The Walking Dead 7×03 ‘The Cell’: No escape

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What unnerves me most about The Walking Dead, at this point, is how the writers and producers don’t really understand what makes the show good or what makes it bad.  For a long, long time, they’ve been teasing Negan as this gamechanger, this force that is going to upend the series and make it into something spectacular.  Negan is supposed to be awesome.  Negan is supposed to be terrifying.  Negan is supposed to be exciting.  And it’s not even that frustrating that he’s not really any of those things.  It’s to be expected that The Walking Dead doesn’t know how to create characters.  What’s really frustrating is how The Walking Dead thought that Negan would be SO spectacular, completely lacking any self-awareness or understanding of what makes the show decent.

Source: AMC

Source: AMC

By itself, “The Cell” is better than the premiere.  It’s not necessarily saying a whole lot, but it is better.  The best thing that this episode could do is make sure that it portrays The Sanctuary as its own intriguing community, kind of like The Kingdom in last week’s “The Well”.  The juxtaposition between The Kingdom and The Sanctuary would be a great way to illustrate two different ways for communities to operate.  The Kingdom is very focused on providing for people, while The Sanctuary is very focused on Negan, on what he decides people get to have.  That’s inherently an interesting concept, a way for examine what happens when social systems choose to work for those at the top or for everybody.  Because The Sanctuary is very clearly a system that works for Negan, and then for whoever else he decides has provided enough to reap some reward he gives.

Source: AMC

Source: AMC

The three choices that Negan lays out in the middle of the episode speak to the way that he sees people.  They have roles according to how they approach Negan and how useful they are.  Negan sees people according to how they view him; if they view him with contempt or with rebellion, he tries to break them.  If he can break them, if they are willing to work in some capacity, he’ll put them to work accordingly.  But Negan’s biggest task, as we see with Daryl, is that breaking people means making them fall in line with his worldview exactly.  There is no room for negotiation.  Dwight may be Negan’s lieutenant, but when Negan sees a rebellious edge in Dwight’s disposition, he snaps him back in line by reminding him where he came from, reminding him what happened when he rebelled.  The community’s cohesion rests on Negan being able to keep everybody in check, and while that may work for the time being, when the punishment for stepping out of line is horribly severe, that clearly can only last for so long.  Despite everything that Negan has put Dwight through, Dwight still feels that rebellion within him.  And that can’t every really go away.

Source: AMC

Source: AMC

But there are a couple issues with how this all goes down.  One is how the Saviors were portrayed last season.  They were portrayed as largely incompetent, many of them gunned down or killed without any real resistance.  They’re not necessarily portrayed much differently now, but that makes anybody who isn’t Negan seem awfully uniform.  It’s also strange that there isn’t any reference here to the ramifications of losing literally dozens of Savior foot-soldiers.  And when the Saviors are only really differentiated by one line from Negan (“you can be one of three things”), that makes it difficult to understand much about their community.  Another issue, the biggest issue, is Negan himself.  Now, if Negan were a bad man but had some sort of principle or code (like Chigurh from No Country for Old Men), this would be more fascinating.  But Negan’s really just an awful person, and his monologues and language seem more like a forced effort to disgust us than part of his personality.  And when Negan is used as this vehicle to inflict pain, he’s less a character than he is a plot mechanism created by the writers.  This is especially troubling when he’s supposed to be a “gamechanger”.

Source: AMC

Source: AMC

There is one character who makes this episode a little more interesting, and that’s Dwight.  He gets a backstory here, a tragic one, and while it’s not terribly complex (and while it’s introduced from an awful monologue from Negan), it does introduce his character in a way that gives him motivation for future actions.  He clearly wants to rebel against Negan, but sees everything as so utterly hopeless, sees his “ex-wife” in jeopardy, to the point that his rebellion has such high stakes to not be worth it.  He’s trapped, just where Negan wants him to be, but when he sees the escapee and kills him, he sees himself, the inevitable end of the life cycle of any man under Negan.  You’re used up, more and more, until you’re eventually discarded.  It’s an important way to frame Negan because it legitimately highlights how awful and evil he is, and it does so in a way that isn’t either an exaggeration or a way to make him cool.  Because The Walking Dead’s biggest sin right now is making its awful, misogynistic, sadistic, psychotic villain a “cool dude”.  That makes the writers and producers (*cough* Kirkman *cough*) look spectacularly immature.

So far, Season 7 is much more bifurcated than the last, the quality wildly shifting from episode to episode.  But there are some clear trends making themselves known.  When the show focuses on The Kingdom, on the show’s most interesting characters, it gets better.  When the show focuses on Negan, on the misery that Negan is able to create, it gets worse.  There’s a way to portray an authoritarian figure like Negan in a way that is compelling, that’s for sure.  But Negan needs to change in order to make that improvement.  He doesn’t necessarily have to become nicer, he doesn’t have to become easier to watch, but he has to become more complex.  Because if he doesn’t, we’re in for a long season of television.

What did you think of “The Cell”?  Are you excited for next week’s supersized episode?  Let me know in the comments!

