Even if it weren’t my job to follow The Walking Dead, I would continue to watch it. Into the seventh season now, I am devoted to these characters, I am invested in the universe, and I believe that hopeful, funny episodes like last week’s Ezekiel-centered one outweigh the bad on this show.
With that said, as someone who is a huge defender of this series, this week’s episode was, in my opinion, too much. The violence I can stomach, the zombie kills I relish, but when it comes to the way that this series psychologically breaks down characters, it is hard to watch and almost impossible to enjoy.
I don’t want to admit it so soon, especially after he’s only had three episodes with which to play, but Negan is a problem for The Walking Dead, and a problem in a way he wasn’t for the graphic novels. In the Robert Kirkman’s source material, Negan is sinister and brutal, but in the way he speaks, he also brings some comic relief with him. While he’s certainly the worst villain of the The Walking Dead’s comic run, he is also a villain we were excited to see, like for instance Mags Bennett in Justified.
While Jeffrey Dean Morgan is excellent as Negan, the comic relief doesn’t come through in his character on the television series. Those lines that are deliciously sinister in the comics are plain cruel in the series, and this week’s episode, “The Cell,” is the perfect example of that. Granted, we didn’t have a Daryl in the graphic novels — and arguably, no one the television audience is as attached to as much as we are attached to Daryl — but this week’e episode was thoroughly unpleasant to watch from start to finish. It didn’t let up. There was no respite from the cruelty, the fear, or the psychological torture of Daryl Dixon. For an hour, we watched Negan break him down. Maybe we were supposed to feel some relief in the end when Daryl didn’t cave to Negan’s demands and pronounce himself a “Negan,” but personally, it made me even more ill to know that the worst is yet to come from Daryl Dixon.
I understand what the show is attempting to do. It’s a classic trope: Turn our heroes into underdogs. In the long term, it might work to ensure that the eventual defeat of Negan will be incredibly satisfying for the audience, but I’m not so sure that any comeuppance can even out the score. Negan bashed in Abraham’s brains, he murdered Glenn to death, he broke Rick, and now he’s turned Daryl into a play toy. Without killing him and digging him up to kill him again, how will getting revenge on Negan ever be satisfying enough to justify his cruelty?
It’s hard to stomach. It’s hard to watch Daryl eat dog-food sandwiches, listen to the same song on repeat, and then get beat up for attempting to escape. While the episode was effective in humanizing both Dwight and his (ex) wife, Honey, it also suggested — in a believable way — that being dead was better than living under the thumb of Negan. Hoping that characters will die just to save them from their misery should not be the point of a television series. While Negan is in the picture, that’s exactly where my head is at. I like Daryl so much that I wish him death just to spare him from more of Negan’s cruelty. “If Daryl doesn’t die, we riot!”
Negan, at least for now, has snuffed out hope on The Walking Dead, and a show without hope is an unpleasant show to watch. Last week, I heard that this was supposed to be the second episode of the season, but that showrunner Scott Gimple switched it with last week’s Ezekiel episode to spare us from too much misery. That was a good call, but it didn’t spare us from the misery so much as it prolonged it. The Walking Dead desperately needs to give us some hope with which to cling to, and soon, because I don’t know how much more Negan porn we can handle.