The Walking Dead gave us Daryl’s (Norman Reedus) new hell with “The Cell,” as we see him routinely taunted by Dwight (Austin Amelio) until he agrees to become one of Negan’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) henchmen. Though much of the story occurs in a confined space, the methods used to break Daryl are simultaneously subtle and larger than life; we might as well be watching the bizarre spectacle in the Sanctuary’s prison from an amphitheater.
Presumably, Daryl’s steady forced diet of dog food sandwiches and the playing of a song called “Easy Street” are happening to make him more pliable, but he’s a tough nut to crack. Daryl fails to pledge allegiance to Negan (and perhaps fails to become completely amoral).
However, there is still a lurking fact that makes it a bit harder to sympathize with Daryl: He was part of Rick’s effort of largescale assassination against Negan’s men at a Savior outpost facility. So, sure, it’s tough to say “Daryl deserves it” with this sort of psychological torture and manipulation, but we’re not talking about an absolute saint here, either. In fact, even The Walking Dead official Twitter account said: “Negan was kind of justified in killing Glenn and Abe after Rick murdered 50 Saviors in their sleep .” Now, I might say none of these behaviors are justified, that there is no right side here, only different shades of being wrong.
The Walking Dead – Daryl
The Walking Dead understands how torment works.
There are times when Daryl is curled up into a ball, looking like a junkie who’s had his heroin supply removed. It’s really an episode of torturous moments that stands out due to its various examinations of cruelty. Not unlike the infamous Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs scene where someone gets his ear cut off to a snappy tune, Daryl gets the dog food treats. Meanwhile, we learn that when Negan isn’t threatening to beat someone with a bat, maybe he’s planning on disfiguring his face with an iron (as he did to Dwight).
When Daryl tries to escape (to avoid the Saviors’ dinner-time dog food), Negan and crew show up again and pull him back by his proverbial collar. The ironic thing is no one is forced to watch these scenes of the Saviors humiliating others and celebrating, so it’s not like the viewer is being tortured. So are we meant to enjoy these moments as a wink to the audience that “Hey, you’re actually in on it”? It’s all debatable.
The Walking Dead – Negan
What this all implies about Negan (and what he represents about real life).
On various occasions, while assessing The Walking Dead storylines and characters, I have noted that it’s not unrealistic to think people would behave like these characters under some “apocalyptic” scenario. In fact, people have behaved with incredible cruelty and bizarreness even during relatively normal times. You’ll have endless examples to choose from, so take your pick. Negan, as cruel as he is, is really only playing softball compared to how some people act out in the real world.
At the same time, Negan came come across as relatively normal, like a guy who maybe could kick back and relax with some beers and beef stew. While this show could be accused of celebrating people like that, I would say it simply exposes the fact that, of course, people like this are out there, and sometimes this phenomenon has been described as the banality of evil. Many of these historical figures regarded as great leaders are just elevated thus, perhaps because their cruelty hit just the right kind of nerve, injected just the right amount of poison into whatever organization they rule over.
A lesson in how torture works.
As a leader and professional psychological torturer, Negan sees Daryl as potentially valuable, which is why he doesn’t harm him. He also knows that in a torture session with a purpose, there is likely to be some give and take. He’ll put on the pressure to (hopefully) force some concessions from the target, then relent as a temporary reward, but always keep torture as a standby option. In fact, even if the heat dies down for a while, there will always be a hint that cruelty might be applied later down the road.
Negan is impressed with Daryl’s resolve, presence of mind, staying power, and refusal to become loyal, making it seem like they cannot coexist under Negan’s terms. That is Dary’s main bargaining tool here. Of course, Negan likely already knows that Daryl doesn’t agree, so he tries to depict himself as actually a fair man, willing to give him a chance to live in the Sanctuary as a prisoner.
When Daryl refuses, it’s also a reminder that, in The Walking Dead, as in real-life, there still exists at least an illusion of free will, which sometimes has to be enough to keep on going. Sure, we already got hints of these power games, but this time it lacks the overt cannibalistic overtones of the Terminus Safe-Zone, and Dwight’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” are by no means a weak point of season 7.
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