After last week’s momentary reprieve, The Walking Dead plunges their recently traumatized audience into the horror of the Sanctuary. In “The Cell,” we learn that the Sanctuary is no haven, except to those who agree to be a part of the torture and violence demanded by Negan. And even among those chosen few, the tasks required of them provide them no peace. As we saw in the season premiere, to be a part of Negan’s crew they must be prepared to participate in persecution and murder. The Walking Dead may be overestimating viewers’ tolerance for watching beloved characters be brutalized.
Daryl is being held captive in a bare cell at the Sanctuary. To further dehumanize him, the Saviors have taken Daryl’s clothes and feed him dog food sandwiches. If that wasn’t enough, they continually blast the song “Easy Street” into his cell. Daryl is living a life of repetitive torture right now, but so is Dwight in his own way. Life at the Sanctuary turns out to be full of torment for most everyone, giving it the feel of The Inferno.
The Walking Dead took an entire episode to show us how Negan’s brand of psychological torture works. He creates a hopelessness that leaves people feeling they have no good choices, which makes a bad choice more palatable somehow. This is evident when Sherry and Dwight steal a moment to talk in the hallway, providing hollow reassurances to each other that the suffering they’re experiencing is better than being dead.
Negan has taken a shine to Daryl and wants him indoctrinated into his gang of vicious thugs. We get a glimpse of how Negan’s operation works. He oversees a gang of Saviors who perpetrate the ultra-violence, unfortunate survivors who work for points, and those who end up undead on the fence. This mobster approach means that those in positions of power live large, while the others live in fear, if they live at all.
When Sherry sees Daryl at the doctor’s office, she tells him to do whatever they tell him to do. Her warning doesn’t seem to have an impact because Daryl escapes the first chance he is able. He is Daryl Dixon, after all. As he makes his way down a hallway, Sherry is suddenly there. She warns him to go back, telling Daryl, “Whatever he’s done to you, there’s more. There’s always more. You won’t get away and when you’re back, it’ll be worse.” Daryl takes no heed of her warning and as soon as he makes it outside he finds himself surrounded by Saviors. Negan gives him the same spiel that Dwight did. If nothing else, these Saviors know how to create consistent messaging:
“You get three choices. One, you wind up on the spike and you work for me as a dead man. Two, you get out of your cell, you work for points, but you’re gonna wish you were dead. Or three, you work for me, you get yourself a brand-new pair of shoes, and you live like a king! Choice seems pretty obvious. You should know, there is no door number four. This is it.”
Back at the cell, Dwight puts the Polaroid of Glenn’s destroyed figure on the wall and reminds Daryl that he got his friend killed. He adds that Negan’s taken a shine to him and Daryl should consider himself lucky. Daryl forces himself to look at the picture and finally begins to cry as Roy Orbison plays. Dwight sits outside the door looking almost as despondent as Daryl. Both of these men are being tortured in their own way, though we’re not ready to share our sympathy with Dwight.
Dwight brings Daryl for a meeting with Negan. Negan tells Daryl about Dwight’s history with the Saviors. You know, just in case the audience doesn’t remember the episode“Always Accountable” when we first met Dwight and Sherry. There was a time when Dwight was only a points man, not in the position he is today. Negan wanted to marry Tina, Dwight’s sister-in-law. Wanting to be safe from the psychopath Negan, Dwight, his wife Sherry, and her sister Tina escaped from the Sanctuary. This was when Dwight had his first run-in with Daryl. After Tina was killed, Dwight and Sherry decided to return to the Sanctuary, taking Daryl’s bike, bow, and jacket with them. They still had to face consequences for running away, so Negan ended up marrying Sherry and Dwight got half his faced burned.
We might feel more sympathy for Dwight if he hadn’t escaped then chosen to go back. It was a surprising turn of events that they chose to go back instead of accepting Daryl’s invite to Alexandria, and after seeing Negan in action, their decision seems that much more irrational. Of course, they must have realized it was only a matter of time before Alexandria caught Negan’s attention. It was still surprising that they went back to face a likely death rather than try to find safety somewhere else. Must be part of the psychological conditioning that also keeps Negan’s men from rising up against him.
Negan continues to test his lieutenant Dwight in a variety of ways—reminding Dwight that he has taken his wife, suggesting someone else can go after a friend of Dwight’s who had fled, and assigning him the task of breaking Daryl. Dwight understands what Negan is doing, and manages to avoid his traps.
Daryl Dixon isn’t Easy to Break
Despite all their branding efforts, Daryl isn’t buying what the Saviors are selling. Negan asks Daryl who he is. Daryl defiantly responds with his name, which gets him sent right back to his cell. At the cell, Dwight seems far more dispirited than Daryl. Perhaps he sees something in Daryl he admires; perhaps he’s scared to fail this test of Negan’s, or perhaps he’s forlorn knowing he will eventually have to kill Daryl. Daryl tells Dwight, “I get why you did it. Why you took it. You were thinking about someone else. That’s why I can’t.” Daryl stands in for what the writers hope is the audience’s response, as they attempt to humanize Dwight.
The resolve on Daryl’s face is evident. Something about seeing Glenn’s picture has given Daryl inner strength. Though we have a moment of hopefulness, we realize this means several more episodes of watching dehumanizing brutality on screen. Suddenly we feel just as trapped and hopeless as Dwight.