The Walking Dead: “The Cell”

Season 7, Episdoe 3

TV Reviews The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead: “The Cell”

Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review The Walking Dead each week in a series of letters.



Okay, we’re back on semi-solid footing.

The Walking Dead is good when it has a little bit of emotional complexity, and though this episode featured a handful of two-dimensional characters, it succeeded massively in its portrait of Dwight—a man who was, previously, no more than a leering villain to us.

Now, we know the truth—he bravely tried to save his wife’s sister by stealing medicine, and his own life was saved by his wife, who gave herself to a psychopath so that he could suffer severe facial burns in lieu of death. And you could sense in this episode, from his interactions with Daryl and the mercy-killing of his escaped friend, that he retains some sense of goodness, even if it’s severely muted. This is a flawed person, but a relatable person.

That’s the kind of narrative complexity this show needs. To be completely frank, it only took 46 minutes to make Dwight the most interesting character on The Walking Dead. Last week’s episode was amusing, and King Ezekiel is a “fun” character, but despite how well he commanded his scenes, he’s still just a caricature—take away Negan’s evil, keep his pomposity, and put a jester cap on his head, and he’s Ezekiel.

As for Negan, I’m still not sold on this guy. I subscribe fully to the belief that there are no real monsters in life, just people who make bad or immoral decisions based on faulty wiring, traumatic experience, or desperation. You could even say the same about “true psychopaths,” whatever that means—the problem starts in the brain, in structural issues that they can’t control, and in many cases are exacerbated by physical or emotional abuse suffered in childhood. I know art is not supposed to be an exact replica of life, but my personal aesthetic calls for an attempt at nuance when portraying human beings. I don’t like comic book villains, and I use that phrase in the generic way—I realize comic books and graphic novels have made tremendous leaps in complexity since their advent. Still, the medium at least has a history of simplifying conflict into good/evil binaries, and when this show is at its worst, it gives in to that impulse. Negan, for me, is The Walking Dead at its worst.

The true version of Negan, I think, would be capable of great cruelty, but also of inspiring extreme loyalty. When someone rises to power like that—even a thug—it’s because he presents a vision of grandeur that other people want to pursue. We saw an inkling of that today with his henchmen, who “live like kings,” but his cruelty is a child’s cruelty, more sadistic than calculated. When he taunts Dwight about his wife, for instance, I couldn’t help but think, “what is the point?” A believable Negan wouldn’t indulge in this kind of kick-a-man-while-he’s-down banter. (A believable Negan, actually, would likely have killed Dwight the minute he took his wife, either out of Stalin-esque paranoia or a desire to extinguish his competition.) But this version of Negan is not propelled by real human behavior, but by a group of writers who get a juvenile thrill out of writing awful dialogue that only a teenager would consider “dark.”

And that’s the other funny thing about this. We’re supposed to see him as the ultimate sadist, but what have we really seen so far? A lot of monologues, beating people to death, and more monologues. The closest we’ve come to real torture is that song playing in Daryl’s cell, and that’s legitimate psychological torture, but the rest of what we see is pointless barbarism and the sad narcissism of a portentous bloviator. He’s a better-looking, more powerful version of your uncle who won’t stop talking about his athletic glory days in high school.

The realism nerd in me also needs to say this: There’s no way that someone like Negan conducts himself that way and avoids assassination, short of a 40-man Praetorian Guard armed to the teeth.

As for Daryl, I only sort of liked the last line, where (pardon me if I’m misinterpreting) he acknowledges that Dwight was thinking of other people, and implies that he has nobody else, and therefore can’t kneel. Not only does this totally misunderstand how people are broken by torture, but my bigger, more general complaint is that we’ve never really gotten enough insight into Daryl for this to make sense. We like him because he’s a quiet badass, but after the first and second seasons, the writers have never really tried to give us more than that. I don’t think they understand him beyond those terms, and we needed a lot more groundwork with this character before a scene like that can have the intended impact.

All in all, I rate this episode as positive because of Dwight, the brightest spot by far in recent memory. We need much, much more of this—let the zombies be zombies, but please, let the humans be human.

What did you think?




I think we were all expecting this to be a Negan-centric episode, where Negan breaks down Dwight with the sadistic glee of Ramsay Bolton turning Theon into Reek. This was so much more interesting. Dwight is both complex and believable. He’s been broken, but the darkness inside him isn’t just of Negan’s making. He can be cruel and merciful, creative and destructive, petty and concerned. Before the apocalypse, he was probably kind of terrible but okay if you got to know him. Obviously there was something that Sherry fell in love with. He’s partly a reluctant soldier in Negan’s army, but he also responded to Daryl’s generosity with betrayal last season. You sense that he wants Daryl to survive but has no problem stealing other people’s stuff just so he can enjoy an egg sandwich.

But there could be no Dwight without a Negan. I think you’ve got him mostly wrong if you think Negan is supposed to be “the ultimate sadist.” As you’ve mentioned, the only real torture is the endless loop of The Collapsable Heart Club’s “Easy Street.” Negan has a dearth of empathy, but even he has his own moral code. He takes pains to kill as few as people as possible when subduing new groups. He’s spared Daryl’s life several times in hopes that he can make use of him. He doesn’t allow rape in his camp, but only takes on willing women as wives. Of course, “willingness” could just mean someone who offers marriage in order to save her own husband. He’s a terrible person who just beat two characters we loved with a barbed-wire covered baseball bat. But I think he’s a pretty great villain and a fairly original one.

