I’m often struck by the technical and structural audacity of The Walking Dead. It’s frequently a gorgeous show, with visuals that grab you even when the frame isn’t filled with zombies. But it’s also a show that can be quite adept at communicating its ideas and themes with visuals alone, albeit one that is maddeningly inconsistent about when it feels like doing so. To that point, “The Cell” centers on the experiences of two characters, Dwight and Daryl, and opens with a pair of montages with next-to-no dialogue, but which nevertheless tell us everything we need to know about who these characters are and what their situation is.
The episode’s cold open gives us the unexpectedly intriguing saga of Dwight’s sandwich. The sandwich is a run-of-the-mill object that, nonetheless, offers the audience a window into the lives of Negan’s lieutenants. The sequence focused on it is superb, with shots of each of the sandwich’s ingredients spliced in with small scenes showing how Dwight obtained them and the havoc he causes in the process.
There’s a rapacity at play when Dwight grabs a loaf of bread from one camp or snatches a jar of pickles out of some survivor’s foot locker. It exposes the largesse and freedom and impulsive hedonism that The Saviors enjoy, and also what’s left in their wake. There are fights, rotten looks, and anger lurking in the background of Dwight’s little snack-based tour, which expose the way that Negan’s tentacles have spread into so much of the ecosystem that Rick and his friends have just been wrapped up in.
Then, the episode contrasts the deliciousness of Dwight’s sandwich with one he makes from dog food. The preparation of that far less appetizing dish is prompted by Dwight enjoying his own lunch and gazing upon some lesser captives who are being forced to go through a horrible walker-on-pike obstacle course. It’s then that Dwight remembers his prisoner and that we see the abject state that Daryl is in–naked, huddled, and willing to eat pet food from Dwight–as contrasted by the way that Dwight himself is living large.
It’s a startling way to end the sequence and lead into the opening credits. But it’s effective in the visual language it uses to show us where Dwight is, where Daryl is, and how those places are drastically different based only on the kind of sandwich each one consumes.
On the other side of the show’s intro, “The Cell” offers a sequence exploring what happened to Daryl throughout Dwight’s ingredient-gathering adventures. We see him awoken by the catchy but ironically foreboding tones of a chipper tune called “Easy Street.” We see the products of his torture, the way he’s denied clothing and meals, to the point that the return of these things is intended as a privilege. The Walking Dead is often accused of excess bleakness, but while this sequence is harrowing, it’s a tempered but effective way of succinctly showing the way that Daryl is being broken by his captors.
“The Cell,” to that end, offers one of the strongest performances from Norman Reedus as the fan favorite character Daryl. I’ve often wondered if one of the reasons that Reedus’s character is so well-liked is that he’s typically so terse. Dialogue has never been one of The Walking Dead’s strong suits, and by making Daryl typically so taciturn, it allows Reedus to avoid many of the clunky monologues or tin-eared exchanges that otherwise plague the show’s character.
But “The Cell” allows Reedus to go one step further. If Daryl has half a dozen lines in the episode, it feels like a lot. Instead we see him grimace and groan. We see the steel and defiance behind his eyes. We see him tear up at the image of his departed friends.
It’s a physical performance, one where all of Daryl’s emotions have to be bubbling under the surface, but barely emerge above it. Reedus tells the story of a man who is suffering, who is being chipped away at bit-by-bit by a collection of psychopaths, but who is straining with every fiber of his being to stay resolute, for the people he cares about and for himself. It’s award-show reel material for Reedus to be sure.
There’s strong work from Austin Amelio, who portrays Dwight, as well. He too benefits when The Walking Dead shows reserve. Dwight works as a juxtaposition for Daryl, not just in terms of the way that one is dining on fresh food while the other is eating canned animal feed, but in the way that the two of them represent two different responses when faced with Negan and the deal with the devil he’s offered them both.
