AMC’s The Walking Dead has always had a knack for manipulating its audience, but this year’s hyper-violent season premiere went too far. In fact, it went so far that we canceled our ongoing series The Walking Dead Quitter’s Club, with co-author Bryan Bishop swearing off the show entirely.
Now, Nick Statt is trying to change his mind. Instead of tearing the show down, Nick will be finding something to highlight. It might be a subtle change in character, a great action scene, or a new development in a narrative arc. But every week, he’ll be seeking out things that remind us of the very best of The Walking Dead — the moments that might just give viewers a reason to come back.
Welcome to The Walking Dead Redemption Club.
Another episode, another opportunity to bring you back from the brink of zombie apocalypse oblivion. It’s been two weeks since the fateful season seven premiere of The Walking Dead, and I can safely say that 14 days is the recommended grieving period for fictional television characters (in the scientific study I just made up).
That said, I know it’s more than just the brutal deaths of longtime characters that’s forced you, and others, away from the show. It’s the constant push and pull between what TWD aspires to be and what it shamelessly falls back on when elevated storytelling gets too tough. Last night with “The Cell,” we got another completely standalone episode, and I’m beginning to think that the show could be better if it stuck with this format through and through. Alas, we’ll have to come back to Rick and Maggie and their soul-crushing grief eventually.
For now, let’s savor the departure.
A musical montage that works
As a hit-or-miss TV historian, I cannot definitively tell you where the cold open musical montage comes from. I can, however, tell you that its most effective use in my mind was in the season two premiere of Lost. That’s when Desmond Hume (Henry Ian Cusick) went about his daily routine inside the show’s legendary hatch to the tune of “Make Your Own Kind of Music" by Mama Cass.
Five years exist between that Lost episode and the debut of The Walking Dead, and you can certainly feel the influence. The long-running zombie show has used offbeat musical choices to set the mood and pull apart our connections to pop culture by weaving sublimely normal moments into otherwise grisly scenarios. In the opening of “The Cell,” we get a particularly effective use with Dwight’s daily routine set to The Jam’s “Town Called Malice.” Instead of telling us things we already know, or trying to force an emotional response, the scenes just drop powerful hints about the kind of power-obsessed society The Saviors have built under Negan.
By way of force, The Saviors get to enjoy the bountiful yields of other groups as evidenced by Dwight’s increasingly elaborate egg salad sandwich. (It’s got pickles, and mustard!) Those close to Negan can even spend time playing games and whittling figurines. “Town Called Malice,” itself an upbeat track with sinister undertones, plays up how twisted life is under The Saviors. But it’s Dwight — his face half-covered in a terrible burn scar — who knows better than anyone why one shouldn’t mess with the order.
Negan is the true sociopath the show has been looking for
What makes Negan a fascinating character is how he picks and chooses the moments to wield violence and show force. In taking Rick and the crew hostage in the premiere, and calmly talking them through the horror every step of the way, we saw Negan’s capacity for psychological manipulation and cruelty. With Daryl in “The Cell,” we see Negan’s approach to breaking people. He not only makes his victims abundantly aware of when they’re being shown mercy, but he taunts them openly about their situation, promising to fix it — so long as they kneel.
Interestingly, Negan’s biggest flaw seems to be his fascination in how other people’s minds work. In a crucial moment in last night’s episode, Negan pretends to swing his bat at Daryl, only to discover that his hostage barely even blinks. Later on, he demands Daryl refer to himself as Negan, The Saviors’ cult-like response to the question, “Who are you?” When Daryl refuses, he’s still not killed and simply sent back to his cell. Just as Negan let Rick live because he seemed fascinated by his would-be rival, so too is Daryl spared because of his open and fearless defiance. A ruthless but logical leader would execute their threats, but Negan would much rather exact subservience.
