Norman Reedus fanboys and fangirls, prepare to swoon. This week’s episode of ‘The Walking Dead’ is all about Daryl, Daryl, Daryl.
OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration. The episode is just as much about Dwight (Austin Amelio), the burned-face Savior who was Daryl’s nemesis most of last season. Nonetheless, we get more Daryl this week than any individual episode in quite a long time.
The episode also has a bizarre opening. The first image is a hazy, static-filled clip from the opening credits of ‘Who’s the Boss?’, being watched via VHS on an old television. In the pre-credits scenes, a group of Saviors led by Dwight collect their payments from various debtors, often by force. All the while, Dwight collects bits of food (some bread here, a ripe tomato there, etc.) to make a delicious fried egg sandwich. Propelled to the tune of The Jam’s “A Town Called Malice” on the soundtrack, this whole section of the episode is one big, upbeat music montage. Then Dwight takes his first bite of the sandwich and the music cuts out. He looks out at the fence surrounding the Saviors’ compound and sees lackeys being forced to chain angry zombies to the fence as a defensive perimeter. When he finishes his own scrumptious sandwich, Dwight opens a can of dog food, slathers some onto a couple pieces of bread, then opens a cell and tosses the disgusting slop to a naked and cowering Daryl, who scarfs it down.
As I think of it, this is probably not the image of Daryl that his fans wanted to see.
The song, it turns out, is part of Daryl’s torture. He’s bombarded with deafeningly loud music that prevents him from ever quite falling asleep. Mostly, an annoyingly chipper tune called “Easy Street” is replayed over and over and over. I doubt many viewers had heard the obscure song before (it’s by a band called The Collapsable Hearts Club), but I guarantee every last one was sick of it by the 873rd repetition.
After several days of this abuse, Dwight tosses Daryl a sweatshirt and sweatpants and brings him to see a doctor, in order to make sure he stays alive. There, Dwight also runs into his wife – or rather, now ex-wife – Sherry (Christine Evangelista), who has just had a pregnancy test. Immediately, it’s pretty clear that things are awkward between them and that Dwight wasn’t the potential father. (She’s not pregnant anyway.) When Sherry shows some sympathy toward Daryl, Dwight tells her not to talk to him.
Dwight tells Daryl that things will get easier for him if he’ll just submit to Negan’s rule, but Daryl insists, “I ain’t never gonna kneel.”
Negan pulls Dwight aside and tells him that he’s pleased with how well his treatment of Daryl is going. The progress may be slow, but he expects Daryl to break eventually. As a reward, Negan offers Dwight the opportunity to have sex with any woman in the compound he wants, save one (Sherry, no doubt). Dwight declines, saying he hasn’t earned it yet. Negan finds this suspicious and humiliates Dwight by questioning his manhood and laughing about how Eugene bit him on the dick last season. Dwight takes the insults without reacting, like an abused dog. He’s then called away by a report that someone has stolen some items and fled the compound.
With Dwight away, the backup guard messes up and forgets to lock Daryl’s cell after closing the door. Daryl notices this, waits a moment until the coast is clear, and then slips out. As he slinks through the hallways looking for an exit, he’s found by Sherry, who urges him to return to his cell. She says that she knows from experience that things will only get much worse for him if he continues to resist. Daryl walks away without saying anything to her.
Riding Daryl’s motorcycle, Dwight comes to an overpass with a pile of crippled zombies crawling around underneath it. Rather than risk trying to drive over them, he gets off the bike and carefully walks it through. Somehow, even seeing the condition of these zombies and a giant splatter of blood all in one spot doesn’t clue him in that they all fell off the overpass and landed there. As a result, one nearly falls on his head. Dwight is surprised by this, gets attacked by zombies, and has to fight them off.
Daryl spots a collection of motorcycles and makes a run for one when he’s caught by Negan and a bunch of Saviors. Negan tsk-tsks him, chiding that, “Your life was about to get so much cooler.” He lectures Daryl about the limited options available to him, all of which involve working for Negan, either dead or alive. To demonstrate his complete authority, he asks each of his henchmen their names and they all reply, “I am Negan.” (That’s a plot-point from last season I thought had been forgotten.) Negan fakes taking a swing at Daryl with his bat, “Lucille.” Daryl doesn’t flinch. Negan leaves him to be beaten by the henchmen. After he’s tossed back in his cell, Sherry whispers through the door that she’s sorry.
Dwight survives his zombie encounter, but he’s injured and the motorcycle was trashed. As he hobbles down the road, he spots the runner he was searching for, a man named Gordon. Dwight catches up and pulls a gun on him. Gordon says that there’s nothing for him back at the compound and he’d rather die than return. He kneels down and tells Dwight to shoot him. Instead, Dwight threatens not just to kill him, but also anyone he ever spoke to at the compound, and to dig up his wife’s corpse and feed it to the crows. Gordon begs for his sympathy, but Dwight’s mind can’t be changed. Finally, a broken Gordon stands up and starts walking back the way they came. After a few steps, Dwight shoots him in the back. Was he moved after all, and was this a mercy killing?
Dwight eventually returns to the compound. He runs into a Sherry in a stairwell and bums a cigarette off her. They don’t speak much. He asks if Negan is good to her, and she says he is. He then insists that he did the right thing in giving her up to Negan. Even as miserable as their current lives may be, “It’s a hell of a lot better than being dead.”
Daryl refuses his next dog food sandwich and throws it back at Dwight, who tells him that Negan has taken a liking to him and won’t stop until he’s broken. He leaves Daryl with a Polaroid photo of Glenn’s mutilated corpse that the Saviors took as a victory souvenir (as they do for all their victims). He then locks the door and starts up the music again. This time it’s Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” Left alone with the photo, and overwhelmed with feelings of guilt for his part in Glenn’s death, Daryl indeed starts crying.
Later, Daryl is brought before Negan again. With Dwight standing right there, Negan tells Daryl the story of how Dwight got back into his good graces after having tried to run away. (The short version: Sherry agreed to marry Negan if he’d let Dwight live, so Negan let him off easy by just burning off half his face.) The moral of this story is that it’s not too late for Daryl to join Negan’s team and live the good life like Dwight is now. (Those yummy fried egg sandwiches could be his!) All he has to do is submit.
To that end, Negan asks Daryl, “Who are you?” After a moment’s hesitation, Daryl responds, “I’m Daryl.” This was not the correct answer. Dwight tosses him back in the cell. Before he closes the door, Daryl tells Dwight that he understands why he bowed down to Negan, because he was thinking of someone else – but that’s the same reason why he can’t do the same.
As the episode ends, Dwight looks out at the fence again. Gordon, the man he shot, is now a zombie on a spike lashing and flailing in his direction. (Did he really drag the guy’s corpse all the way back to the compound, without a vehicle to ride home in?)
All told, this is a fairly minor episode. It shows us a lot about how Negan maintains the power he does, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s slithery, swaggering performance is still delightful. However, I’m kind of over Daryl being portrayed as an unbreakable badass. That’s pure fan-service. Even his brief emotional meltdown feels calculated.
I’m also not sure how I feel about the attempt to humanize Dwight and make him sympathetic, as if the only reason he works for Negan is because he has been thoroughly cowered. Last season, Dwight was straight-up evil. He took great pleasure in murdering Denise and torturing Daryl. I just don’t buy this sudden turn in his character.