I hope you like children’s music, because you’re going to hear a lot of it in this episode. Specifically, the bulk of the episode is set to the happy little tune Easy Street by a band called Collapsible Hearts Club. You’ll hear it over, and over, and over again, as The Walking Dead follows along the torture of Daryl Dixon with the single-minded determination of a walker chained to a lead on a fence. There are a lot of those this episode, and there are a lot of shots of Daryl laying on a dirty concrete floor, either clad in dirty sweats or clad in his dirty skin.
Dwight (Austin Amelio) walks in, throws Daryl a dog food sandwich, and leaves. Daryl nearly falls asleep, and the loud and perky music kicks in. Daryl gets taken to meet Negan where he’s given his options: go to work as one of Negan’s men, go to work for points as one of the grey-sweater slaves, or go to work as a corpse chained to a fence to protect the yard around the Savior compound. There’s no fourth option, so Daryl will get thrown back into the hole until he’s ready to make a choice. Even when Daryl gets a brief glimpse at freedom, it’s just a trick designed to force him to make the right choice. When he’s taken to the doctor, it’s the same thing; it’s all about how working for Negan is way better than the alternative.
Then, back into the hole, back to the blasting music, and if you’re lucky, back to watching Dwight push a broken motorcycle after an escaping worker. Dwight is Negan’s scarred right-hand man, and we find out just how he went from one of the group provoking Daryl’s wrath last season to a guy who had half his face burned with an iron whose wife left him to become Negan’s wife. You know, just in case Daryl’s plight wasn’t depressing enough, you’ve got a relatively sympathetic member of the Saviors who is being blatantly cuckolded and everyone in the compound, from Daryl to the escaping Gordon, knows it.
Of course, Daryl needs a sympathetic person on the inside, and he has two in his old friends Dwight and Sherry (Christine Evangelista). Between those two and Doctor Carson (Tim Parati), there are a lot of people telling Daryl to take the easy way out, give in, and join up with Negan and company. As if he needs a reminder, Dwight makes sure to leave Daryl with a picture of one of his bashed friends, as a reminder of what happens when you oppose Negan.
To say the episode is monotonous is an understatement, there’s a lot of Dwight walking and a lot of Daryl laying on the floor or twitching like a beaten dog. To his credit, Norman Reedus is great when he does emote, and his body language is subtle and broken. It’s all glances and raw nerves, and it’s almost as good as Austin Amelio’s performance, particularly once he catches the man he’s been chasing and is forced to relive just what he’s traded for safety and security. He and Daryl are both trapped, and are both manifesting that desire to escape in different ways; Daryl is internalising his grief and Dwight is taking it out on other people.
The performances of the episode’s two lead actors are probably the most subtle thing, because Angela Kang’s script is pretty much on the nose at all points. The characters tend to directly say things to one another, though there is a nice subtle interplay between Sherry and Dwight when they run into one another, first at the doctor’s office where she has another failed pregnancy test and then again when they run into one another in the smoking stairwell. They dance around the Negan situation, and when Dwight and Sherry aren’t not talking about her new husband, they’re both trying to get Daryl to behave.
That repetition is furthered in Alrick Riley’s direction. We get Daryl tortured for probably ten minutes on screen, and if that band is getting paid per repetition of their song, they’re doing really well financially today. Riley features lots of close-ups on faces and eyes, working hard to pair Dwight and Daryl as two sides of the same coin before Daryl just comes out and announces it near the end of the episode.
The Walking Dead isn’t a show that’s known for being particularly smart or discreet. However, it seems like the show has taken a step back, at least early in the Neganverse. We see lots of people talking, and lots of people explaining, for example, the caste system of the Saviors’ compound when it’s pretty well defined by the uniforms the serfs wear versus the fact that all of Negan’s people are dressed like regular people. Still, it’s better to get it all out of the way in one fell swoop than to drag it out over the course of an entire season, especially since everyone knows there’s no way Daryl is going to turn against Rick and the gang, except perhaps to bring the Saviors down.
In many ways, choosing Daryl for this particular plot line takes a lot of the suspense out of it. Daryl’s not going to turn; he’s the most popular character on the show and he brings in too many viewers between The Walking Dead and his spin-off motorcycle show for him to go bad. If it was anyone else, like say… Carl or Sasha, the idea of that character changing teams wouldn’t be such a far-fetched one, but Daryl won’t go anywhere and everyone knows it. It’s like expecting Rick and Carl to die; it won’t happen until the show’s already over, so there’s absolutely no tension to be had by teasing the Daryl heel turn.