This week’s The Walking Dead, entitled “The Cell,” is a tale of two sandwiches.
Dwight (Austin Amelio) gets the good sandwich. Negan’s face-scarred, long-haired lieutenant picks up ingredients on a series of his supply runs—swiping the perfect loaf of bread at one colony, stealing mustard and pickles from another, etc.—and building the perfect fried-egg hoagie. The whole thing is set to the bouncy 1980s hit “Town Called Malice” by the Jam.
Daryl (Norman Reedus) gets the dog-food sandwich. In the Season 7 premiere two weeks ago, Daryl jumped out of the lineup and took a swing at Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) that resulted in Negan killing a second member of the group and taking Daryl captive. Daryl is cold and naked on the floor of a prison cell. Instead of a fun montage, he gets sound torture—constant repetition of the Collapsable Hearts Club’s “Easy Street”—and dog food on a bun.
As Alexandria was last season, the Sanctuary is a protected colony with a home life that’s something like the pre-zombie world with old VHS tapes of Who’s the Boss? and occasional comfort food (for humans, not dogs). There’s room to disagree about whether democracy or a false sense of security contributed more to Alexandria’s demise, but Negan’s dictatorship is safe and comfortable for the people who live there.
In “The Cell,” the Sanctuary consists of (1) people who recognize that kneeling to Negan and collecting tribute for him from the surrounding communities in exchange for personal safety and decent home life is a pretty good deal, (2) people of who came around to that reality through coercion, the threat of violence and actual violence and (3) Daryl.
Oh, Daryl. Daryl, Daryl, Daryl. Strong, silent Daryl. Rebel without a cause Daryl. Fan-fave, motorcycle-riding, spinoff reality show (Ride With Norman Reedus) Daryl.
The paradox of a strong-willed dictator wanting someone like Daryl for a henchman is that he is strong-willed. But the strong-willed are only valuable to you if you can break them, and Negan spends the episode systematically breaking Daryl down with light deprivation, solitary confinement, blaring music, dog dinners, a brutal beatdown and a stern reminder that his noncompliance is what got Glenn killed in the season premiere.
It doesn’t work, of course. It’s Daryl. I would have been disappointed if Negan could break him in the span of a single episode—which is not to say that Daryl is playing it smart, because he is so not playing it smart. The strategic move for Daryl would have been to play the submissive, become one of Negan’s tough guys, and then cut his throat at the first opportunity. I respect the independent streak, and Daryl fans will almost certainly applaud his libertarian, live-free-or-die mentality, but it doesn’t take a degree from Littlefinger University to figure this one out. It’s exactly what you’d expect Daryl to do, but it’s dumb nonetheless.
Daryl does, though, plant the seeds of revolt in Dwight. The best scenes in the episode are Dwight interacting with Daryl, gradually working up from the silent treatment to kind words of advice. “That’s you, asshole, unless you’re smart,” Dwight says, showing Daryl the zombies along the fenceline. “Your choice. You can be like them or me.” Even hearing Dwight’s conversion story from Negan himself—that Dwight had his own independent streak until Negan stole his wife and ironed his face like a pair of pants—didn’t sway Daryl, but it does show Dwight firmly in Group No. 2: coerced followers with their wills intact.
So far as we’ve seen, Negan’s control is built on fear and intimidation and offering a decent deal if you’re on his team, but he doesn’t have all of the hearts and minds at the Sanctuary. “There’s only one of him and all of us, so why are we living like this?” a runaway says when Dwight tries to bring him back. Dwight answers like a pragmatist—“Because look where we are. We were losing. Now we’re not.” That’s reason talking, not conviction.
Negan’s bravado violence is polarizing viewers. Fans are still on board—21.5 million for the season premiere and 16.8 million already for ep. 2—but the social-media response to Negan’s brutality has been rough and the favorable critical reception that the show enjoyed throughout its first six seasons has been split down the middle so far in Season 7. It’s a lot to take. No one who devotes six-plus years to a show wants to see a beloved character murdered so brutally that his eye pops out, so I get the criticism that the violence has been gratuitous and that Negan is a cartoon villain.
I also reject it out of hand.
The Walking Dead is not a first-person shooter; it’s a gripping drama with real consequences about the destructive force and the human cost of war. It’s wearing an expensive zombie costume—and that is certainly a significant element of the show’s popularity—but it’s as much about the nihilistic dehumanization of war and the challenge of staying alive as Band of Brothers or Generation Kill.
The show has always been about us against them. It has always been about how the people are deadlier than the zombies. It has always been about the fragility of a group trying to survive under constant stress and upheaval without losing the ability to enjoy Who’s the Boss? reruns. Negan is a cartoon, but so was Mussolini. If the comics that the series are based upon are any indication, the next few seasons will be an interesting inquiry into the skills and vulnerabilities of a charismatic dictator.
The Walking Dead is hell, and now it has a devil.