After the oh so brief respite given to us by The Well, The Walking Dead returns to the dread of Negan’s own kingdom. I could understand if some viewers looked at this episode and thought “call me when Ezekiel comes back”, but The Cell is an interesting, but still flawed, look at the new era the show’s bigwigs have been promising us with the introduction of Negan. It’s an episode of parallels: between those who stay and those who try to run, between Negan’s ruling style and what we seen from Ezekiel last week, and most importantly, between Darryl and his tormentor Dwight.
Given how much the show wants us to buy into the antagonism between Darryl and Dwight, it wouldn’t be too out there to think that this episode would be Daryl vs Dwight in Hell in a Cell. Instead we spend a good portion of the runtime with Dwight, getting insight into how he became Negan’s lackey. Dwight’s screen time before this episode has painted him as a one-note villain, an “I am Negan” henchman, yet as the episode progresses we see that Dwight has been exactly where Daryl is now. After he and his wife, and sister ran away, (meeting, and stealing from Darryl on the way), Dwight and his wife returned to Negan after the death of the sister. They had a choice to kneel or die, with Dwight’s wife offering herself to Negan to spare Dwight and turn him into a servant: a man who hustles for him.
Through Dwight we are given our first real tour of Negan’s kingdom: we see that he has reached the rank to go as he pleases, taking food from others, and generally floating his authority. We see what happens to people who break the rules: they trap zombies on the compound’s perimeter with nothing but a stick, and we see that everyone kneels in the presence of Negan, a stark contrast to Ezekiel’s people. Negan rules by fear, rewarding loyalty with power usually resulting in violence, or a trip to his onsite brothel, he rewards brutality as a way of keeping order. This is how he rewards Dwight, who has nothing left of his old life. In Dwight the show presents an alternate Darryl, in the same way that each new leader is an alternate Rick. Except it’s a mirrored version where everything is reversed: Darryl’s loyalty to Rick is based on trust and affection, they’re brothers, whereas Dwight is Negan’s attack dog. Dwight knows it too, no matter how much he tries to replace his shattered personality with Darryl’s motorbike, jacket, and crossbow, he’s still an attack dog.
Dwight and Darryl are nothing but strengths in The Cell, with their rivalry, and in the end, mutual understanding of each other’s positions being some of the least clumsy story-telling the show has done in a good long while. Darryl can be somewhat of a problem character at times. An early fan favourite, and Norman Reedus is still cool as hell, he’s still not the greatest actor on the planet so it’s hard for him to sell a scene with more than a grunt. So The Cell doesn’t bother with that for most of the episode, and in doing so has given Reedus his best performance for on the show for years. His silent resistance to the physical, and psychological torture may be the only bright spot in the whole episode. Sure it’s grim, the sleep deprivation through cheery music especially, but it does enforce Darryl’s inner resilience. He will never kneel, and let’s be honest, we never thought he would. If his own brother can’t get him to betray Rick and join the Guvnor, what hope did Negan have?
There in lies the rub of The Cell. For all its good points it’s still a hyper stylised re-tread of old material. Every new threat has tried to pinpoint the person they can use to manipulate the group. Yes Negan already thinks he’s won so he took Darryl for his potential, and the fact that in the face of certain death Darryl punched him anyway, but it’s been done before. Which brings us to another problem: Negan. The Cell is our first look at Negan since Glen and Abraham hit the pine in the sky. His effect on his loyal subjects is chilling, his ghostly presence around all of the previous season, and last week’s episode, denotes even more power, but when we see him it’s a case of diminishing returns. This is another problem that can be blamed on the season premiere. The show introduced Negan with a bang, or two, and a full episode of torturing the main character, it all made quite an impression, and I was a fan. Yet Negan here is a lot less scary in the light of day. What a shock it would have been if he’d actually used Lucille on Darryl, it would have been the wrong move sure, but it would have kept him feeling dangerous. At the end of the day, and despite the best efforts of Jeffrey Dean Morgan, the Negan is a thinly drawn character. Again it’s hard not to compare him to Ezekiel, who after just one episode seems so much clearer than Negan. The best villains are more than the threat they pose, they need to seduce the audience into momentarily siding with them, but so far Negan just comes across as a thuggish biker who likes to say shit a lot.
6/10 The Cell is a step in the right direction for the Negan part of the season: as long as the misery can inform the story it can’t descend into the ghoulish showmanship of the premiere. There’s still a ways to go before viewers stop wishing they were at the Kingdom.