If you’d told Daryl a few weeks ago that he’d soon end up in a safe zone where sandwiches are plentiful, everyone rides a hog, Roy Orbison’s cranking on a boomin’ sound system, and there’s a library of ‘80s sitcoms on VHS, he would have been pretty pumped. Unfortunately, Camp Negan is the bat-wielding psychopath’s personal Gitmo, a horror show where everything is Negan’s property and the punishment for disobedience is extremely severe (and, in some cases, endless). So great is Negan’s cruelty that by the end of the episode, even Dirtbag Dwight has been humanized by comparison.
In sharp contrast to the solar-eclipse darkness of the season premiere, tonight’s opening sequence begins on a more playful note, as Dwight — wearing Daryl’s leather vest — does his best Rachael Ray and shows us how to make a mean postapocalyptic egg sammie. The key? Take fresh ingredients from hard-working, downtrodden peeps you’ve subjugated, which really adds an extra zing to each bite. D appears to be living the high life as one of Negan’s right-hand men, but we eventually see the steep price he paid to climb the Saviors org chart. (Obscure musical trivia: The song that plays during the sandwich-making scene is the appropriately titled “Town Called Malice” by the Jam. There’s a subtle nod to the music video when the chicken wrangler does a triple-take as Dwight walks by. Do with that what you will.)
Before Dwight’s backstory is revealed, we see what’s become of Daryl. Much like Rick, he’s a broken man, but in even worse shape — filthy, locked away in the pitch-black cell, and subjected to a cruel tune about life on Easy Street at ear-splitting volume. So low is his state that even the biggest Daryl groupies won’t enjoy seeing him naked. Dwight feeds him dog food and warns him to fall in line. Campers here fall into one of three categories: those who follow orders and kneel when Negan walks by, those who do the grunt work and are one slip-up away from meeting Lucille’s business end, and the non-believers who are killed and put on display. After they turn, they’re staked to the ground and left to groan and moan for all to see. If Rob Zombie was hired to redesign a McDonalds playground, it’d look like Negan’s yard of torment.
Daryl, of course, ain’t bowin’ down to no one. An escape attempt ends with a lecture from Negan about his three choices for living or dying (“There is no door No. 4 … this is the only way”) and a beat-down by some Savior thugs. But Daryl finds a surprising ally in Sherry, Dwight’s “super hot” wife, who practically begs him to get with the program. “Whatever he’s done to you,” she warns, “there’s more. There’s always more.”
We eventually learn why Sherry is so fearful and why Dwight was unmoved to learn her pregnancy test was negative. Way back in season six, they were looking for meds for Sherry’s diabetic sis, Tina, when they ran into Daryl. Negan employs a point system, and insulin wasn’t cheap. When they fell behind on points, the trio escaped. Negan’s solution for repaying that debt? He planned to marry Tina, but then walkers ripped her throat apart. So when he captured Sherry and Dwight, Negan opted for plan B — marrying Dwight’s wife. As if that weren’t bad enough, he put an iron to Dwight’s face, which explains those nasty scars. That also explains why Dwight firmly (but politely) declined Negan’s invitation to “happy hour at the pussy bar.” I’ll let you draw the parallel between Negan and a certain presidential candidate.
But just when you’re beginning to feel the slightest sense of sympathy for disfigured and emasculated D, he sticks a Polaroid to the wall of Daryl’s cell. Maybe Dwight’s taking out his Sherry frustration on Daryl. Maybe it’s guilt over his role in Tina’s death. Or perhaps he’s jealous that Negan has “taken a shine” to their prisoner, despite everything Dwight’s sacrificed to be his favorite foot soldier. Either way, D takes Negan’s plan to break Daryl to the next level with this snapshot of Glenn — or what was left of him and the splatter of blood and gore that was once his head. Cue “Crying” by Orbison, and Daryl finally weeps. (It’s going to be one hell of an emotional reunion when he eventually sees Maggie again.)
Yet after all of that, Daryl refuses to play the “I am Negan” game. There’s a brief moment when the two Ds seem to connect, as Daryl explains his defiance: “I get why you did it. Why you took it. You were thinking about someone else. That’s why I can’t.” Daryl has lost everything: his actual brother, a spiritual brother in Glenn, all his badass gear. He’s played a role in the deaths of the last two people whom Maggie has loved. All he’s got left is pride and his survival instinct. All he needs is a jailhouse tat with the quote, “It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.” Viva Dixon!
The episode ends with Dwight, who can’t believe Daryl hasn’t cracked yet. But it seems that some doubt about the Savior lifestyle is creeping into Dwight’s warped mind. His road trip to find the thief who fled Camp Negan is a gut check, as the thief poses a completely reasonable question: “There’s only one of him and there’s all of us. So why are we living like this?” I’m not sure D really believes the answer he offered before shooting that poor dude in the back: “We were losing. Now we’re not.” Later, while on a smoke break with Sherry, Dwight sums up their rather complicated relationship: “I did the right thing. It’s a hell of a lot better than being dead.”
But is it really, D? Once again, he looks out across that yard of impaled walkers and sees the thief he executed staring back at him, groaning away — a semi-living symbol of what it means to defy Negan. Dwight’s been scarred, physically and emotionally. His wife has been sold into sex slavery to his boss. He’s in line for a demotion if Daryl ever joins the ranks. Aside from enjoying the occasional tomato-and-egg sandwich and Who’s the Boss? reruns, there isn’t much difference between Dwight and those zombies. They’re all going nowhere, tormented and trapped between life and death.