Perhaps it’s the thought of Election Day looming in the very near future, but this week’s The Walking Dead was more unnerving than usual — the premiere episode aside.
We’ve met two kinds of rulers this season: King Ezekiel and Negan. One, though more unusually charismatic, rules his domain with kindness, love, and respect, and gets the same from his people in return. The other rules with fear, first preying on those facing uncertain futures with the promise of prosperity and then forcing his will upon them and ruling as a merciless tyrant.
After taking a peek inside The Kingdom, we turn our attention now to the Sanctuary, Negan’s home base that places the full extent of his leadership in a larger context.
It opens with Dwight, who’s listening to the theme song from Who’s the Boss? and taking ingredients from his underlings to make a sandwich. It’s a comical tune when compared to the harsh world he now lives in, but it’s also unsettling. As an image of the typical nuclear family, it’s a haunting reminder of what Dwight could’ve had if Negan hadn’t come along.
Of course, there’s another reason why the show’s presence causes concern: Who’s the boss? Negan. We’re reminded of that as Dwight, wearing Daryl’s angel vest, kneels as he walks by. Then the music picks back up and it’s business as usual, until the sound of walkers interrupts his flow. Negan uses walkers to protect the Sanctuary by lining its border with the dead. As Dwight tries to enjoy his sandwich, he observes two men struggling to stake another to the writhing collection.
Soon we find Daryl, now dirtied and naked and forced to remain in solitary confinement in a dark room. He’s regularly fed dog food sandwiches and forced to listen to “Easy Street” by The Collapsible Hearts Club, the kind of upbeat jingle that can take root in your mind and drive a man mad. As if training a dog, Dwight turns on the music when it’s time to feed his pet, and Daryl accepts the dehumanizing food without complaint every time.
A day comes when Dwight enters with Daryl’s crossbow in hand and tosses the prisoner matching grey sweatpants and sweatshirt. Dwight pushes him down an angling hall to a doctor’s office, where we see Carson (the physician) and Sherry, the women Dwight met in the forest of ash trying to escape from the Saviors with Dwight and her sister Tina.
She recognizes Daryl, having rode off with his gear and motorcycle, but she calls Dwight D. To his horror, D sees a pregnancy strip on the table, but Sherry says it’s negative. She tries to talk to Daryl, but is warned not to do so. She tries again, this time advising Daryl to do everything he’s asked, and D barks his orders again. When she leaves, the doctor promises things will get better if he let’s it — meaning if he submits to Negan.
After his check-up, Daryl runs into Negan in the hallway and is forced to sit in a chair to the side while D and his master have a meeting. Daryl peers behind an orange door and sees a room with a TV, lazy boy chair, and kitchen. He’s pulled away and back to his cell, but D advises to make things easy on himself. We see a glimpse of his former self when he admits he thought he’d never kneel, but then warns that Daryl eventually will.
NEXT: Escape plan.
Later, Negan is discussing D’s progress with Daryl as the prisoner is trying to find a weakness in his cell door. D promises he’s close to breaking him. So, as a reward, Negan says he can have his pick of any woman in the Sanctuary, as long as they have sex with him willingly. For as sadistic as he was in the comics, Negan was always against rape. Even though he treats his subjects like animals, he felt the act was barbaric and unfitting of his society. And yet, he doesn’t seem unwilling to gain sex by verbally threatening women into a corner.
Negan then mocks D’s sexual performance, remarking how “that guy clumped on it,” and makes a sick joke about getting “a blast from the past with you know who,” alluding to Sherry. We’ll get to that more later on, but a walkie message indicating an orange situation interrupts their uncomfortable conversation. Orange means that a member of the Sanctuary absconded with supplies, and D volunteers to go after them, even though Negan says it’s “grunt work.”
D sets off in the morning on Daryl’s motorcycle, also armed with his vest and crossbow. A stone statue of a praying angel, its eyes marred by cascading age lines from its eyes, reflects D’s inner turmoil as he pulls up on a scene of a car accident under an overpass. Later scenes reveal scattered bodies of walkers lining the road, while a little farther up is a pool of dried blood and guts. As D looks up he sees a walker falling on him from an opening in the concrete road rails above. He struggles with the dead as more fall around him, but he’s able to escape. Injured, he rolls ahead and finds what he’s looking for: the defected Savior struggling with a walker.
These scenes are intercut with Daryl, who is trying to make his escape from the cell after another Savior delivers his food and leaves the door unlocked. He dodges guards and is almost to the door outside when Sherry taps him from behind. Having tried to escape before, she tells him to go back while he can because he won’t get away, and when he’s back in the cell, Negan will make his conditions worse.
