, creating the odd situation of being happy to see Negan onscreen, even as he's traumatising beloved characters like Daryl. If there's one thing the season premiere did achieve, it's that it makes us believe that Negan really could murder a main character (like Daryl) at any time, no matter how narratively unlikely, as if he's willing to destroy the story as much as he's willing to kill people. So his sudden dark turns, and his threats - subtle and not-even-slightly subtle - all have an immense amount of weight and tension.
In fact, the episode's best achievement may have simply been showing us there's more to Negan than a baseball bat killing protagonists. Sure, his personality had been established, but seeing his "community" shows he's a real leader; it may be soul-crushingly horrible, but it's still functional. It was also good to see his sense of "fairness" get fleshed out for those he wasn't trying to cow, and that he truly seems to stand by it - that is, promoting Dwight after he escaped but also after Negan stole his wife. It's also interesting to discover that Negan insists he's "married" to Shelly; it's almost old-fashioned.
No one's going to say that Negan isn't a villain, but after the drama of the premiere, I'm glad to see that the character can still be charming and terrifying without the show trying to maintain that level of evil. "Settled down" isn't probably the best word to describe Negan or The Walking Dead, but between "The Cell" and last week's episode, the show has set the stage for the rest of the season, and to do potentially something very new. I'm extremely eager to see what's next.
• This entire episode is predicated on Negan "taking a shine" to Daryl, and wanting to break him to make him part of his crew. Everyone loves Daryl.
• Actually, I have some questions about the points system. Dwight works directly for Negan, so he gets to take whatever food or stuff he wants. Fine. But he still needs points to have sex with the ladies, because Negan gives him a freebie. How do Negan soldiers earn points? Are there special tasks? Do they also earn points as per usual, but they only have to spend them on certain… luxuries, for example, not food?
• Most importantly: Who keeps track of the points? Is there a ledger somewhere? A dry erase board, maybe?
• Again, whatever problems you have with TWD are legit, but it continues to provide some fantastic zombie FX that somehow improves every single year. That zombie whose arm fell off was gnarly.
• Negan has a habit of personifying his bat Lucille, and it is always both funny and chilling, which sums up Negan pretty well.
• Line of the night: "Daryl."
• Chance that the next time Daryl shows up he appears to be a full-fledged member of the Saviors, and one of the main characters sees him and is completely shocked by the apparent betrayal: 62 per cent.
• Next week: Negan visits Alexandria, and the episode is 90 minutes long. Watch your DVRs.
• Hey, Dwight? If you have electricity, go find a goddamn DVD player. There is no need for you to be watching VHS copies of Who's the Boss. This is literally the most depressing thing in the episode, and Daryl woke up in his own vomit.
• Has anyone ever looked better with disgusting, greasy hair than Norman Reedus? Discuss.