The Evolution of Daryl Dixon: A Character Journey 13 Years in the Making

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The Evolution of Daryl Dixon: A Character Journey 13 Years in the Making

It’s hard to imagine The Walking Dead without Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus). His crossbow, permanent snarl, and long ratty hair have been staples of the show since its inception (Daryl was first introduced in Episode 3 of the first season, “Tell It to the Frogs”). Because of his firm existence in the TWD universe—not to mention his cache of nine lives, what with his sneaky, cat-like talent of evading death—Daryl was recently granted his own spin-off, his name front and center in the title with The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon. Reedus’ and Daryl’s ability to captivate audiences and leave them wanting more is all the more impressive when you consider that his character was never even meant to exist in the first place. 

In 2003, writer Robert Kirkman developed a comic series about the zombie apocalypse. In 2010, he became the screenwriter and producer of the television adaptation of his beloved comics, a little show called The Walking Dead… and here we are, thirteen years and several spin-offs later. Many things differ between the comics and the show, especially since the comic series ended a few years before the show did (the show was its own beast, but that’s a discussion for another time, one when we all have a few hours to spare). Yet one of the most significant differences remains longstanding fan-favorite, Daryl Dixon, brother of loose-canon Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker).

Reedus originally auditioned for the part of Merle (another character Kirkman dreamed up for the series), but as with the marriage of all good actors and creative producers, Kirkman saw another character in Reedus—one that didn’t exist. Thus, Daryl Dixon was born; Kirkman created the character specifically for Reedus. It’s interesting to garner audience reception to unexpected characters like these, especially given potential fears of backlash from lovers of the comics, which was the expected, built-in audience for TWD at its release. But that’s what makes good writing: the red herrings, and navigating the unexpected—navigating it well, at least. 

Daryl and Merle started out as two sides of the same coin. Despite now being the heart of the Walking Dead universe, Daryl was introduced as an aggressive, slow-minded redneck, the lesser of two nuisances up against his brother (albeit not by much). He was little more than a throwaway character at the start, someone who ramped up the antagonism caused by his brother. Yet, Season 2 began to chip away at his tough-guy facade; when Carol’s daughter, Sophia, disappeared, Daryl spearheaded the search party without anyone telling him to. This also marked the beginning of his friendship (although some will say they were more than friends) with Carol, undeniably one of the best relationships on the show, casually pairing two of its best characters.  

Daryl was a slow burn. If paying close attention, viewers would be able to pick up on the gradual erosion of his trademark scowl through the seasons—and this change could be seen not only physically, but mentally, too. Season 2 hinted at it with Carol and Sophia, but Season 3 only served to confirm Daryl’s natural role as the unlikeliest of caregivers. He was a leader, but not only to bolster his ego and put his manliness on display; in fact, the main reason why he stepped up to lead the group forward was because of Rick’s (Andrew Lincoln) incapacitation after the loss of his wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies). 

Daryl’s two closest relationships on the show, particularly early on, are notably with women: the aforementioned Carol Pelletier, and the younger Beth Greene. This is at odds with the person we’re first introduced to, and particularly at odds with the type of person Daryl is set up to be when comparing him to his brother. He’s a loner who casts aside everyone from his life, understandably only focused on himself and his survival; his character seems like the antithesis of someone who would have multiple, healthy platonic relationships with women. 

Due to the nature of the show, death is inevitable. Therefore it makes sense that the rare times we see Daryl’s genuine emotions in the first few seasons are when faced with death. These instances developed him more into that unexpected caregiver role; he feels responsible for those around him, and so when they die, he takes on that burden. He’s much like Rick in that regard, except Daryl’s role as a caretaker is surprising. As far as the audience ever knows, he had no children, no wife, and hardly a girlfriend to speak of before the apocalypse commenced. Rick stepping up as leader makes sense, as a former sheriff deputy, a husband, and a father; these are all traditional roles where men are tasked with a lot of responsibility. Daryl takes versions of these roles on without being asked to as the series progresses, which makes his willingness more nuanced and a little more fascinating. 

With the (alleged) death of Rick Grimes, and the eventual death of practically everyone from the first season and beyond, Daryl had to step into another role: the role of the show’s new male lead. He didn’t have much of a choice, but Daryl had long been proving himself capable of such a feat. He went from being the annoying brother of a hateable antagonist to one of the driving forces behind The Walking Dead, long after much of its original fanbase had stopped watching. (It’s no secret that most TWD fans maintain that the show should’ve ended five to six seasons earlier than it did.) Of course, it was difficult to have the O.G. Walking Dead without Rick, and the show petered out to its last, anticlimactic episode a few seasons later.  

Which leads us to today: this past Sunday marked the release date of one of many highly anticipated (or highly dreaded, depending on your relationship with the iconic show) spin-offs of The Walking Dead. As the titular character of The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon, Reedus is headlining his own show, being granted his own singular spotlight in a new world where he won’t constantly have to measure up to his long-dead yet still-beloved predecessors… mostly because TWD: Daryl Dixon is set in France, where the zombie virus outbreak began. No one from the original show, save for Reedus, is known to make an appearance in the spin-off thus far; it’ll just be Reedus, starring alongside Clemence Poesy as Isabelle and Adam Nagaitis as Quinn. 

Spin-offs are notoriously precarious, particularly when they revolve around one character from the original, but to no surprise, Reedus makes it work. It feels a bit off-kilter initially, especially compared to what we’re used to—it’s an entirely different setting, and Daryl has never been quite so entirely on his own before. Is he smart enough to get himself out of it, and figure out what the heck is going on? All signs point to yes: Daryl is incredibly self-sufficient, a lone wolf at its finest, and that’s what makes a premise like this spin-off work so well.

It’s fascinating to see Daryl try and acclimate to his new teammates, especially after spending 13 years with those tried-and-true Walking Dead mainstays. This is where his growth as a character really shines through: he’s no longer the closed-off, hot-headed young man we met in Season 1, or even through the earlier seasons. He is willing to open up, work with others, and put his pride aside to parse the bigger picture. It’s a refreshing change of pace, and it’s comforting to know that at least one of our favorite mains can hack it without the weight of the original TWD bearing down on him. 

It speaks volumes to Reedus’ acting chops, as well. Not all—in fact, not most—who were cannon fodder for The Walking Dead survive the trip. Yet Reedus managed to enrapture both showrunners and audience members, all without the additional help of character lore and other traits to garner from the existing comics. Reedus was given the character of Daryl, but his charming performance allowed for an even deeper exploration and a more long-withstanding impact than even the original source material, and that’s an impressive feat. 

Gillian Bennett is a writer and editor who has been featured in Strike Magazine, Her Campus, and now Paste Magazine. She enjoys watching copious reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and fantasizing about living in London. You can find more of her neverending inner monologue and online diary on her Twitter or her blog.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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