Daryl ignores her and sprints out the door to a line of motorcycles, but he’s soon blocked and cornered on all sides by Negan’s men. Perhaps it was the thought of freedom that clouded his judgment, but the unlocked door was a trap to see if Daryl truly learned to fear Negan, much like his methods of breaking Rick. Negan goes around the circle and asks, “Who are you?” to which they all reply, “Negan.” He then offers Daryl three options: work for him as a walker lodged on the perimeter of the Sanctuary, work for him as an underling vying for points, or work for him like Dwight and “live like a king.” Daryl isn’t so easy to break, though, and he remains unflinching, even as Negan tries to shake him by swinging Lucille near his head.
“Lucky for you, she’s not feeling too thirsty today — but I am,” he says before walking away and leaving Daryl to the mercy of the pack of Saviors. Back in his cell, Sherry comes to speak with him and recalls all the things she wishes she never found out and wishes she never tried. “Back in the woods, after I lost Tina, when we took your stuff, when we decided to go back,” she said, “I told you I was sorry and you said you were gonna be…I am.”
NEXT: Mercy kill.
Meanwhile, an injured and hobbling D is walking his bounty back to the Sanctuary, but the man is pleading with him to let him go. He says they used to be friendly and references everything Negan has done to D and to his wife, which strikes a nerve. “She’s not my wife,” D says. “Not anymore.” In his despair, the man questions why everyone gave up their fealty to Negan: “We’re all so scared, so we gave up.” But he notes how there’s so many of them and so little of him, so why should they continue bowing down? “We were losing, now we’re not,” he says, before recalling how he and his wife thought everything would be okay by giving into Negan’s authority, saying, “We thought we knew how to fight the monsters.” (This conversation is oddly, uncomfortably similar to everything Bill Maher has been saying about a Trump presidency lately.)
Seeing no hope, the man asks D for an act of mercy: kill him and let him be free of this world. D first threatens to kill everyone he’s ever talked to and to unearth his wife’s dead body and feed it to the crows, but he eventually complies. The line of blood that streaks his right eye as he fires mirrors the weeping stone angel that first marked his mission.
Terms like the Sanctuary and the Saviors mixed with this illusion of omnipresence (“Who are you?” “Negan”) further feed the larger illusion Negan creates of a vengeful god: pay tribute to me, worship me, and I’ll be kind. Spurn me or worship other false idols, and draw the wrath of god. The episode does well in tying some of these threads together that led to his rise to power and, what’s more frightening, how fear and this sense of religiosity warps minds.
At the Sanctuary, D finds Sherry smoking in an empty stairwell and asks for a cigarette. Both seem to be lying to each other and to themselves, promising they’re happy and Negan is treating them both well. “I did the right thing,” he says. “It was a helluva lot better than being dead,” but as we saw moments ago, was it?
D then confronts Daryl again in his cell, this time more frustrated because he says Daryl should be dead but Negan has taken a shine to him. He throws Glenn’s death in Daryl’s face, since he was the one who enraged Negan to kill again. Then again, D admits he too got someone killed trying to defy orders: Tina. After their heated exchange, D leaves Daryl with a Polaroid of what looks to be the blood stains from Negan’s kills. Perhaps as another small act of kindness, he puts on a different song — Roy Orbison’s “Crying” — and he waits outside until he hears the sound of Daryl weeping in the dark.
NEXT: Dwight’s personal hell.
Later, he brings Daryl to Negan, who’s sitting in that room behind the orange door. It’s time for the good cop routine as he commands D to get him water with a straw since Daryl’s mouth is puffy from the beatings. He likes D’s hustle, but notes how their relationship wasn’t always solid. By now, many will have put most of the pieces together, but Negan then fills in the gaps of what happened before and after Sherry and D ran off with Daryl’s stuff.
D, Sherry (his “super hot wife”), and Tina (Sherry’s “super hot sister”), used to work for points at the Sanctuary. Tina needed meds but was falling behind on the points she needed to trade for them, so Negan asked to marry her and in exchange would care for her “in sickness and in health.” She said she’d think about it, after which she, D, and Sherry fled with medicine. (That’s when Daryl met them in the woods in season 6.) After Tina’s death, D and Sherry decided to go back and ask for forgiveness. To stop Negan from killing D, Sherry offered to marry him. Negan, being the stand-up guy that he says he is, obliged but scarred D’s face with an iron for good measure.
Negan wants Daryl to be like D and can offer him a comfortable place in his inner circle. First, he has to answer one question: Who are you? Refusing to give in and say Negan, Daryl says his own name. D tries to intervene, but Negan has Daryl tossed back in the cell: “It’s cool, he made his choice. Ain’t my problem if he made a dumba– choice.”
Once again trying to appeal to Daryl’s sense of reason, D recites the old warnings about how he’ll end up working for Negan either way — as a walker or a servant. Before he walks out, he and Daryl find common ground: “I get why you did it,” he says, “why you took it. You were thinking about someone else. It’s why I can’t.” It seems like this someone else could be Glenn, since there’s guilt there over his impulsive actions that led to Negan killing him. Perhaps it’s Maggie, for the same reason. Perhaps it’s for his entire family.
As D goes outside and sees the man he mercifully shot is now a walker of the Sanctuary, the walls of his psychological cell seem to close in.