“The Walking Dead” tends to succeeds whenever it airs a satellite episode — an installment that zones in on a handful of characters rather than covering the whole messy shebang. It allows the show to take its time, develop its colorful personalities, and give us new insights into how the increasing number of communities on the series work. Last week taught us all about The Kingdom, and tonight, we learn more about The Saviors.
That makes “The Cell” the darker side of “The Well.” While both groups are somewhat fanatical in how they worship their leader, Ezekiel draws power from positivity and goodness, where Negan preys on fear. Just compare Carol’s journey to Daryl’s. She got to roam free and eat peach cobbler. He gets thrown in solitary confinement and fed dog-food sandwiches, all to the tune of the same cloying pop song each day.
The episode also contrasts his experience with Dwight’s, someone who’s been harmed far worse by Negan, although you wouldn’t know it right off the bat. “The Cell” presents him as somewhat enjoying his new position of power with The Saviors. It’s about the little things: the egg sandwich he gets to have every day for lunch (much better than dog food), the sitcom reruns he gets to watch, the respect he receives from his peers and Negan. But as the episode progresses, it makes a point of unveiling how lost Dwight really is. The cracks in his psyche begin to show. Even as he assures himself that all the pain he’s gone through has been worth his new station in life, there’s still the sting of the iron burns on his face. There’s the constant committal of acts that go against his character. There’s the public humiliation of having to work for someone who’s now with his ex-wife.
At one point, an escaped Savior points all this out to Dwight, and it’s a heartbreaking moment. For all his newfound power and respect, this is still a man who’s screaming underneath his skin, even as he tells himself everything’s fine. There’s a complicated psychology to his actions — something that can’t be said about every villain on “The Walking Dead.” If the show’s gong to take him down the same route as the comic, it’s imperative that we sympathize with him, especially when considering his despicable actions of last season. “The Cell” does that and more.
Daryl’s story doesn’t land quite as well, not because his experience isn’t unnerving — that pop song truly is hellish — but because it feels too similar to Rick’s ordeal. Negan tried to break Rick and succeeded, and here, Dwight tries to break Daryl and fails. By the end of the episode, he isn’t drinking The Saviors’ Kool-Air by referring to himself as part of the collective Negan; he’s still Daryl.
Once could argue that that’s the point — that just like The Saviors are the Skeksis to The Kingdom’s Mystics, Daryl’s arc is the opposite of Rick’s. But we’ve heard the idea of being broken discussed so much on “The Walking Dead,” even before the season 7 premiere. Everyone has their breaking point in this post-apocalyptic world, and watching Dwight try to convince himself that he’s not broken is a lot more interesting to watch than Daryl sticking to his guns. Still, it’s fairly normal for “The Walking Dead” to tread some of the same ground from time to time, and “The Well” continues a solid beginning to a season that’s not afraid to take its time.