Spoilers for The Walking Dead past this point.
It's kind of funny to think, what with the polarizing dual deaths that kicked off Season 7 of The Walking Dead, that the first few episodes have been nothing but table setting. But that's essentially what they — and this week's episode, "The Cell" — are, as we learn about new characters and new locations that will have massive payoffs (one hopes) as the season continues.
Episode 1, we got the new status quo for Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) as he learned that half his s-- belonged to Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), no matter how hard he fought. Episode 2, we met King Ezekiel (Khary Payton) in The Kingdom; a seemingly peaceful place that hides the secret that their peace is bought at a price... Negan's price.
And this week, we got to learn more about Negan, his group the Saviors, and his home, The Sanctuary. But more importantly: how badly did things go for Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) and his gorgeous, gorgeous hair?
Here's every big moment from "The Cell":
"Who's The Boss?"
I don't know what I expected this episode to kick off with, but Tony Danza definitely wasn't it, as Dwight watches old TV, plays air hockey, and carves figurines. But ultimately it's a neat way of learning about how The Sanctuary works: Dwight is top(ish) dog, taking what he wants to make a delicious looking egg sandwich; while others have to literally trade the shirts off their backs to get what they want.
As always with Walking Dead, though, even Dwight's semi-charmed kind of life is surrounded with absolute horror... We glimpsed this in a preview scene, but The Sanctuary is surrounded by a ring of Walkers, chained or impaled on stakes. Shades of Morgan (Lennie James) in "Clear," with less of the psychological subtext.
Gone To The Dogs
...And then we find out what's happened to Daryl, and it's as bad as you could expect. Merle's little bro has been stripped naked, thrown into the cell of the title, and is being fed dog food sandwiches. While Dwight is living the high life, he's finally got Daryl — the man he both hates, and desperately wants to be — right where he wants him.
What Dwight doesn't know is that Daryl, who has suffered his whole life at the hands of Merle (Michael Rooker), his father and others, isn't broken that easily. That said? Dwight knows his brainwashing techniques... In case you're not totally familiar with how cults work (not all of us took independent study courses in High School on cult theory, I guess?), the first steps in breaking someone down are restriction of food (usually a lack of protein, though giving someone dog food sandwiches and nothing else probably works) in order to make them woozy and susceptible to suggestion. Part and parcel with that is sleep deprivation, and repetitive actions, so you start to lose track of time and your basic self.
That's exactly what Dwight is doing to Daryl, playing the same (horrific, cheery) song over and over; until Daryl is ready to wear an "A" shirt (shades of Season 4's "A"), and get a slave job in order to (possibly) work his way up The Sanctuary's caste structure.
"I ain't never gonna kneel," Daryl tells Dwight, after the latter tries to explain that he can be a slave, one of the ruling caste... Or a walker, locked outside the gates.
"See, that's what I said, too," Dwight shoots back, referencing how he eventually came back into Negan's fold.
Seven Brides For One Brother
There's another aspect of The Sanctuary we need to discuss, and that involves Dwight's former wife, Sherry (Christine Evangelista), who we first met back in "Always Accountable." Sherry and Dwight were previously trying to escape Negan, when they ran into Daryl.
Next time we saw Dwight? His face was burnt; and clearly, things have gone sour between Sherry and Dwight. That's because Negan takes wives. In exchange, the "wives" and the husbands get to move up the caste structure. But, you know, they also don't get to be in a couple anymore. So...
We're On Easy Street
Have we established that Negan is super into mindf---s? Because he is. Telling Dwight (erroneously) that he's doing a great job breaking Daryl, Negan offers him a "blast from the past" with Sherry, before he says, "I'm kidding, pick whoever you want, as long as she says yes."
Here's the confusing thing you need to understand about Negan: in his own twisted way, he respects, or at least thinks he respects women. He allows them their "choice" of sleeping with the men who are in charge... But let's be honest, how much of a choice is it, really? Not much.
And for the men? When Dwight offers to do a "grunt work" job for Negan tracking down a defector from The Sanctuary, Negan grips him by the head and says "good boy," just how you would with a dog. To Negan, everyone is the same, and everyone belongs to Negan. Women, men, whoever, they're all property.
While Dwight is out to play, Daryl will play? Filling in for America's favorite burn victim, Negan's, oh, say, fourteenth in command leaves Daryl's cell door open. So naturally Daryl takes the opportunity to attempt to escape.
Meanwhile, Dwight heads out on the road to take care of some very, very gross Walkers who exploded all over the highway. In a way, this is Dwight's escape, as well. He's riding Daryl's bike, and wearing Daryl's angel wings vest... So for a moment, even if he's on the road being attacked by the hungry undead, he's "free" from Negan and can pretend to be Daryl (or who he thinks Daryl is inside).
Daryl runs into an obstacle of his own in Sherry, who begs Daryl to stay in The Sanctuary. She tells him that just because Daryl thinks he's getting free, what Negan does to him later will be worse. Daryl, though, don't care. He sees escape in his reach, and some bikes free to just ride.
