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Daryl Dixon is the most interesting character on The Walking Dead. We explain why.

‘The Walking Dead’: Daryl Dixon’s Compelling Journey

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?The Walking Dead Carol and Daryl

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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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."

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  1. I love this. What a thoughtful and beautifully written piece. It’s great when I can post to something and say, ‘Yes! What she said! Exactly!’

      • I also wanted to say how much I enjoyed this piece. And reading all the comments, is so fun to see how we all, have different reads on the characters. And I don’t mind the thought of Daryl/Carol, but to me they have a much closer bond, than a romantic connection. I think there bond started when the group saw how Carol was abused by her awful husband, and I think Daryl connects with her, because of his abuse by his father. And I think that Daryl was so driven to find Sophia, because how he felt abandoned by his brother. And I think that there is a special bond between him and Rick, but I don’t find any of it to make Daryl sappy or wimped out, because he can be grounded in his actions. He is still a total badass inside, at least to me. I just think that Carol and Rick, have a very deep connection with Daryl, it is kinda of a family with this group, like he never had. But to me there is a very emotional and different type of connection, that Daryl feels with Carol and Rick, an unspoken, personal one. And I love all the quirks to his character and you could not have a better actor to do the job. Norman is Daryl 100%. And I am looking forward to the one you are going to do about Rick (my #2 favorite).

        • I think this is what is great about Daryl. He is definitely a badass, but can be sentimental as well. This is a guy who had nothing and no one before. He can be effective and ruthless when necessary, but can also be measured. I love his relationship with Rick (and maybe that’s another article!) as well as Carol. But I also love his interactions with Michonne!

  2. I really enjoyed reading this as it perfectly encapsulates the reasons behind why Daryl Dixon is my favourite character on TWD (and possibly overall favourite character!). Your line ‘to say that Daryl was made for the zombie apocalypse is unfair to the character’ really spoke to me. I remember reading that opinion in some other article and feeling a sense of indignation. Yes, Daryl is somewhat compatible to the environment because of his hunting/tracking skills but as you said, ‘he has learnt to adapt.’ He’s been forced to adapt again and again, to take massive amounts of weight on his shoulders and to pick himself up, all from a very young age. The incredible emotional depth of his character is slowly rising to the surface thanks to Daryl’s interactions with the other survivors and it is truly a beautiful story to behold.

    The deep connection between Rick and Daryl is very intriguing to me due to the fact that before the apocalypse, those two would have been complete social opposites, a police officer and a rootless wanderer. Yet it is Daryl who has travelled in a ‘steady arc’ and Rick who has experienced a ‘roller coaster.’ That scene where Rick calls Daryl his
    ‘brother’ I believe beautifully represents the message behind the entire comic
    books/TV show which is the immensely powerful connection that can be forged
    between people and that even the most isolated people like Daryl crave and flourish from
    human interaction. (Gosh I’m getting all teary-eyed just thinking about that scene!)

    When asked why Daryl is my favourite character in TWD, my reply is very simple. His journey beautifully illustrates that everyone is capable of growing. He went from crazed and violent to overwhelmingly compassionate and selfless. When many people crumbled and faltered in this environment, Dixon’s hidden leadership skills and closeted compassion burst forth. He went from a nobody, to many people’s somebody. And yes it does help that Norman Reedus is ridiculously attractive but I appreciate him more so for his intricate crafting of Daryl Dixon.

    Thank you Barbara for this lovely piece and thank you for prompting me to write this. I will also be keeping an eye out for your first published novel! Good luck!

    • Thank you for your kind words! One of the main things that attract me to one character or another (Gregory House, Fox Mulder, Mr. Spock, whatever) is the sense that they’re carrying a burden greater than they can let on. There is texturing beneath the printed page. Daryl Dixon has that, and beyond the writing, Mr. Reedus has imbued the character with a lot of great subtext. Yeah, he’s got those great blue eyes :), but that’s not what gets to me at all. He’s definitely not the “type” I’m usually drawn to in my fictional obsessions, but there he is!

  3. Dan the Weatherman

    Daryl fatigue…

    I just don’t find his arc as organic anymore. He really hasn’t been as compelling since season 3, and since then, his character has become too superhero-esque, in my opinion.

