The opening of tonight’s Walking Dead played like an homage to one of the greatest moments in the history of zombie movies. In the middle of the original Dawn of the Dead, director George A. Romero eases the tension for a few minutes with a funny montage of how comfortable life has become for his human heroes, barricaded inside their fully stocked shopping mall. They feast. They try on clothes. They play racquetball. Then Romero jolts the audience with a shot of the teeming hordes of the undead massing just outside the door, reminding us that success is fleeting, fantasies are fragile and that, at any minute, savage reality might break through. (Spoiler alert: It does.)
At the start of this week’s episode – “The Cell” – one of Negan‘s top lieutenants, Dwight, shows how awesome his days are inside the Saviors’ compound. While the Jam’s ironically bouncy “Town Called Malice” plays on the soundtrack, Dwight goes about his usual routine: watching an old videotape of Who’s the Boss?; playing Nok-Hockey; and grabbing whatever he wants from the garden, farm, and bakery to make a drool-worthy egg-lettuce-tomato sandwich. On the other hand, in order to assemble all of his ingredients, he has to push around some folks who probably don’t deserve it. Also, every time Negan walks by, he has to kneel. And when he steps outside, the view’s pretty ugly, with zombies on spikes all around the perimeter, serving as the world’s most disgusting security system.
Dwight doesn’t say anything throughout that entire sequence, but the look on his face betrays what’s on his mind. Sure, he’s one of the post-apocalypse’s “winners.” But only because Negan says so. Meanwhile the losers are paying a huge price for the Saviors’ empire – and there’s an awful lot of them out there, itching to take back what they lost.
“The Cell” is a companion piece of sorts to last week’s “The Well,” which introduced the residents and lifestyle of the Kingdom. Now, in this chapter of The Walking Dead, we learn more about the Saviors, getting to know how their system works and why it’s been so effective. Basically, anyone who enters Negan’s orbit is automatically drafted into his supply chain. He offers three choices. You can just die, and become one of his snarling, chained-up border guards. You can provide goods and services in exchange for his meager awarding of “points,” to be redeemed for food, medicine, and protection. Or if you’re a survivalist all-star like Dwight – or Daryl – you can become a trusted soldier, and live swell. “There is no door number four,” Negan warns.
Last week was about a society based on, “Take what you need, but please give back.” This week counters with, “Give all you have, and maybe you’ll get something in return.” Perhaps to make that contrast starker, this was a much less generous hour of television, at least in terms of narrative and character. The entire plot could be reduced to two sentences: Negan tries to recruit Daryl. Daryl resists.
But credited writer Angela Kang and director Alrick Riley get a lot out of a little. Outside of Negan’s usual speechifying, the dialogue is kept to a minimum, letting some powerful, painful pictures tell the story.
About a third of the episode is focused on Daryl, whose days with the Saviors are decidedly less delightful than Dwight’s. He’s stuck in a dark jail cell, with annoyingly peppy music playing on a loop. Every now and then, he gets to eat a spoonful of dog food pressed between two dry bread-heels. Everyone he encounters, from the neighborhood doctor to Negan’s wife Sherry – who used to be married to Dwight, before she gave herself up to save his life – tells him that he’s no different from every other strong, proud survivor who eventually ended up kneeling to Negan. But even when his new masters show him the nice apartment he could be living in if he just joins the team, Daryl remains stubborn.
There’s not a lot of action to the prison scenes, outside of an incident where Daryl is intentionally left with an unlocked door, which he takes advantage of to sneak out to an open yard filled with motorcycles. (Talk about total Daryl-bait!) That’s where he’s ambushed by Saviors, and given his first chance to make his life “so much cooler” by pledging his allegiance. All he has to do is answer the question, “Who are you?” with, “I am Negan.” He refuses. Over and over. It gets pretty repetitive.
But that’s okay, because the real star of “The Cell” is Dwight, who spends much of the hour out on the road, looking for a wayward Savior – who at one point literally hurls zombies at him. These scenes are tense, scary, and made all the more unsettling by a loud, droning synthesizer score that sounds like it’s being performed by the shambling corpses of Pink Floyd. All of this culminates in a moment where Dwight captures his prey, who then asks a chilling, pertinent question: “There’s only one of him and all of us … so why are we living like this?”
On the surface, this Walking Dead may seem like a depressing hope-crusher, after last week’s refreshingly sunny outing. But it ends with Dwight back near the Saviors’ fences, looking at the walkers outside; and his face once again shows some of what he’s not yet willing to say aloud. No matter how much he may toe the company line that it’s better just to give Negan what he wants, part of him knows that he’s just as trapped as Daryl, or even as one of those poor souls growling by the gates. It’s only a matter of time before he speaks the truth that could set them all free: “Actually, none of us are Negan.”
Previously: Kingdom Come
Watch the takeaways from the Walking Dead’s season premiere.