“Whatever he’s done to you, there’s more. There’s always more.”
After last week’s side trip to the Kingdom, this week’s Walking Dead got back to Negan, but not to Rick and the gang. Instead, this was an interesting glimpse into Savior HQ, showing just how Negan runs things. As last week, it had a tight focus mainly on two characters. Fans may have been delighted to see an ep where Daryl was centre stage; but really, the story was as much, if not more, about Negan’s faithful lieutenant Dwight. In the process, seeing things from the perspective of one of the ‘bad guys’, we came to understand more about how Negan stays in charge.
The pre-credits montage, set to the Jam’s Town Called Malice, artfully established the business as usual MO for the Saviors – visiting local communities and basically taking what they wanted, with the ever-present threat of violence. It was cleverly intercut with Dwight making himself a sandwich, while showing us where each of the ingredients had been extorted from. Along the way, director Alrick Riley established some important plot points with admirable economy – especially that Dwight is not altogether happy with what he does.
Angela Kang’s script returned to this time and again throughout the ep, establishing by various means why Dwight does what he does, and how that came to be. By extension, we saw why the Saviors slavishly follow the brutal Negan, even when, as one dissenter put it, there’s more of them than there are of him. Negan may be a thug and a psychopath, but he’s smart – and a brilliant judge of character. He also knows exactly how groups of people work; I wouldn’t be surprised if his backstory revealed him to have once been a professor of sociology.
So, all the Saviors have to kneel when he appears; and as we saw last season, if asked they will all say, “I am Negan”. It’s the sort of control one expects from a cult leader more than leather-clad warlord, and it’s clever. It creates a community in constant fear, where nobody dares rebel in case the rest turn on them. The results of that are clearly displayed as a gruesome warning, with those who rebel killed then chained up as Walkers outside the fence – nicely established as Dwight, munching on his sandwich, looked with some unease at the walking corpse we previously saw angrily giving the Saviors the shirt off his back.
Austin Amelio, promoted to series regular this year, did a pretty good job of giving Dwight greater depth than we’d previously seen, and even engendering some sympathy for him. How well that worked rather depends on how much the viewer is willing to forgive him for what he’s done previously, often with apparent relish – the killing of Dr Denise leaps instantly to mind. But it’s clear that he’s still not fully on board with Negan – a fact that our heroes might find useful, if the ever-canny Negan doesn’t spot it first.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan chewed up the scenery as usual, making Negan magnetic as well as terrifying. His constant reference to his beloved baseball bat Lucille as a person in her own right may just be the hallmark of the school bully he basically is, but it also makes one wonder if he has a genuine psychiatric disorder – perhaps the show will reveal that. Either way, he’s terrifyingly unpredictable, knows it, and uses it to his advantage; we saw that several times this week, notably in the scene of Daryl’s abortive ‘escape’.
Daryl, the only ‘good guy’ in this ep, had a pretty rough time of it, locked naked in a cell while the Saviors played The Collapsable Hearts Band’s irritatingly upbeat song Easy Street at him on constant repeat (amusingly the song’s writer found this usage to be “a work of genius”). These are all standard torture techniques used by the US military these days; it’s probably only a matter of time until they start waterboarding him. Norman Reedus was excellent as usual, though the sight of him naked was less titillating than pitiful, as it was surely meant to be.
The object of the exercise where Daryl’s concerned was clearly to break him as thoroughly as Negan broke Rick in the season opener. In this they failed (so far), but the moment when Daryl paused before answering the question, “who are you?” did have me waiting with bated breath to see if he’d say “Negan”.
That might have been the smart thing to do; he wouldn’t have to mean it. But then, we’d already established that Dwight did it because it was the smart (or easy) thing to do. If Daryl had taken that option, the hint was that Dwight would be how he’d end up. Perhaps unfortunately for him, he’s a tougher nut to crack than Dwight (or Rick, it seems).
Gore of the week
In a fairly slow, character-driven episode, you might have expected little of the show’s trademark gore this week. Not a bit of it; the sequence where Dwight encountered a pile of shattered Walkers who’d tumbled off a bridge was one of the nastiest visages of the much-battered undead so far:
It also served to remind us that, nasty though Negan is, the undead are still a threat, and very dangerous – as Dwight found out when one tumbled from the bridge virtually on top of him, its ear visibly hanging off.
This was a low key, somewhat functional ep, designed primarily to give us more detail on the Saviors in general and Dwight in particular. Whether it succeeded in engendering your sympathy for him is probably contingent on whether you can forgive his prior actions, though this explains them even if it doesn’t excuse them.
As an ep, it was almost a mirror of season 5’s Slabtown, which showed us the inner workings (and tensions) of Grady Memorial Hospital from the point of view of lone regular Beth Greene. It served the same purpose, imparting information without being particularly memorable. Still, never less than watchable.