    I like Daryl, but I just don’t him as interesting as before. Since the whole “rock star” moment in season 4, I’ve just been rolling my eyes at Daryl.

    The same goes for Glenn and Maggie. They really need to revitalize those 3 characters.

    • Glen and Maggie definitely need something to shake things up, and I think Beth’s death might help that along narratively. I don’t think Daryl’s become superhero-esque, and certainly not a rock star (despite the rock star hair 😉 ). In many ways, he’s become the reasonable one (both with Carol and Rick), not to quick to fight, but to observe and consider the options. He has plenty of badass moments, but there’s quite a bit of dimension.

  4. I will say that I too prefer Carol and Daryl remain friends. I just don’t think Daryl could ever be the type of man that Carol would need. He seems so emotionally screwed up, that I don’t think I could ever see him being in a relationship. While I’m not big into the romantic aspects of the show, admittedly, from a selfish desire, I wouldn’t object to see Carol hook up with Abe or Morgan…the acting between McBride and Cudlitz/Lennie James would be so freaking top-notch!!!

    • I can’t see them in a relationship together, either. I don’t think either of them is in a good place emotionally for one right now anyway. Carol has just come into her own after spending years in an abusive marriage. She really doesn’t need a man right now. If she were to get together with someone, it’d have to be someone more emotionally stable than Daryl. As far as Daryl goes, he’s going to be so devastated over losing Beth, who he seemed to be warming up to romantically, I doubt he’ll open himself up to anyone else again. The writers clearly think he’s worth more $$$ single anyway.

      • Yes, both are in bad places now. I can’t foresee anything between them right now (or maybe for a long while) at this point in time either. Right now, it’s all about survival (and that includes emotional survival).

      • Truth be told, I’m honestly glad they killed off the Beth character. I don’t care if Daryl hooks up with any chick or no chick, but that Beth character was just randomly shoehorned in after all this time of being a background actor, and in my opinion, she just wasn’t an interesting enough character to put in the limelight.

        I know all the young girls like her character, but as a man in his thirties, I just don’t think the actress could pull it off. All the episodes that focused on her were an absolute sludge to get through. If the actress was a little better, I probably wouldn’t have cared. She was serviceable as a tertiary character, but when put upfront, it was clear her range is limited. So if hooking her up with Daryl meant putting her in the limelight, than dude, I’m relieved she’s dead.

        That’s the same reason I prefer they keep Carl in the background too. Until the kid can learn to act better at least…

        This show really needs to cut the dead weight and only keep the good actors on.

    • Wait. You’re saying Daryl is more emotionally screwed up than Abraham or Morgan? I don’t agree with that at all…

  5. A Gay Walking Dead Fan

    Not just female fans like Daryl Dixon! Loved the article until it got all heteronormative 🙂

  6. Well said and thoughtfully considered. I am surprised that some people are so hostile to Daryl – to each his or her own, of course – but I have enjoyed his evolution and do not think he has become a “superhero”. I’m a bit worried by your comment that he is becoming a “voice of reason and morality in an immoral world”. I’m not saying I don’t agree-we’ve seen him as a moderating influence on Carol and Rick – but you know what happens to the person who becomes the show’s moral compass. Unthinkable! 😉

  7. Great analysis of Daryl! I do agree with most of your essay. However, I’m one of many who do want to see Daryl and Carol turn romantic. And not only for story reasons (because I do think it is there in the story as well) but more importantly because I think it would make a very bold statement for TWD to do so. There is a stereotype and formula that exists on every other show (and every other form of media for that matter) where you are almost guaranteed to see a heroine exhibit all the same basic traits: young, extremely thin, model-type with flowing locks. Well TWD has broken down those stereotypes with ease and class through the character of Carol. She is not young; she has short GREY hair. She is a real and strong woman that has a real past. And for this particular woman/character to win the heart of the man, the resident “hot badboy” that people have built up as the “prize” would set The Walking Dead apart from all those other formulaic principles. It would make a statement that I think the world is in desperate need of today. Too many people are concerned with superficial thoughts and I think this show could offer a dose of realism by breaking those rules that Hollywood set. I think Caryl need to happen for what they represent and I really hope/feel like The Walking Dead is one that wants to take that stand.