He’s ultimately a welcome presence because The Walking Dead has never really had a true villain, besides, well, the specter of death itself. The Governor was a hopelessly convoluted character whose true intentions made about as much sense as staying on Hershel's farm. And Shane (remember him?) was a speeding train wreck that rightfully derailed by season two. So we’ve really been left without someone to hate for quite a while as Rick and crew have hacked and slashed their way toward various gated communities.
That makes Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s chilling false charm as Negan our first true symbol of the kind of sociopathy the post-apocalypse might actually give rise to. We don’t know his backstory — we’ll need to learn more soon, if we’re to take him seriously — but it’s clear Negan’s only intention in life is to take what he wants, consolidate power, and prove he is the strongest. His community is a fascist one, and as a leader he succeeds by stomping on individuality and sowing fear. He has no desire to rebuild because rebuilding would mean playing by other people’s rules.
Dwight is the foil Daryl desperately needed
One of the most poignant moments of the episode was when Dwight says the unspeakable, in such a matter-of-fact fashion that it was almost easy to miss. “You got your friend killed,” he tells Daryl, who has been upgraded from groveling naked for dog food to wearing a stained sweatsuit. Dwight’s referring to Glenn, of course, who Negan bludgeoned to death after Daryl threw an ill-advised punch. After dropping a Polaroid photo of Glenn’s corpse on the floor, Dwight waits to listen for Daryl’s cries of hopelessness.
It’s easy to root for Daryl (and hate Dwight) in this scene. Actor Norman Reedus has turned his character, who doesn’t even exist in the source material, into one of the show’s most beloved figures by creating a fiercely loyal former lone wolf who can survive pretty much anything. Fans love Daryl so much, in fact, that it’s a running joke they’ll riot if he’s ever killed off.
But that same fandom has helped turn Daryl into a somewhat shallow character. Sure, we’ve seen some flickers of depth in his complex relationship with Carol, which veered toward a surprising romance even if it never quite materialized. But other than that, Daryl’s mostly been deployed as a gimmick, with his wildly inefficient crossbow now a character trademark and his rash decision-making leading to some of last season’s stupidest plot gymnastics.
By the end of “The Cell,” however, we’re seeing an all-new, beaten-down Daryl, and a dynamic that’s richer given how deeply similar he is to Dwight. We now know that Dwight got his wife’s sister killed while trying to escape Negan, and then had his face burned with an iron for abandoning The Saviors. Even worse, Dwight’s transgressions were all an effort to help his diabetic sister-in-law get the medicine she needed — and ended with her being forced to pledge herself to Negan, who appears to do what he pleases with any female member of the group he deems attractive. All of a sudden, Dwight’s actions carry a profound sadness.
The revelations also start hinting at something greater between Daryl and the man who commandeered his crossbow. Perhaps Dwight is looking for someone else who shares his sorrow. In Daryl, he might see a fellow survivor who questions The Saviors and — foreshadowing imminent? — can be trusted to try and defy them. In the episode’s closing moments, the two men even appear to come to a mutual understanding about the definition of sacrifice, turning their relationship into one of the most interesting plot developments in the show.
THE ROAD TO REDEMPTION
Like last week’s episode “The Wall,” “The Cell” spared viewers from the misery and aftermath of the premiere by taking us somewhere new and focusing on world-building. These are the best palate cleansers the show has to offer, because even at its best, The Walking Dead still has trouble deciding what show it really wants to be — even seven seasons in. But thankfully, we’re starting to see the scales tip away from the ultraviolence and back toward its potential as a more epic and meaningful tale of life in a society without restrictions.
But as you and I know all too well, Bryan, the moment The Walking Dead tries to weave its plot lines together is when it tends to fall back on cheap tricks and pointless theatrics. These last two episodes have been a much-needed change of pace given all that audiences have seen, but it’s about time we come back to Alexandria. That’s when the show can really prove it wants to tell a story, instead of just beating us over the head with blood, guts, and not-so-surprising character deaths.
Will the show actually pull it off? Well, that’s another question. I let you know if it happens.