With its focus on a handful of characters and emphasis on introducing viewers to an unseen community, “The Cell” is in keeping with The Walking Dead’s previous episode, “The Well.” Both stories feel like ruminations on being trapped, but the latest is far less philosophical. Daryl is now eating dog food sandwich meals as the remarkably obscure song “Easy Street” by the Collapsable Heart Club blares in the background. This is what happens when one falls in with sadists and that is, up-tempo vibes aside, exactly what the Saviors are.
By the end of the hour, the audience likely hates the song as much as Daryl does.
“The Cell” provides a beautiful object lesson in proper cinematic storytelling via the contrast between its opening sequence and, well, every other part of it. In a Breaking Bad-ish cold open, viewers are taught how food is acquired at the Savior’s main compound. The montage, built around the image of a sandwich getting ingredients added as it moves along, efficiently establishes what daily life is like in this environment. There’s as much information disclosed in these few minutes as in the entire rest of the story. That’s because the rest of the story is told at The Walking Dead’s usual shambling, Walker-like pace.
If the opening is Breaking Bad, the rest of “The Cell” is wannabe Lost. The episode builds up to a big reveal about Dwight’s backstory and a new facet of Negan’s character — namely, that he takes “wives” from his followers, and that Sherry has become one of said wives. It’s terrible, sure, but after seeing Negan brutally beat a beloved character to death, there’s no shock left to be squeezed out of this lemon. The Walking Dead can escalate all it wants; there’s a point past which a person is inured to its ugliness. Sherry insists that things can always get worse, but that feels optimistically pessimistic.
Daryl is essentially a surrogate for the audience in the episode’s exploration of this idea. The Saviors seem to work by breaking those unwilling to join them then welcoming them into their ranks. This is problematic with Daryl though because a childhood of abused left him with a calloused heart. He’s as numb to torment as The Walking Dead’s viewership.
Unlike “The Well,” which ably laid out the basics of the Kingdom, “The Cell” half-asses the introduction. After the tremendous show of force they displayed in the sixth season finale / seventh season premiere, they look pared down to around a dozen people here. There’s little sense of scale, no indication that we’re witnessing the headquarters of a sophisticated army with who knows how many other nearby communities serving as its vassal states. And here’s another weakness of The Walking Dead that doesn’t get talked about as much: the lack of imagination in a lot of its production design. You could swap shots of the Savior’s home with those of other post-industrial locations the show has used before. No one could tell.
Of course, the production budget must go to priority number one: zombies. The highway-splatted individuals Dwight encounters while hunting down a runaway look half-liquefied, with individual limbs moving even as their torsos goosh about. The FX work is fantastic.
The biggest problem isn’t with visuals or even plotting, it’s with the obfuscation at the core of “The Cell.” The Savior’s society remains opaque; new information actually makes it less clear why the hell anyone worships Negan, much less follows him, much less likes him. The guy loses his intimidation factor the longer he’s allowed to drone on or clown about with his shtick/stick. Having him take such a personal interest in dealing with this one prisoner when he supposedly has a post-apocalyptic empire to run doesn’t help.
The Walking Dead, perpetually short on story ideas, takes the tack of doling out details and developments sparingly. In theory, we’ll gobble up each new tidbit presented about the situation at hand for the characters. But it’s already spent half a season teasing the Saviors, and even after we’re put right in the heart of their camp among a character familiar with it, it’s still just teasing. It’s easy to take for granted how much time a TV show can take up, given that we generally consume them either in weekly portions or hours at a time, but always consider The Walking Dead in terms of how many other zombie movies you could watch in the same time it would take to catch up. Does it do or say nearly as much as all of those? Or any of them?