This article discusses the plot of this season’s The Walking Dead. There are spoilers here.
“The Cell,” the third episode of The Walking Dead’s seventh season, finally tells us what happened to Daryl (Norman Reedus) and the Savior known as Dwight (Austin Amelio) after Negan killed Abraham and Glenn in this season’s premiere.
The first half of this season will most likely rotate between Dwight’s torture of Darryl; the Ezekiel story with Morgan, Carol, and a CGI tiger that we saw last week; and whatever’s going on with Rick’s group. As my colleague Todd VanDerWerff recently pointed out, having multiple storylines allows the show to stall for time when something’s not working by never lingering too long on any given plot.
Still, The Walking Dead has been lagging in the last couple of seasons.
The show has never lied about its bleak, hopeless premise. It’s about the zombie apocalypse, after all, and it’s possible that its depressing outlook has simply taken a toll. But I’d argue that even though The Walking Dead is intentionally and narratively full of despair, the problem is that its story in the last two seasons has been monotonous and bland.
“The Cell” is an example of the show at its worst. The episode confuses a slow pace for depth, expresses characters’ internal conflict through gigantic speeches, and features an indulgent villain who’s somehow underwritten. It reminded me of the three main reasons I’m ready to quit The Walking Dead for good.
1) The show spent 40 minutes telling a five-minute story
The Walking Dead can often feel like it spends so much time in its windup and not enough on the punch line.
At what point in the episode did you begin to realize one of its “reveals”: that Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) came between Dwight and Sherry (Christine Evangelista)? Was it in the doctor’s office where Sherry and Dwight made eye contact and looked at each other like candy bars they couldn’t eat? Was it the multiple times Sherry went up to Daryl and told him to just obey Negan? Was it when Dwight and Sherry had an oblique talk about their current situations relative to each other in the stairwell?
It’s a classic example of The Walking Dead taking 40 minutes to tell a shallow story. There needs to be a distinction between thoughtfulness and slow pace. They aren’t one and the same. You can point to this episode and how it slowed down to tell this story, but it didn’t really do anything beyond that or give us more insight into the characters involved.
Each one of the meetings between Dwight and Sherry were essentially the same scene, in a different setting. Just a couple of those moments should have been more than enough to clue us all in.
Of course, if they didn’t, I don’t blame you for not paying attention. I’ve had bouts of flatulence more riveting than this episode and had to restart it three times because I kept getting distracted by other things.
I believe The Walking Dead’s showrunners knew this too, which is why Negan delivered that long, just-in-case-you-missed-it synopsis at the end summarizing and spelling out what had happened between him, Dwight, Sherry, Tina, and the Saviors: Negan was going to marry Tina, but Tina was killed when she, Dwight, and Sherry tried to run away from the group. So Negan ended up “marrying” Sherry — an act Sherry herself proposed so that Negan wouldn’t kill Dwight. And now, in case this episode and the scar on Dwight’s face didn’t make it clear enough, Dwight is Negan’s pet who does everything he says.
But in the end, you could have stopped watching around the 20-minute mark and you would have known all there is to know about what happens in this episode. The Walking Dead’s slovenly plot never really goes anywhere, and it’s not like the extra time the show spends on each story adds anything worthwhile or powerful. It feels like a boring waste of time.
2) “The Cell” is basically the same four scenes replayed over and over
As my colleague Todd VanDerWerff also pointed out recently, The Walking Dead has a repetition problem; at this point, the show has told multiple versions of “look at this weird new community we found!” story. “The Cell” brought that problem to the episodic level.
Dwight is doing something that just precedes feeding Daryl in Daryl’s cell. Daryl gets fed in said cell. Daryl tries to escape from the cell. Dwight checks in on Daryl in the cell. These four scenes were basically stitched together and looped, and made up 84 percent of the episode.
Was there really any suspense or belief that Daryl was going to get caught again after “freeing” himself from his cell? Or that Daryl would change his mind and become a Negan henchman?
Granted, I understand that the whole idea of this episode was to show Negan’s strategy in attempting to break Daryl down. He has to live the same tortuous day every single day, and we have to watch it to get a taste of that terminal redundancy.
It kind of felt like the season six finale, when there were multiple shots of Rick’s group reversing their dumb RV, over and over again.
And it leads me to believe that The Walking Dead’s powers that be really believe this is an effective storytelling technique. I’m guessing they think it evokes a sense of tension, but the result is not nearly interesting enough to tear you away from whatever’s on your phone.
3) Negan is so edgy. So mean. So Negan. So boring.
One of the thoughts running through my head while watching “The Cell” was that Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan sounds a lot like Doctor Phil. The cadence of his voice isn’t as singsongy, but there’s something vaguely similar about the two, and I find that idea more entertaining than anything Morgan did with Negan this week.
I understand that Negan is supposed to be a nefarious character. Hitting Glenn so hard with a baseball bat that his eyeball pops out of the socket; killing Abraham; forcing Rick to almost chop off his son Carl’s arm — these were effective moments, perhaps too violent by half, where I really understood that Negan is an authoritarian psychopath who thrives on breaking people’s wills.
But his last speech in “The Cell,” with the talk of his penchant for “super-hot” wives and “manning up,” just feels like The Walking Dead fondling itself over its new villain. The psychology of Negan in the comic books — or even the psychology we’ve seen in past Walking Dead villains like the Governor, who led a double life as a hero to the people of Woodbury and as a villain to everyone else — seems absent. I get the impression that Negan is being written by grown men who are trying to impress the teenage boys who bullied them growing up.
I won’t be surprised if, next week, we find out that Negan wears a silver-studded leather cuff and enjoys fast cars.
But I wish The Walking Dead would stop making him a simulacrum of a big bad villain and actually showcase other qualities of the character that deserve our fear.
If you were on the fence about this show and its cop-out season six cliffhanger followed by a gory, indulgent season seven premiere, I understand. I’m in the same camp. The season six finale was terminally boring, and the cliffhanger was insulting; the premiere, with its litany of guess-who’s-gonna-die moments, felt manipulative.
“The Cell” isn’t much of an improvement. It’s another tame attempt to tell an introspective story, and it isn’t as gruesome. But it proves that The Walking Dead has become a show that only operates in one of two rhythms: boring or blood-spattered. And that its best seasons are probably behind it.