This post contains major spoilers for the third episode of The Walking Dead Season 7, "The Cell."
What's the deal with Dwight? First introduced midway through Season 6, fleeing the Sanctuary to abscond with his sickly sister and vulnerable wife, Dwight has a strong claim to being the most complicated character of The Walking Dead's vast ensemble. We've seen him put himself in mortal danger to protect his family. We've seen him both befriend and betray Daryl, accepting his help and then running off with his crossbow and motorcycle. We've seen him shoot Denise in the head. We've seen his face disfigured and his private parts nearly bitten off. And now we've seen him enjoying his position as lieutenant in Negan's private guard -- pilfering lunch from the underlings, bossing the weak around, and submitting the unfortunate to a torture regimen no man would happily survive. We've seen him do a lot of things. But what's his deal?
That's the lingering question -- particularly after tonight's episode, "The Cell." Dwight's been assigned by Negan to oversee Daryl’s slow-boil torture, willing him to break and join the Sanctuary elite, a process it’s strongly hinted was once endured by him. (This is one of our first glimpses of the Sanctuary recruitment process: Negan's best men aren’t born, they're made. Brutally.) And his attitude toward Daryl as he feeds him dog-food sandwiches and drags him to and from his cell -- patient, all-knowing, but not exactly mean -- does seem somehow sympathetic, even pitying. He’s not interested in bullying Daryl or inflicting pain on him for no reason; unlike Negan and his beloved Lucille, he isn’t by nature sadistic or cruel. You get the sense that Dwight wants to help the man he's been asked to torture. I was once like you, and I’ve been through all this before, he seems to be saying. Be smart, give in, and you too can survive and live life like a big shot like me.
Except that Daryl isn't going to give in -- and that bothers Dwight a lot more than it should. He sees in Daryl an early version of himself, himself before the time of Negan, independent and headstrong and unafraid. But if Daryl endures this torture better than he did, if after all this suffering he manages to remain independent and headstrong and unafraid -- well, what does that say about Dwight? As he continues to torture Daryl and it becomes obvious that he’ll stick to his convictions no matter what, Dwight begins to wonder whether he didn't give up too easily, whether he didn’t sell his soul to the devil before had to. He’s starting to suspect that if a man like Daryl -- a man like himself -- can stand up to Negan's pressure so bravely, he should be able to as well. Otherwise he's just a coward. Otherwise he's just weak.
Dwight, Negan explains toward the end of the episode, abandoned the Sanctuary and betrayed him, and he only earned his way back into his (and Lucille's) good graces the hard way. Dwight took an iron to the face, and Negan took Dwight's wife: Sherry, the woman introduced with Dwight back in Season 6, is now Negan's partner and property, his to have his way with, and, apparently, the aspiring mother of his child. Dwight isn't exactly overjoyed with the situation, as one might imagine. But he's convinced himself that all of this -- all of the humiliation, the indignity, the loss, and the abuse -- is preferable to death. He's enjoying a relatively privileged position as an officer in Negan's army. He's learned to do without niceties like happiness or pride.
But now there’s Daryl, who essentially tells Negan point blank that he would prefer death over submission of that kind. And now Dwight is left to wonder which is the better way. Did he really do the right thing? Is he really OK with living like this? Suddenly he doesn’t seem so sure. Daryl has offered Dwight an example of the kind of willpower and resolve he didn’t think it was possible to maintain in a world like this, in the face of a man like Negan. He’s also offered him an example of another way.
The question is what effect that example will have on Dwight going forward. Will he take a shot at redemption and free Daryl, or even help him revolt against Negan and the Sanctuary faithful? Or will he double down as a believer because he can’t bear the shame? It seems clear that his time with Daryl will be a turning point for a very conflicted man. Which way he'll turn exactly remains to be seen.
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