After a brief respite last week, “The Cell” finds us once again in the land of Negan, where bad things happen to bad people, and good people, and, well, pretty much everybody. The episode follows Daryl’s adventures as he spends his days locked in a cell eating dog food sandwiches, in between brief trips to the doctor and inelegant psychology tests. Oh, and there’s the music—loud, blaring, and inescapably cheerful. Meanwhile, Dwight, who we last saw getting his dick chomped by Eugene, is doing his best to stay in Negan’s good graces and largely succeeding. The last time he went against Negan, he lost his (ex) wife’s sister, and, well, he used to look prettier. Now, if he needs a Halloween costume, all he needs is a half dollar with one side scratched.

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Here’s the thing about “The Cell:” it’s considerably better than the premiere, although not as good as “The Well” (I really, really hope next week’s entry is called “The Hell?”). It gives us a sense of who Dwight is, and manages to find some sympathy for a character we spent a large chunk of last season disliking. It helps to do some world-building for how the Negan system works, and it also more or less sells the extremity of Daryl’s situation. It’s solid, more or less, and even lacks the worrisome sadism the show has been known to indulge in when it’s at a loss for ideas. This is not a happy hour by any stretch, but the violence is pretty much all off screen. The only time someone dies, it’s almost by choice—Dwight shooting an escapee in the back after that escapee begged for the bullet is basically assisted suicide.

The problem is how the episode also highlights the corner the show has written itself into, and how that corner is probably not something we’re ever going to really get out of. No, I’m not going to rant about how “stupid” this all is, and I’m not going to accuse the creative team of tormenting us for no real reason. This is a concern The Walking Dead has struggled with for years now, and it’s no surprise that season 7 offers no real solution: how to escalate stakes in a narrative which has no status quo to protect, no stability to return to, and no way to entirely shake the feeling that these people are all ultimately doomed no matter what happens.

Negan is a scary dude (well, actually—no, hold on, we’ll get to that), and the society he’s built up around him is certainly unpleasant. “The Cell” does a great job at selling just how unpleasant it is; the soul-sucking despair of being trapped in a life with no real hope for improvement, where every day brings with it new degradations, where the odds of you getting your face eaten off don’t actually ever go down. In its best moments, there’s a weary sadness that helps to underline Carol’s struggles from last week, an acknowledgement that no matter how many Kingdom’s rise up, this is still the world, and you aren’t ever going to escape the Negans in it.

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At the same time, because this is an ongoing series and not a movie, we know that sooner or later there’s going to be some kind of shift. Negan’s going to topple. Right now is the “lowest point of the arc” part of the story, where the writers (and actors) have to work to convince us that no, this really is some new, horrific sort of threat, and hey, maybe this time our heroes won’t find a way out. That’s a familiar structure, and for all its clumsy, forced ugliness, that’s all Glenn and Abraham’s deaths really meant: an investment against future narrative return. And that’s all Daryl’s pain means right now. The worse he feels, the more plausibly he’s tempted by Negan’s offers, the more satisfying it will presumably be when he finally rises up and starts kicking ass.

Sure, that might never happen. Daryl might actually go full Savior; or he might have a Beth arc, and get killed when he tries to stand up for someone. But right now, at least, my money is on lots of suffering and then eventual deliverance, in some form or another. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that model. Lots of great action movies follow it. You never want the victories to come too easy or too soon, and there’s something darkly satisfying about seeing a hero getting the shit pounded out of him when you know that eventually, there will be a reckoning.

The problem is that we’ve done this before, and the harder the show works to insist we believe that Negan is something scary and new, the more cracks appear. I praised Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s performance in the premiere, in part because I was so checked out on the story that I was willing to embrace anything that offered even the slightest entertainment value. But the more we see of him, the clearer it becomes that he’s just not right for the part. I don’t know if it’s bad casting or bad writing or just a dud performance, but his smirking, Joker-lite appearances consistently deflate the tension in every scene he’s in. And given how much the episode (and this storyline) depends on Negan being absolutely terrifying and unpredictable, this going to become more and more of a problem as things go on.

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Really, it’s an impossible situation. For Negan to work, he needs to be something astonishing—a monster who changes our assumptions about survival in the post-apocalyptic world, a figure of menace and chaos and ruthless, merciless efficiency. Instead, we get a guy who talks like a twelve year-old boy smoking his first cigarette. And I don’t really think that’s Morgan’s fault. Maybe a different actor could’ve made this work, but there’s too much mood and expectation built into the role for anyone to be really satisfying. Sooner or later, Negan is going to do something horrible again, presumably to remind us just how bad Rick and the others have it. But in the context of what we’ve seen of the character, that awful act will exist in isolation. He’s a device, not a person, and that means he’s impossible to take seriously even before he starts goofing around.

This also makes it harder to buy into Dwight’s misery. The actor sells it well enough, but every time he and Negan are in the same room together, the whole thing deflates. That’s the problem with needing to raise expectations with every new storyline. Eventually you reach a point where the expectations are so high, no actual reality can deliver on them. “The Cell” does a terrific job of convincing us we’re seeing a glimpse of Hell right up until people start talking about what Hell actually means. Is it awful that Dwight’s wife is now with Negan? Sure. And the abusive damage Negan has done to his followers is bad stuff. But I’m not sure it’s quite as bad as the show so desperately needs it to be, and that’s going to continue to be a problem in the weeks to come.

Stray observations

  • Why would Negan want a wife, anyway? I guess it’s supposed to feed into the idea of him being unpredictable and odd, but we know so little about him beyond the shtick that it’s hard to be surprised by anything.
  • It’s continually impressive to me how a show this popular can still manage to hire some of the worst minor character actors I’ve ever seen on television. I realize saying “Negan” isn’t the most rewarding gig imaginable, but couldn’t the casting director find people who didn’t destroy the atmosphere every time they opened their mouths?

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