All the characters in The Walking Dead are on personal journeys, and they’re pretty interesting (some more than others). But what is it that makes Daryl Dixon’s (Norman Reedus) journey so compelling? More compelling (to me, anyway) than that of any other character?
When we first meet Daryl in the third episode of season one, he struck me most as a wild, wounded animal lashing out at everyone and everything. He has a chip on his shoulder the size of Alaska and his temper is on a hair-trigger. When he learns that Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) has handcuffed his brother Merle (Michael Rooker) to a rooftop in Atlanta and left him there, he is ready to pounce, threatening everyone. It’s Daryl against the world.
How does a character go from that stance to the quietly effective second-in-command of Rick’s survivor group? How does he go from hair-trigger anger to the reasoned, wise man he’s become? It’s that journey that makes Daryl the richest, deepest character in the series; we want to understand his motivations, what drives him? No wonder he’s the most popular character on the series.
Yes, Rick’s journey has been a roller coaster, Daryl’s a more steady arc. Yes, Daryl has had huge emotional blows (including the one in the season five mid-season finale), but he is already so damaged and wounded when we first meet him, it’s almost as if he expects them. He carries it all on his shoulders–a burden of which he cannot let loose. Until he has no choice.
But Daryl has been a survivor for far longer than the few weeks since the outbreak. Physically (at least) abused by his father, and (likely) neglected, by his mother (before her death) since he’d been a small child, Daryl has learned to adapt. And adapt again. Latching on to Merle as a role model, the young Daryl had likely tried very hard to “be” mini-Merle, if only for approval. But as Merle says in season three “he’s always been the sweet one.” And once out of Merle’s sphere of influence, he becomes, very quickly into the smart, hyper-observant, and compassionate leader of which he’d always been capable.
We see glimpses of it in season two in the search for Sophia. He is committed to finding her as if it’s the only thing keeping him going, and maybe it is. Daryl’s self-worth is bound up in his ability as a tracker and his ability to survive in the wild wilderness. And maybe if he can find her, he can begin to become a part of the community at Hershel’s farm. It’s the first sense that anyone really trusts him, putting him in charge of the search. But it’s more than that, I think.
Daryl understands the elemental helplessness in someone who’s being abused by a parent or a spouse, and he also understands loss. And these two things bind him to Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride) in a very fundamental way–probably something he doesn’t even understand himself as he pushes himself harder and harder to find her.
With his deeply buried reserves of compassion (which we see more of in later seasons as they surface), he wants to make it better, give her hope when hope doesn’t really exist (and even she knows it). His Cherokee Rose speech is probably one of my favorite Daryl scenes in the entire series. The reticent, surly Daryl Dixon telling Carol a fairytale to give her hope. (Okay, I also loved the scene when he’s feeding the newborn Judith. We rarely see Daryl fully smile, and even my husband said “awww.”
It becomes clear during the back end of season three (if not long before) that Daryl takes the world on his shoulders (okay, his very broad shoulders!), something none of us would have believed of his essence back in season one when he is a wild man-child with a giant chip on his shoulder planted there by too many years following his older brother Merle.
For Daryl, the prison allows him to become the man he really always had been. A provider, and also, we understand, the man who goes out and rescues weaker people, bringing them back to build a real community. We don’t see much of this, but season four’s premiere “Thirty Days Without an Accident” suggests Daryl’s role is far more than Rick’s lieutenant and muscle. He is not muscle like the Governor’s lieutenant Merle, but a leader in his own right in guiding the new community.
And when the prison falls mid-season four, Daryl is lost. There is nothing left for him in the world. The prison had been his first real family, and he keenly feels its loss, and as a leader takes on yet another burden of guilt for having not prevented it. Daryl has always been driven by how much it pains him to lose people, especially those under his responsibility. Escaping the prison with Beth Greene might well have been the only thing to have kept him alive in the aftermath of the prison fall. She gives him perspective, hope, and a chance to start over–until she, too, is taken from him.
The trailers for the back half of The Walking Dead‘s season five depict our survivor group as pretty defeated. It’s no wonder after the narrow escape from Terminus at the season’s start, and Beth’s tragic death in the midseason finale. And I imagine no one will be more affected by her death than her sister Maggie–and Daryl Dixon.
After all, Beth had escaped the prison with Daryl, and I’m certain he’d felt that she’d been abducted while under his protection. He must feel, more than anyone, that he’d failed her, Maggie, and everyone. But in Beth, Daryl also had seen a ray of light in the bleakness of season 4B–a beacon to guide him from the despair he’d displayed in the aftermath of the prison’s fall. They’d grown close in flight, and he must feel her loss very keenly.
To say that Daryl was made for the zombie apocalypse is unfair to the character. Given other circumstances and nurturing, Daryl could have become anything–anyone. But in the apocalypse, he is the sort of survivor: tough, fair, compassionate and, more and more, the voice of reason and morality in an amoral world. He can still be hot-headed when his sense of justice is abraded or one of his new family is in danger, but even searching for Beth in season four’s “Consumed” he is measured and level-headed.
But where this latest blow lead him? Watching the previews for the season 5B premiere, we see Daryl as a red-eyed wraith. Yes, like the others, but perhaps more so. What will it take to help him rise phoenix like and “start over” yet again? Or will he, this time, be the unwilling one–unwilling to go on, live to fight another day, finally having had enough.
I haven’t said much in this long piece about Carol, Daryl’s closest friend (and I believe his soul mate among the survivors). I think much will fall on her to prop him up–to rescue him, convincing him that it is possible to move on from devastating tragedy. I’m saying this not as a “Caryl” shipper. I am a firm believer in UST (unresolved sexual tension), and I do not want them to “get together.”
I think the bond they share is unique and loving and lovely–and perhaps it will ultimately rank as the longest courtship in television history. But I do believe, just as Daryl has had Carol’s emotional back for several season–and she’s had his–she will ultimately be the one to pull him back from what will undoubtedly be a very, very dark time for our noble archer.
Beyond what’s on the page, however, there is the considerable talent of Mr. Norman Reedus, Daryl’s portrayer. I think this is one of those rare, beautiful marriages of actor and role. It is some of Reedus’ best work, and he has created in Daryl a tough guy with a unflagging nobility, a sweet shyness, and a compassionate wisdom that is like catnip to (okay, let’s say it: female) viewers! I can’t wait to see what happens next!
The Walking Dead returns (yay!) Sunday, February 8 on AMC. Tune in Blogcritics’ weekly television chat show Let’s Talk TV and weigh in on your thoughts about season 5B of The Walking Dead! In the meantime, please follow me on Twitter for the latest. And (this just in): AMC has released the first two minutes of the midseason premiere.
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