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.
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.
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.
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”.
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!