If you felt a little short-changed by the last episode of The Walking Dead, and specifically by its lack of a Negan and/or Daryl follow-up, “The Cell” should answer your prayers. The inner workings of Negan’s group are explored in depth for the first time in an episode that toys with the question of whether Daryl, incarcerated at Negan’s ‘Sanctuary’ and racked with guilt over causing Glenn’s death, will break or not.
Negan keeps his crew in check with Cult Leader 101 tactics—praising obedience, punishing dissent and breaking down their sense of self to the point that when asked who they are, they will respond: “Negan.” There are two tiers of Savior, we learn: the lower tier live like prisoners, the upper tier like kings, and Negan’s right-hand man Dwight is firmly in the latter category. His day-to-day life involves sandwiches, whiskey shots and old VHS tapes of Who’s The Boss?, which passes for the lap of luxury in The Walking Dead’s universe.
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Daryl, on the other hand, is being kept naked in a grimy cell, forced to listen to the world’s most annoying song on repeat. (The impeccably grating song in question, ‘Easy Street’, was written specifically for this episode by Jim Bianco). Negan has seen something he likes in Daryl, and tasks Dwight with breaking him down to the point where he’ll “kneel”—because total surrender to Negan is the price of the good life.
Daryl and Dwight have met before, back in the Season 6 episode “Always Accountable,” in which Dwight and his wife Sherry had just escaped from Negan’s Sanctuary. Daryl helped them out, and ended up getting double-crossed and robbed for his trouble—but as it turns out, things didn’t end so well for anybody in that equation. Dwight and Sherry were re-captured by Negan, and surrendered to him in order to keep each other alive—so Dwight is now Negan’s bitch, and Sherry is Negan’s “wife”, a setup too harrowing to contemplate in much depth.
Longtime TWD writer Angela Kang buries an insightful little nugget about consent in Negan’s dialogue this week: pleased with Dwight’s work, he offers him his pick of any woman he wants for the night, “so long as she says yes”—just like Sherry said yes to marrying him, because the alternative was letting Dwight die. Consent under duress is worthless, but Negan gets to call himself “a standup guy” because he gets them to say yes. Walking Dead Season 7 Episode 3
“Whatever he’s done to you, there’s always more,” Sherry tells Daryl, advising him to do whatever he’s told and not even try to escape. Daryl being Daryl, he ignores this advice and gets a beating for his trouble, insisting “I ain’t never gonna kneel.” And he doesn’t, not even after Dwight pours every kind of salt in the wound imaginable: reminding him “You got your friend killed,” handing him a polaroid of Glenn’s bashed-in head, and even switching his cell music over to Ray Orbison’s mournful “Crying.” And though Daryl does cry at this point, it’s not the moment of surrender Dwight takes it as—when Negan asks “Who are you?” he still answers with his own name. Unlike Dwight, Daryl doesn’t have anybody else to protect, so he can afford to stick to his guns.
Dwight, though, is more conflicted than he appears. He doesn’t flinch when Negan crassly offers him sex with Sherry (“a blast from the past”) and seems totally devoted to pleasing his master. But when Cam, a fellow Savior and former friend of Dwight, escapes the compound and Dwight catches up to him, the mask slips a little. “Everything is his, or will be,” Dwight tells Cam, who can’t comprehend how Dwight can obey Negan after what he’s done. And though Dwight says all the right Negan-approved things in this scene, threatening Cam and his loved ones with a laundry list of grisly violence, he ultimately gives Cam what he wants and shoots him rather than taking him back to Negan. As determined as Dwight is to turn Daryl over to his way of thinking, the reverse seems just as likely.
So… either Daryl and Dwight will team up to stage a revolt, or Carol will hitch a ride with Ezekiel’s crew on their next produce run, and rescue Daryl like the badass she is. Consider this a vote for door number two.