Been wondering what, exactly, goes on inside the walls of the Saviors’ community? Time to find out! Hint: It’s not a whole lot of fun and games. I mean, Negan likes to give the impression he maintains the absolute devotion of his people by sheer charisma and the constantly looming threat of punishment. But yeah, no. The reality is obviously much more brutal. Mostly it’s just torture all the way down.
So Daryl is caged up in a cold, dark cell for most of the episode, fed dog food, constantly played loud obnoxious music to keep him awake, and told repeatedly that all of this can stop if he just becomes a Negan lackey. All a concentrated effort to burn out whatever defiance is left in him, to tame him like you might break a wild horse. It’s a scenario we’ve seen before in 1,000 different shows about torture and brainwashing, from Star Trek: TNG to Homeland. Awful to watch, but nothing new either.
The episode doesn’t really focus on him, though, choosing instead to peer into the life of his torturer, Dwight. It’s an interesting choice (if a bit frustrating from a narrative momentum perspective) because Dwight is obviously a victim of torture himself, so we see the painful process from both ends, as it were.
To jog your memory, he’s a not-so-quick Dwight refresher:
We first met him last season in episode 6, when Daryl, Abraham, and Rosita were leading the World’s Biggest Zombie Hordeô, but got separated by a bunch of guys in cars with guns.
These were some of first glimpses of the Saviors, who were out there chasing Dwight, his wife Sherry, and her sister Tina. They had been with the Saviors, but the cost of living there got too high, particularly since diabetic Tina needs insulin, which unsurprisingly got the Shkreli treatment since the apocalypse. So instead they steal the medicine and make a break for it, and Negan sends his goons after them.
When they encounter Daryl in the woods, they reasonably assume he’s with their pursuers, until he saves them from some Saviors. But then Tina dies anyway, and Daryl considers inviting them to live in Alexandria (remember, Daryl’s job in Alexandria was recruiting). Instead, they double-cross him, take his crossbow and his bike, and take off.
Now we get some more background on what was really going on here: In Savior-land, you can choose one of two paths. You can be a true Negan believer, work for him as a henchman and killer, kneel when he passes by, and tell everyone that your name is Negan, to promote the utterly terrifying idea that he is literally everywhere. And you get to live luxuriously, eat well, and can pretty much take anything you want—unless Negan wants it for himself (nauseatingly, that includes women).
On the other hand, you can choose to live your own life, in which case you owe Negan for everything you get (shelter, food, etc.) in on an elaborate barter system based on “points.” And if you fall behind on points, bad things happen…up to and including being introduced to the business end of Lucille.
Dwight, Sherry, and Tina chose option B: freaked out by the whole cultish Negan thing, refusing to kneel, living on the edge of the points system. When insulin-dependent Tina fell inevitably behind, Negan gave her the option to marry him to wipe out her debt. So they ran—straight into Daryl.
The calculus of stealing from Daryl seemed to be: Now that Tina’s dead, let’s bring back the insulin, a bike and a crossbow, plus intel that there is a new community out there waiting to be plundered, and in addition, if we apologize, maybe they’ll let us come back. But Negan wasn’t quite satisfied and wanted to kill Dwight. To save him, Sherry had to marry Negan instead. Instead of death, he just burned off half of Dwight’s face with a clothes iron.
And that’s where we are now, a deformed, humiliated, and broken Dwight now having Stockholm Syndromed his way up the ranks to become one of Negan’s most trusted lieutenants. So trusted that he is given the task of breaking Daryl. But meanwhile Dwight seems to be confronting the horror of this life he chose at every turn, and it looks like he’s the one being broken down.
The episode starts with a montage (set, fittingly to The Jam’s “A Town Called Malice”) of Dwight’s life in Saviorville, as he enjoys the luxury afforded to Negan’s lieutenants: He painstakingly builds an elaborate breakfast sandwich out of the tributes offered by those the Saviors control, including mustard and pickles he ransacks from the belongings of a man recently beaten to death for not making his point quota. (The pickles are treated like a significant find, which seems odd: Wouldn’t preserved foods be pretty common these days, as they’re one of the only things that won’t have spoiled by now? I’m constantly surprised that apocalypse food isn’t like 80% Slim Jims.)
Seems Dwight, burned as he is, leads a pretty a hunky dory life in paradise. Except that he keeps staring at the third category of Saviorland denizens: captives, who wear dirty white sweats with letters spray-painted on them (Daryl’s marked with an A, a leery callback to Terminus) and are forced to maintain the compound’s defenses, wrangling walkers onto rows of spikes outside the gates. And we’re forced to see the comparison, because Dwight is making it himself: He may have a cushy setup, but he’s still just as much a captive as those sorry dudes.
Or maybe he thinks he’s just as much a monster as the walkers. I mean, characters have made the comparison before (“We are the walking dead.” Shut up, Rick.), but what living person on this show has ever looked more like a zombie than Dwight? Half his face burned into a mass of scars, and—after he gets into a tight spot with some walkers under an overpass while chasing down a guy who stole from Negan—with blood on his face and a shambling gait.
The thief Dwight is chasing, once caught, doesn’t beg to be let go; quite the opposite, he begs Dwight to shoot him. Life under Negan is just that hellish. Kneeling before him, asking for a bullet: “This is the last time I’m gonna kneel.” And Dwight keeps becoming the monster Negan has made him. Threatening the guy’s friends, threatening to desecrate his dead wife’s corpse, he eventually wins out. But then he shoots the guy anyway, and watches as he returns to the gates as a walker.
For all that, not much happens in this episode. Daryl tries to escape, but it was just a test. Negan gives him a chance to become one of his men instead of continuing to suffer in the cell. But Daryl, perhaps seeing Dwight as an object lesson, keeps his classic reserve, and his identity,
Other than that, it primarily just serves as our introduction to life in the land of the Saviors. And to literally the worst song in the history of music, which I cannot get out of my head for love nor money. The song doesn’t seem to exist on the internet, leading me to believe that this lyrical and musical atrocity was written expressly as a form of torture. Which is a pretty good description of The Walking Dead, lately, if you think about it.