    • I don’t disagree with you at all about Carol. I’m so glad we have this badass, strong, smart woman who’s not a 20-something stick figure. And you’re right, but I’m not sure I’d want to see that for awhile at least.

  8. Excellent read! I love the relationship he has with Carol, it made me cry when he started crying when she rescued them from Terminus. They do have a very unique relationship, not so much lovers but Mom and son or big sister and brother. If they were to hook up I wouldn’t be mad but I think it would be strange. Love Daryl and the way he has transformed hell I love the way all of them have.

    • Thanks Paula.They’re not very far apart age-wise (Melissa McBride is 49 and Reedus is 45), so I’m not sure about the mother-son thing. But I do see their bond as very, very deep friendship. Romantic? We’ll see.

    • Mother and son?! She isn’t that old, and he certainly isn’t that young. Daryl looks like a dude in his forties. Hard-living does that to you.

      Considering some of the (harmless) sex jokes that go on between them, calling their relationship something akin to mother and son is what I consider strange.

      • Agree with you there. Their ages are pretty close. And Norman Reedus is in his mid-40s. He’s no youngster 🙂

      • I wasn’t implying she was that old. In the beginning there were sex jokes but there haven’t been any recently. The way she cares for him sometimes equals that of a mother and son. I won’t argue over fictional characters it was simply an opinion.

  9. (BB, I”m sure ou already know, but Reedus tweeted your article!) I am a huge Daryl fan because of his transformation over the seasons. I had to read your article twice, because, honestly, at first I was lost that you said Daryl has become this “wise, reasoned man…” The Merle in me said, “Wait…are we talking about Daryl?!” Ha, ha! But, I re-read the article and think you have put a lot of thought into your description of him. There is a depth to Daryl Dixon that deserves more than one glance. This is a great read, people!!!

  10. Very interesting read, thankyou. I think the writers have done an amazing job with the character of Daryl. His transformation over the 4 1/2 series to date has been complex. I personally hope that he and Carol don’t get together as a couple – I think their relationship is more that of two damaged people who are soul mates. They realise and bring out the best in one another – both needed someone to believe in them. In a way, this world they now live in has given Daryl all the things he never had before – a family, a home, people he can trust, people who care for him, believe in him and respect him. I think Norman Reedus has produced some amazing pieces of acting in portraying Daryl – the emotion he can convey just with a look is remarkable. The popularity and success of the character of Daryl is largely due to his excellent portrayal of an angry, damaged man who has found strength and humanity in the most unlikely of circumstances. The fact that he is the hottest man on the planet just adds to it because Daryl has no idea how attractive he is! Look forward to your views on Rick.

    • Thanks Neen! I agree that one reason the prison’s fall was so devastating to him was because it was probably his first real family and the first time he’d ever put down roots anywhere. Top that off with Carol’s banishment… I think Carol and Daryl’s reunion in episode one of this season really says it all. Whether their feelings are romantic or not are almost beside the point. Daryl probably has no idea himself–so socially awkward is he. We’ll be talking about all of this tonight on the show (at 8 p.m. ET)

  11. I love that, even though Daryl has become the fan-favourite-heart throb, they’ve stayed true to the character and his story. While he has hints of the stereotypical “badass-with-rough-exterior-but-heart-of-gold” characterization, they have stuck with making him uncomfortable with relationships – specifically with physicality. Greg Nicotero and NR have both talked about the possiblity of him having absolutely zero experience with relationships because of his history of abuse. IMO, that’s one of the main reasons the Daryl/Carol hug was such a fan-favourite moment. I love that Dary initiating a hug is such a huge moment on this show. And the fact that that moment carried so much emotional weight is a testament to the characters story- both writers and actor.

    • Totally agree with you. One of the things that keeps Daryl from falling into stereotype is his complete awkwardness in any sort of social situation. People still make him uncomfortable. That hug, being initiated by Daryl, was a significant step, something he would never have done earlier in his journey.