“The Cell” establishes Dwight as a man who is enjoying his position, but who is, subtly and quietly, laden with the horrors of what he’s done and what’s been done to him. Dwight is resigned to Negan’s power, to being unable to fight or resist his fearless leader in any way. Dwight’s already paid the price for that, physically and emotionally, and now he’s copped to joining up with his abuser, to participating and perpetuating the abuse, because he thinks it’s the only way. In Dwight’s eyes, beyond death, your only option in this state of nature is to serve Negan in one way or another, so you may as well get to enjoy the spoils of war in the process.
It’s a canny way to establish the abject awfulness of Negan’s reign and show how he eventually coopts everyone and everything that comes into his path. There’s the suggestion that Dwight himself was in the same fashion as Daryl, and then made into the bastion of cruelty we see. But, as the episode explores, there is still doubt in him.
The episode, to that end, is filled with not especially subtle reminders that Dwight wasn’t always like this, and that he too harbors resentments deep down. Whether it’s the scene where he mercy kills the escapee he volunteers to track down, or the one where he shares a quiet moment with his ex-wife (who is more of a prop to give Daryl dire warnings than a real character here), or where he hears Negan’s speech to Daryl and looks at his leader a little cockeyed, there’s the sense that while Dwight’s seemingly accepted this new life, he hasn’t forgotten how we got there.
So when he sees Daryl staying steadfast, offering Dwight understanding and resisting both the carrots and sticks that Negan puts in front of him, something stirs in Dwight. That sense is not bolstered by the dialogue in the episode, which underlines Dwight’s position a little too strongly, but it still telegraphs the idea that when the inevitable resistance comes for Negan, Dwight is persuadable. For all his terrible actions, he too is a victim, one who wanted to run away from all of this, but resigned himself to the idea that it was the only way.
That’s why Daryl’s presence matters. As Daryl himself put it, Dwight tried to run, and accepted coming back, because of people he cared about. Daryl, for his part, can’t let himself give in because of the people he cares about. That’s one of the character’s most admirable qualities — the way he maintains his resolve even in the face of hardship and disaster. Daryl shows Dwight that there might just be another way.
Despite the fact that Negan has seemingly crushed the rest of this world under his boot heel, there is one man who refuses to be flattened. Daryl might provide Dwight the gumption, the inspiration, the belief that there’s the possibility to be something other than one of Negan’s pawns. That may, one day, allow him to exact his vengeance on the man who disfigured him and who abuses his wife with zero concern or hesitation.
Apart from the emotional stakes and character development that elevate the episode, “The Cell” also does a nice job of filling in the logistical gaps of Negan’s rule over The Saviors, that not only helps to explain the glimpses we saw of the group in Season 6, but which makes Negan himself seem even more terrible and powerful.
The way all of The Saviors previously announced themselves as Negan makes sense after Negan’s own demonstration among his goons. It reinforces the idea that he sees all and that everything in this land belongs to him. Similarly, it was puzzling last season when Dwight was introduced as a fleeing captive, but then returned the fold as a hardened loyalist. But the breaking and torture and brainwashing serve as an understandable rationale for the change of heart. And the idea that Negan “marries” women, that the prospect of this is enough to make people flee, and that he has no compunction when it comes to inflicting this on families as “punishment” adds a new dimension to the horror of this man that sets him apart from prior big bads.
That’s the thing about The Walking Dead. When left to quiet moments and its penchant for conveying its ideas in images rather than words, it’s a gripping show that explores the depths of the human condition with a certain conviction, one that doesn’t shy away from the darker side of the human psyche, but which offers hope and parts of ourselves to admire. When, however, it hammers those points home with cheesy monologues, clunky and grandiose conversations about right and wrong, and prop characters only there to further the stories of the week’s protagonists and antagonists, it falls prey to its weakest conventions and loses all punch in the process. “The Cell” has its share of those loud and facile colloquies, but when it steps back and lets the story, the world, and the people within it blossom, it succeeds in saying a great deal while saying very little.