So what to do with Daryl? Best bud Carol has moved on, now a badass killing machine in her own right. The less said about Beth the better. Once Daryl reached Alexandria, the show attempted to give him some purpose by trying to turn him into a recruiter for the outpost, but that came to naught. They’ve flirted with allying Daryl with some less than savoury personalities in the past, briefly teaming him with The Claimers/Marauders, in Season 4. Season 7 looks to pick that one up again, as Negan attempts to recruit Daryl into his merry band of headbangers.
After last week’s relatively cheery change of pace – courtesy of King Ezekiel and Carol’s dippy housewife act – there was a fear that The Cell would be a return to the forced doom and gloom of the season’s debut episode. But, while this one does indeed wallow in its own misery and the torture of poor Daryl (who the fans never seem to love more than when he’s doing the wounded puppy-dog act), it has its highlights. The Walking Dead has never been as stylish and ‘fun’ as it is during its cold open – a montage of Dwight making a sandwich set to the strains of ‘A Town Called Malice’ (sadly it is not a jam sandwich). Then, a second musical number, as a captive, naked Daryl is tortured by the awfully on-the-nose ‘Easy Street’. Hey, Negan is many things, but subtle is not one of them.
The episode juggles its time between Daryl and Dwight, the former trapped in a closet (not a reference to questions regarding The Dixon’s sexuality) eating dog food sandwiches, the latter as he goes about his daily business as Negan’s no.1 henchman. Ironically, given that this is an episode dedicated to making Daryl Dixon relevant again, it’s Dwight who emerges as the more compelling character. Fans of the books will already know the scarred one’s backstory, but here it serves as The Cell’s primary revelation. Just as King Ezekiel spent a whole five minutes last week monologuing about how he came to be King Ezekiel, so Negan spends just as long Negansplaining to Daryl the story of Dwight and his scarred face. Negan pops up only a handful of times in this episode, but he spends every moment of it Negansplaining away, to the extent that Daryl and Dwight can barely get a word in edgeways.
There’s no denying that Daryl should have been the one to bite it in the Season Seven opener – Glenn was cool and all, but he wasn’t the most charismatic or interesting guy, and far from as beloved or valued as Daryl is (or was) – but The Cell is a step in the right direction in giving him some purpose again. Having Daryl be the one directly responsible for getting Glenn killed gives him redemption to strive for, and should lead to some interesting changes in the group dynamic once he’s inevitably reunited with the crew. Here he seems to be taking on Carl’s role from the books, captured by Negan, who has a curious fondness for the little scamp and makes him cry. In this case, it’s by having Dwight show him photos of a squished Glenn, while Roy Orbison plays in the background. The Walking Dead isn’t usually one for musical numbers (the less said about Beth the better) but it owns every single one of them here.
At present, The Walking Dead faces the same challenge as LOST did in its heyday. Remember Season 3, in which Jack, Kate and Sawyer were kidnapped by The Others? Here’s that same lack of suspense (did anyone seriously think, even for a moment, that Daryl was really going to escape?), repetitive, numbing cruelties, a sympathetic Other (Dwight being the Saviours’ Juliet), and a charismatic, talkative villain.
Still, The Cell is a strong episode, the lack of the main cast boosted by a great performance from Austin Amelio – surely the show’s next breakout star, now Abraham is gone – and a jaunty Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Negan may be annoying, but it’s fun to watch Morgan have so much fun with it. Norman Reedus, meanwhile, does well with what little he’s given. Trapped in a closet for most of it, he gets to be dirty, naked and ugly cry, which the fans love, as well as owning his ‘there are four lights’ moment too.
The episode closes with Dwight, turning his back on the audience and revealing the winged leather gilet of Daryl Dixon. As if stealing the episode wasn’t enough.