I was ready for this week’s episode, “The Cell,” to be the “Where’s Waldo?” episode starring our very own Daryl Dixon as Waldo. Instead we got the “A Very Special Evening ™ with Dwight” episode. Daryl’s story was the backdrop and stage that Dwight’s story played out on.
Daryl’s story can essentially be summed up as such: Negan wants Daryl’s spirit broken and tasks Dwight with the job. He’s physically and psychologically tortured, but the episode ends with Daryl unbroken (with a bit of doom hanging over his head).
It’s exactly what anyone who’s seen the show could’ve predicted in terms of predicament. We know Negan’s a control freak sadist. We know Daryl is a decent guy with poor table manners and an unyielding code. We saw how he didn’t exactly adapt to The Claimers’ way of life in season 4 (the group of guys he fell in with after Beth was kidnapped). Daryl, despite sharing DNA with Merle, is a stand-up guy.
Dwight, on the other hand, is, and has been, pretty hate-able since his season 6 appearance in “Always Accountable” when he and his wife Sherry ran him for all his shit. Then he reappeared just in time to kill Denise (with Daryl’s stolen crossbow) during her rousing anti-fear pep talk. So, yeah, this dude can walk into a horde and no one is shedding a tear.
Except Dwight gets that “Live Bait” treatment that the Governor got. Kind of. We don’t get his entire backstory via flashback, but great pains are taken to humanize him, and I don’t want to fall for this trick, because that’s what it is: a trick to complicate the narrative. But since I’ve been begging for character development, I will take it.
Cue the theme to “Who’s the Boss?”
We get what we can only assume is Dwight’s fuckishly parasitic day: condoning beatings, stealing things, and being Negan’s henchman. And, of course, torturing Daryl with the world’s catchiest song.
But what we see rising to the surface is a shitty truth a lot of us can identify with: Dwight is just a dude who hates his job, hates his boss, and is living (literally) paycheck to paycheck. He’s doing what he has to do to support his family.
And what exactly does that mean? Well besides the relaxed dress code at work, my dude seems to hate his life. What is left if his life, anyway. We can’t forget that when he and his wife robbed Daryl in the woods, it was in an effort to escape Negan and the Saviours. He was severely punished after he returned and begged for forgiveness.
But — and here’s where things get trickier for me to parse — that’s not all of it: the wife he escaped and returned with? She’s Negan’s “wife” now. That was the deal. They both live, but living costs –- as it always does.
The thing is though, her story is revealed only as a way to give Dwight a tragic depth. And that makes my ass itch. Dwight is taking Daryl to the doctor about his wounds and she, Sherry, is there. So is a negative pregnancy test. “Maybe next time,” Dwight says… good-naturedly? In character? Hoping to stay alive?
It’s Sherry’s story – a story of repeated rape and, I’m going to go out on a limb and say, overt psychological torture – but it’s told to humanize Dwight. Pardon me while I go flip this table stacked high with all the books, movies, epic poems, comics, myths, and dudes at bars that use an assault on a woman to show us how softhearted the seemingly hardened man really is.
How difficult her repeated rape must be for him. Get. The. Entire. Fuck. Out. Of. Here.
It’s Sherry who repeatedly tells Daryl to kneel to Negan because it can always get worse. Later in a stairwell, Sherry and Dwight are alone and they acknowledge that the best thing about their existence is that it’s not death. Dwight is not a happy employee. As he turns down Negan’s joking (not really) offer to sleep with his ex-wife as a reward for a job well done…
Sorry, just typing that turns my stomach. We know he still loves his ex-wife. He is who he is in order to keep her alive. Perhaps he’s hoping to stay alive long enough to be reunited with her and dance on Negan’s corpse.
Right after Negan’s offer, Dwight has to leave the sanctuary to re-capture an unhappy occupant of the sanctuary. This exchange, that happens outside of Negan’s watchful eye, is much more useful as a tool to reveal Dwight’s character and inner workings.
This is especially true given the (good) choice they’ve made to cut from Dwight’s pursuit and conversation with the escaped man with Daryl’s attempt at escape from his cell and back again. The idea of who is actually trapped and what the titular “cell” actually is can’t be avoided.
The man tries to appeal to Dwight’s past; they were friendly once. Sherry tries to appeal to Daryl’s sense of self-preservation; Negan will do more worse unthinkable things if he’s caught.
While Negan is once again explaining the limited choices that Daryl has in the sanctuary: dead man, working for points, or henchman, Dwight uses the exact tactic Negan has used on him to force the escapee to walk back: he threatens anyone the man cares about. This is after the man asks Dwight to kill him. He’s willing to die to escape Negan, but the idea that his death won’t be the end of it, that anyone he loved or even liked will be forced to pay his debt makes him heed Dwight’s commands.
So here Dwight is, arguing with a man as desperate as he was when he and his wife (and her sister) ran. And then he does the most compassionate thing he can in this situation: he shoots the man in the back. But as Negan has told Daryl, even dead men serve him, so we see the walker this man becomes outside of the fence. Dwight looking at that reanimated corpse like I look at Sallie Mae bills – right before I walk out the door to work.
Dwight is still a bastard and a coward, but honestly I’ve had days on every job I’ve ever had that made me feel that way.