But I also believe monsters are real. The reason post-apocalyptic stories are interesting is that they remind us how fragile our civilized ideals are. When the boundaries that our somewhat enlightened culture are abolished, people can do horrible things. You can look to gang violence, Trump rallies, Wall Street back rooms or any number of dictatorships that exist right now in the world. He subjugates most of his workforce and only puts weapons in the hands of those he’s rewarded. Aside from Dwight, there’s not a lot of descension among his lieutenants. I got the sense that Gordon was one of the people “working for points,” just as Dwight was before his promotion. His army is secure and well-fed in a world where they were probably hungry and on the run from zombies.

When he says that he promised to take care of Dwight’s sister-in-law in sickness and in health, “because I’m a stand-up guy,” he really sees himself that way. So I understand why Negan’s schtick can be divisive, but I’m enjoying his smug charm more than the Governor’s dour, humorless demeanor. It’s refreshing on a show whose protagonists just aren’t very funny, especially Daryl who barely lets himself crack a smile. He’s a bit of a cartoon, but at least he’s interesting. And I’ll wager that by the end of the season, he’ll be a beloved part of the show.

But this episode was all Dwight, whose junk is somehow still intact after his painful encounter with Eugene. That’s two episodes in a row where you’ve declared that your favorite character is someone almost brand new. Do you think that he’ll remain a favorite or was this as compelling as Dwight is going to get?





Solid Negan defense. I’m willing to wait and see on this one—obviously, the show thought it needed to lead with the dude in his most offensive, sadistic form, and fill in the gray details as the season goes along. I hope you’re right, and that’s what we’ll get to see. I have to say, I am curious how they’re going to milk 90 minutes out of his visit to Alexandria next week. I’m already trembling when I think about the potential monologues…

As for Dwight, I really hope we get more of him. Austin Amelio (just looked him up!) was awesome, and if this were Game of Thrones—I can’t resist, sorry—he’d be exactly the kind of compromised, Theon-style character that would salvage enough dignity and empathy to play a big role in bringing Negan down. My gut tells me he’ll eventually just be a pawn to help Rick and the others, and that he’ll do something heroic at the end that costs him his life. I hope that’s not the case, because this show really needs to start investing in new characters. It feels like we’ve really exhausted every possibility, twice, with the rest of the cast, and through the last couple seasons, there have been very few significant additions—just expendable new people who end up dying or taking on very quiet secondary roles (like Aaron, whose name I just had to look up). I won’t go through the full list, but while I still enjoy seeing Daryl do the stoic badass routine, and Rick and Michonne are still relatively intriguing, I’m pretty much burned out on Morgan, Eugene, Sasha, Maggie, Carl, Rosita, and especially Carol. I can’t imagine any of them have much left for me, which is why new blood is critical. Ezekiel is terrific comic relief, but Dwight is the first fully formed human we’ve seen in a while, and he’s already a great, necessary edition.

I don’t know that I have a ton more to say about this episode, and I know this note will be short by my verbose standards, but that’s my basic message: Dwight is terrific, and please, make TWD subtle again! (As you see, the election has permanently infected my brain.)

Now, I turn to you with a less serious two-part question—based on what you know about me, if you were the Negan to my Daryl, what would be the five jingles or songs you’d use to torture me in prison? For what it’s worth, any of your choices will be good choices—I would have turned into a broken mess after about five plays of that “Easy Street” madness.




Challenge accepted. As you sit naked in a dank, dark cell contemplating how your impulsiveness has led to the death of a dear friend, and how I brutally bashed his head in right in front of you, you’ll be treated to the following playlist:

1. Jefferson Starship – “We Built This City”
It’s easy to forget that Jefferson Airplane was a great band when their later incarnation was responsible for this turd of a song. Three plays in would have you whining like a 2016 Republican presidential nominee.

2. Spandau Ballet – “True”
“This much is true-hoo. This much is true-hoo.” I know this song will be like nails on chalkboard.

3. Los Del Rio – “Macarena”
When I got married in 1996, I had one rule above all others for my wedding DJ: I don’t care who requests it, don’t play “Macarena.” That asshole ignored me. When I queue up this track, I’m imagining that’s him rotting in prison, not you. Sorry.

4. Billy Cyrus – “Achy Breaky Heart”
Good enough for the FBI, good enough for me.

5. Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Zephyr Song”
Okay, this is a more subtle form of torture. The first few times through, you’d wonder, “Why does he think this will break me?” But I know you’re a word guy. You care about lyrics. And on the fifth time through, it’ll be impossible not to listen more carefully to what Anthony Kiedis is singing and slowly it’ll come into focus: “Did you meet your fortune teller / Get it off with no propeller / Do it up, it’s on with Stella / What a way to finally smell her.” The insanity begins.

I feel dirty now. Thanks, Negan.

Please don’t die (or kneel), Daryl Dixon.

Shane Ryan is a staff writer at Paste and author of Slaying the Tiger: A Year Inside the Ropes on the New PGA Tour. Josh Jackson is founder and editor-in-chief of Paste.

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