The Walking Dead’s greatest weakness has always been the need to balance out its storylines. The show often has many irons in the fire, each of which requires attention. The premiere this season focused on the primary characters, and last week caught up up with Carol & Morgan. This week’s episode “The Cell” (no, not “The Well”) is technically about Daryl, who Negan has brought into the fold. However, the episode actually focuses on Dwight, the angsty Savior Daryl clashed with last season. Why The Walking Dead thought that was the protagonist we needed is unclear, but it appears there’s yet another character to worry about.
To the show’s credit, the lack of intrigue around Dwight isn’t for lack of trying. The Walking Dead provides insight into how Dwight came to be part of the Saviors, providing more insight into his life. Dwight’s wife saved his life by agreeing to marry Negan, following their failed escape last season. The majority of the episode is spent on making Dwight a sympathetic character, which makes a certain degree of sense. The show wants to make it clear that Negan is the primary evil, even though Dwight was a more visible villain last season. However, Dwight is set up as a new Merle Dixon, beating up Daryl in order to keep him safe. It’s the kind of character motivation that makes Dwight more interesting, and almost justifies spending a whole episode on him. But it feels like territory we’ve already tread, with a sympathetic antagonist that doesn’t hold the same weight.
Daryl’s role in this episode feels too much like he’s being protected. Not just by Negan, but by the writers as a whole. For a show that seems determined to take down lead characters, The Walking Dead shelters Daryl at every turn. Negan letting him live in the first place doesn’t make sense, since he took out the other threat in the main group (Abraham). So why let a man who’s potentially more dangerous keep his life, after trying to escape? Especially since Negan would have killed Dwight, who also attempted escape, if he hadn’t had a wife to give up? The show keeps trying to set up Daryl as the bad boy, who could flip on a dime & be a villain at any moment. We’ve seen various characters try to recruit Daryl into their gang of vagabonds. However, Daryl hasn’t had a distinguishable edge since Season 3, when he lost his brother. That’s when that type plot line became a dull point, and this is no exception.
The episode touches on several interesting ideas and points, but nothing is fully realized. Negan is still an ALMOST compelling villain, but still doesn’t have enough meat to him. The man Dwight tries to lead back to camp gives a far too impassioned speech to give into Dwight’s threats right away. The Who’s The Boss/“Easy Street” usage feels too messy to provide fully engaging juxtaposition with the gore of The Walking Dead. They’re all interesting elements that have potential, but the execution doesn’t feel earned at any point. There’s still too many balls in the air, and nothing lines up right just yet.
The Walking Dead has clear ideas that it’s working off of that could be immensely satisfying. Negan feels like a real threat to the world, and I want to see him in action. We’ve got loads of characters in the mix, but not enough who feel relevant. The Walking Dead needs to make its priorities clear, and begin working those plots that really matter.