The Walking Dead S07E03 Recap: 'The Cell'

Buried within all the think pieces about whether or not The Walking Dead's season premiere had stepped over a proverbial gruesome line of too much gratuitous violence was a simple question; why? Not if that violence, depicting the graphic deaths of both Abraham and Glenn via barbed-wire baseball bat was simply too much, but why it needed to be shown and whether or not it was necessary. That's a fairly loaded question, but one that this week's episode, "The Cell" actually kind of answers.

The answer to me was pretty obvious from the start, at least from a narrative perspective. Negan needed a quick and effective way to show a large group of people that he meant business. Whacking a couple of dudes violently with a baseball bat is an easy way to accomplish that. Most people wouldn't want that to happen to them, so they would immediately fall in line. Then there are the special cases, like Rick and Daryl. People who aren't necessarily driven by survival, who might be driven by those kinds of displays of aggression to do something stupid or prideful. Negan dealt with Rick in the premiere, painfully explaining to him why he had no choice in the matter, and this week, it was Daryl's turn.

In "The Cell", we witness what happened to the show's fan favorite after he was taken away from the group, wounded and angry. He spends the bulk of the episode locked up in a dark cell, eating a dog food sandwich and listening to "Easy Street" on repeat, so pretty much a literal hell. Negan and his men, led by the burnt Dwight, are actually trying to beat him down into submission, much like Negan did Rick. But unlike with Rick, Negan wants Daryl to join his ranks directly. He sees value in him, but recognizes that he's broken. So he prods him, he tests him, hoping that, like Dwight, Daryl will fall in line.

The episode draws many parallels between Dwight and Daryl, and not only because Dwight has stolen most of his possessions. It paints Dwight as someone much like Daryl, once full of pride and reticent to see Negan's way. He tried to run, tried to help the people he cared about, but he could never get away, because as Negan explains, he's everyone and everywhere. Dwight is still hesitant, uncertain, but he believes he doesn't have a choice. And thus he does the only thing he can to protect his wife by joining Negan, much like she did when she agreed to marry him. Daryl faces a similar choice in this episode, but he winds up refusing the offer, despite the torture, the looming threat of undeath.

We could have seen that coming, that Daryl would be the hardest to break among the group, being a lone wolf and as stubborn as they come, but that's not even really what answered that "why" question for me. That happened in a very particular scene, when Daryl tries to mount an escape. The guard leaves his cell unlocked and he winds up within earshot of running away before Negan reveals that it was all a ruse to test him and to reaffirm his omnipotence. That one sequence of events is probably more tense and stress-inducing than anything in the premiere or even last season's finale. The danger Daryl faces is clear and present. The consequences are dire and you actually believe that something could happen to him, even in the middle of a third episode of the season. That's the direct result of Negan's power being on full display, and reason enough to give the show kudos for the gore from the premiere. Because I don't believe The Walking Dead to be a show where things happen without rhyme or reason. The desire to display style over substance may mean it might take four episodes instead of four scenes for the show to get to the point, but there will always be one.

With that in mind, I won't deny that "The Cell" is a return to the slower style of episode for The Walking Dead, but I liked it. Norman Reedus got to display his range, we got to learn a lot more about Dwight, who's a much more well-rounded character now than in the couple of times we saw him in season 6, and we even got more of Negan, who's status as head bully is contextualized now that we got to visit his home turf. All of that helps make those two moments of violence seem much less gratuitous than they did in the premiere. For me, that's a good enough answer to the "why". Now to see how quickly the show answers the rest of our questions.

"The Cell" gets 8.5 dog food sandwiches out of 10.

Notes & Quotes:

  • I came to the following realization during this episode: Negan is basically The Walking Dead's version of Donald Trump. He's obnoxious, mealy mouthed, violent and childish who rates women based on their hotness and forces people to follow him by convincing them they have no other choice. There's even an exchange of dialog where a character says how before Negan, they were losing, but not anymore.
  • The opening montage set to "Town Called Malice" is pretty wonderful. The show seldom has fun like that so it's nice to see when they do.
  • We get to see Naked Daryl too. Did Kojima direct this episode? (reference for all you non-video game playing readers)