...He's not free, of course, but you saw that coming. Negan has Daryl surrounded. It was a test to see whether Daryl had the cojones to join his all-male alpha crew... And at least in Negan's eyes, Daryl doesn't have it what it takes.
Instead of bashing Daryl's head in with Lucille, his "vampire bat," instead he just lets his men beat the crap out of Daryl... Which honestly, is another weird mistake on Negan's part, same as when he spent so much time on Rick in the premiere. For some reason, the madman has a soft spot for Rick's crew, and ultimately that's gonna be his undoing.
Speaking of people who aren't free, Sherry talks to Daryl through the door of his cell, reminding him of when they first met. In case you don't remember, Daryl helped Sherry and Dwight; but after Sherry's sister died, the duo stole Daryl's bike and rode back to Negan.
"You said, you're gonna be," Sherry reminds Daryl, of when she told him she was sorry for stealing his bike. "I am."
On the other side of things, Dwight has found Gordon (Michael Scialabba) on the road, the man who tried to escape Negan, and we get more of a sense of why people are sticking with the bat-wielding madman. "See that's what he tells us, no way but his way," Gordon says, "But there's only one of him, and all of us." Dwight doesn't agree, that things outside are terrible, but are in fact just peachy in The Sanctuary.
He knows they're not, of course... But Dwight has forced himself to follow Negan's way, because he can't face the other idea: freedom. So Dwight threatens Gordon the way Negan would, saying he'll give every one of his friends a death sentence, dig up his wife's body, and worse. Gordon gives up... And Dwight kills him.
Dwight thinks the way out of the trap he's in is to become "free," like Negan. It's not, of course. No one is free when they've given up their basic humanity. But he's scared. He's scared of dying (which we find out when he has a quick conversation with Sherry in a stairwell). He's scared of who he was, and who he's becoming. The only thing driving Dwight is fear.
Look At That Photograph
That's when Dwight hits on what will break Daryl: his emotion. Last season, we learned that Negan likes to bash people's heads in, and then take polaroids of their dead bodies. So Dwight leaves Daryl with a photo of Glenn (Steven Yuen).
Glenn, in case you forgot, died directly because of Daryl's actions. Negan killed Abraham (Michael Cudlitz), he was done. And then Daryl punched him. Because Daryl took action, Negan felt like he had to give the Grimes Gang another lesson, and killed Glenn.
This is what seemingly breaks Daryl. Not the cult techniques. Not the threats. It's the reminder of what he caused... And this has always been Daryl's fatal flaw. Daryl takes everything in on himself. He blames himself for everything (and in this case, rightly so). And when he does, he starts heading down a destructive path. So while it's nice to think that Daryl has taken the photo of Glenn as a moment to swear his vengeance and take down Negan from the inside, far more likely he is truly broken. He thinks he's not worth being anything more than Negan's dog.
So it's off to Negan they go, where he fills in the gaps in Dwight's story: Sherry's sister needed meds; Dwight was on the point system; he couldn't pay; Negan offered to make her his wife, in exchange for meds; so they ran away.
Dwight, as we know, came back and begged for forgiveness. Negan was going to kill him anyway, but then Sherry offered to marry Negan. She did, Negan burned Dwight with an iron anyway, and then Dwight signed up to be his right hand man.
...And that's how the world works now! "Look at us now! One of my top guys," Negan says. "And we are totally cool."
Is he though? Totally cool? Probably not, right? Regardless, Dwight isn't crafty enough to be tricking Negan, and he's also consumed by fear.
Speaking of breaking points, all Negan wants Daryl to do is say, "I'm Negan," and he gets to be one of Negan's inner circle, just like Dwight. Sweet deal, but again, he doesn't know Daryl. A comfy bed, nice clothes... That's not what the Grimes Gang's greasiest member is into. He's all about the open road, and family, and loyalty to his friends.
So when Negan asks him again, "Who are you?" after a long pause he says, "Daryl."
...And if you were looking for a "f--- yeah!" moment from the episode, this was it. It's tempered by the idea that Negan could kill Daryl (leading to rioting in the streets), but this is the defiance we need to see, and the hope that the group will eventually defeat him.
Dwight is angry, though. He yells at Daryl (and it's clear he's frustrated that Daryl once again proves he's the stronger man, standing up to Negan when Dwight himself couldn't), but Daryl is calm.
"I get why you did it. Why you took it," Daryl says, either referring to Sherry's sister's meds, or more likely to Daryl's bike. "You were thinking about someone else. That's why I can't."
With that, Dwight goes and looks one more time at the zombie yard outside the sanctuary, which has one new member: Gordon. Like Daryl, Gordon was braver than Dwight ever could be... He may have gotten all the material goods he could need from Negan — egg sandwiches, beers, etc. — but ultimately Dwight lost everything.
Meanwhile, Daryl has nothing — no bed, no books, just a cell empty except for a photo of his dead friend — but he still has himself. Daryl might be the one physically trapped, but he's truly the one that's free. Dwight is stuck in a prison he's made.
The big question is, who will make it out of their own prison, first.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.