Michael St. Charles

is just a Michigan State University grad who loves a good story. If he’s not off teaching the young ones how to solve quadratic functions or to write an expository essay, he’s watching old-school HBO shows, indie horror movies, or he’s playing Resident Evil 4.

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  • Gui

    I’d actually give this episode more credit than you’re giving it, even though I definitely agree that the way Negan’s being handled is hurting quality, and how poisonous Kirkman’s hold on him is. But I’ll get to that later. For now, I wanna get to the positives I saw in this.

    One of the important things is that rather than being shown how powerful Negan is, was showing us how powerful Negan THINKS he is. He’s so in love with his power that he’s unaware how many people under him, even some of the ones who “live like kings” as he said, aren’t pleased. He seems to think that simply owning stuff is more than enough, and he seems to look at other connections as no more than something to exploit, and probably a liability. That became even clearer this episode. He uses that love people have for each other for control when threatening directly doesn’t work. Of course, it doesn’t seem to be the case for all his soldiers, many seem to just enjoy the benefits they get and just enjoy what they do, but there’s still enough to ruin Negan if they banded together. Once communities start uprising and they see a shot at succeeding, there’s a good chance they’ll join in.

    The other thing is Daryl. I was actually rather pleased with him and his development when putting it in comparison to Season 4. Looking back to Joe’s group, Daryl was willing to join them, he let that negative influence in since he was alone. Despite all the good Beth did for him, he was willing to jump right back into that to not be alone.

    Now this episode. He’s completely alone in hostile territory, he’s being humilliated and dehumanized so he’ll be easier to break. And he got close. But here I am again, quoting DynamicSymmetry like I have since 6×16:

    “Tonight’s episode was in significant part about what you do and don’t do for the people you love, what choices you’ll make for their sake and who you’ll become as a result of that. We know what Dwight did and why, what happened to him as a result of his cowardice, how he failed the person he loved because he was thinking about them – but not in the way he should have been.

    I really think the photo of Glenn’s body was so key. Because everything changed after that – because of the reminder it was for Daryl. These are the people he loves, the people who have taught him everything, who made him feel for the first time in his life like he was worth something. Like he was a good person. Beth, Rick, Carol, Maggie, Hershel, Aaron, Denise, all of TF… And in some ways, most
    of all Glenn. Glenn was really the first. Glenn was the door inching open and a hand inviting him to walk through, and a voice calling him family.

    And sure, yeah, as far as he’s concerned he got Glenn killed. He got Denise
    killed. He got Beth killed. He fucks everything up. He’s poison. And sure, yeah, maybe he’s worthless. But none of those people thought he was.

    Glenn didn’t think he was.”

    I really think that, after about season and a half of having Daryl being pretty much aimless, we’re starting to see a proper character arc for him. 4B and 5A tried giving his character more depth and then it kinda came to a halt, maybe we’ll finally pick up from there.

    And now, onto Negan. The big negative of the episode. Y’know, I’m starting to figure out the main problem here. Remember how the Governor was a noticeably improvement over the comics, and how at the end of Season 3 Glen Mazzara got fired over creative control problems? A lot definitely had to do with how it was straying with the comics, and I think the change of the Governor was a big part of it (Andrea’s death being the other big part).

    I have the feeling Kirkman’s not letting go of Negan here and he wants him as close to the comics as he possibly can, so even when we get to the more interesting moments of Negan’s character (which I suspect will start coming around the midseason finale) we’ll probably still have that oh so lovely Kirman dialogue (I’ll need patience to deal with that). There’s a few small changes here and there, though, like actually making “we’re all Negan” being something that Kirkman seemed to forget about entirely or just ignored, but now it means something. I’m not sure how much of a call Gimple will have when it comes to Negan, but hopefully we get something. Gimple can improve on villains written by Kirkman, he’s done it before, now it’s just if Kirkman’s willing to let go.

    Ok, this went out for very long, so I’ll cut it here. Sorry for going on for this long, got a bit carried away! Looking forward to next episode, hopefully they handle the aftermath well.

    • Michael St. Charles

      Haha, I appreciate the long posts, so thanks for taking the time to write them. If my responses are a little short, it’s just because I’m writing them at work.

      I appreciate you writing quite a bit about Daryl, as I put him on the back burner while I was writing the review. I can definitely see where they’re going with him, trying to show how and why he refuses to be broken. While Dwight allows himself to be broken because he’s trying to keep people safe, Daryl refuses to do so for the memory of those that he’s lost, specifically Glenn. Negan thought the photo was going to expedite the process of breaking him, when it in fact did the opposite, and instead reminded him of what it was he cared about, and what it was he needs to atone for. I see his suffering as a sort of atonement for him, for his impulsive nature, and I think that following that character thread is a great way to develop him this season. I actually liked that quite a bit.

      But yeah, I honestly don’t know what to make of Negan’s characterization. I want to chalk it up to Kirkman’s influence, BUT it was Gimple that wrote the season premiere, which is so bizarre. Then again, I don’t know what kind of control Kirkman had over the script even though Gimple had the writing credit, but I am curious to see where this internal struggle among the staff pushes Negan. Because I get the feeling I’m going to lose my patience with the season of Negan is so front and center but written so poorly.

      Again, thanks for the response. I always enjoy discussing the episodes!