Stranger in a Strange Land - The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon, Season 1 Review

***The following contains slight spoilers***

The Walking Dead: Daryl DixonDaryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) is a man in crisis in The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon: a physical crisis, a spiritual crisis, and, apparently, an identity crisis. The six-episode series, a second season of which is currently in production, has a fresh aesthetic, an accomplished supporting cast, and a title which is occasionally necessary as a reminder of who the man on screen is intended to be.

Beautifully filmed, with a soundtrack of wistful French songs and haunting orchestral numbers, the latest offering from The Walking Dead universe features an excellent, mostly French cast alongside Reedus, including Clémence Poésy, Adam Nagaitis, Anne Charrier, Eriq Ebouaney, Laїka Blanc-Francard, Romain Levi, and Louis Puech Scigliuzzi. France offers exquisite backdrops for the story.

But the shiny new setting only emphasizes how unfamiliar Reedus’s character has become. One wonders how much the lack of narrative coherence has to do with the “pretty late in the game” transition away from the Angela Kang–led spinoff featuring Daryl alongside Melissa McBride’s Carol Peletier. In the wake of that tumultuous change, we’re left with an often shaky premise centered on themes of fatherhood, fate, and finding one’s purpose.

The Walking Dead: Daryl DixonThe Accidental Pilgrim
Fans of The Walking Dead last saw Daryl Dixon driving away from the Commonwealth in the series finale of the flagship show, after telling Judith Grimes (Cailey Fleming) he would be back and Carol that he loved her. Daryl Dixon finds him washing up on a beach in Marseilles, loosely tied to a capsized lifeboat. How he came to be there is revealed in the latter half of the season, via flashbacks.

Through a series of comically convenient mishaps, Daryl almost immediately becomes embroiled in a religiopolitical drama which has nothing to do with him. By the end of the opening episode, he has made enemies of multiple people, and been hailed as “the one” by a group called Union de L’Espoir (Union of Hope) – the one destined to escort a young boy, Laurent (Scigliuzzi), to a place called the Nest. There, Laurent will be trained to fulfill his role as “the new messiah,” humanity’s great hope, according to the nuns who have raised him.

The season’s political storyline culminates in a spectacular scene of gladiatorial violence, and Daryl’s personal storyline concludes in a heartbreaking limbo. There are side quests, a look at Isabelle (Poésy)’s backstory, and stunning visuals. There are also moments of hokey folk wisdom, teeth-clenching cliché, and inescapable similarities with HBO’s The Last of Us, the protestations of executive producer Greg Nicotero notwithstanding.1

Mystery and Revelation
The show is by turns heavy-handed and coy in how much insight it allows its audience into characters and plot alike. Fans of the flagship show might be hoping for an explanation of the post-credit scene set in a French laboratory from The Walking Dead: World Beyond. Genet (Charrier), leader of the antagonistic political group Pouvoir des Vivantes, does have scientists experimenting on walkers; the greater purpose of those experiments, however, remains obscure. Vague lines about the relationship between the dead and the living are thrown out here and there, a wild-haired scientist holds a clipboard very importantly, we watch tests succeed and fail, but we remain in the dark as to what Pouvoir intends to do with any of this science, or why their methods take the form they do.

Similarly, Laurent is identified right from the start as “special.” Exactly what his destined salvation of humanity entails, however, is still unclear when the season ends. Born under “miraculous” circumstances, Laurent is wise, insightful, and given to soulful one-liners about God, as well as some low-key prophesying. He worries about bigger issues, like the repopulation of France, and can “see into” people. Scigliuzzi does well with the role.

Isabelle, a nun and Laurent’s biological aunt, is responsible for convincing Daryl to help her, the boy, and a young nun named Sylvie (Blanc-Francard) on their journey to the Nest. Desperate to get home, Daryl strikes a deal with Isabelle: he will escort them and use his uniquely impressive fighting skills to protect them, in exchange for directions to the only port from which boats are still known to depart across the Atlantic. Isabelle is smart, determined, and single-minded, and Poésy creates a likeable, sympathetic character even as viewers will be frustrated, occasionally, at her manipulation of Daryl in the interests of a mission she believes is from God.

Serving Two Masters
The relationship between Daryl and Isabelle is, for the first half of the season, contentious; for much of the time they barely seem to like each other. Increasingly, there are moments of understanding and empathy between them, a warmth that arises to some extent out of their shared concern for Laurent. By the season finale, Daryl’s determination to return home has been tempered somewhat by his fondness for Laurent, and, perhaps, his friendship with Isabelle.

While some viewers will be tempted to speculate on a romance between the characters, the show in its first season does not give this theory much credence. We are reminded constantly that Isabelle is a nun who took her vows over a decade ago, and in conversation with other characters she twice makes it clear that she no longer considers herself an erotic being in any sense. There is no discernible chemistry between the two characters, or, in broader dramatic terms, between the actors playing them.

That being said, there are scenes of Isabelle and Daryl which will disappoint viewers who believe his declaration to Carol was a romantically coded one, or who believe he belongs with some other character in The Walking Dead universe. Unable to resist playing to the perceived desire that their action hero also be a romantic one, the show uses common romantic tropes in setting up some of the scenes shared by Daryl and Isabelle. The mechanics of those scenes – regardless of the dearth of chemistry between the characters, regardless of the mostly utilitarian nature of the physical contact they share – are the stuff of fanfiction cliché. There are fleeting, poignant moments in which Daryl thinks of home. But those are cold comfort for longtime fans when, despite being surprisingly open about his past, he is bizarrely reluctant to speak of the people in his life who made him the man he is today. Or at least the man he was at the end of The Walking Dead.

All of this, of course, disregards how potentially offensive it would be for the show to suggest a possible romance between these two characters at all. To do so would be to assert that Daryl was an upgrade from God himself, irresistible in a way that surpasses all understanding. Additionally, it would be out of character for a man who took twelve years to declare his love to Carol, and in the history of the flagship show had only one relationship, so toxic that he ultimately shot his ex-girlfriend in the head. One hopes that showrunner David Zabel is sufficiently acquainted with Daryl Dixon’s history to take this into account moving into the second season, and that Reedus will have stood up for his character’s integrity. Evidence from other details of the show, however, is not encouraging.

Apocryphal Additions
Difficult for a fan of Daryl and the flagship show to stomach is the way in which Reedus struggles to locate Daryl in his voice, mannerisms, and demeanor in some scenes. It must be difficult to shoot without the ensemble cast of the main show, and without familiar characters to orient one’s own. Reedus, as much as Daryl, is a stranger in a strange land, and in an interview with Entertainment Weekly about the show, he suggested that his own (albeit voluntary) displacement into a European context was mirrored by Daryl’s.2 This is truer than it should be. The man we see on screen is often not exactly Daryl. He exchanges confidences with people he has just met, lashes out with chilling cruelty at Laurent, and delivers a weird, gangster-style monologue during an interrogation. There are definitive differences between the character we know and the character we meet in France.

While on the one hand Daryl is blurting out personal information with a willingness hitherto unseen, he affects a reticence in other respects which does not befit a man in his mid-fifties, or a man with the kinds of relationships he has. In the first episode, Laurent asks him whether he has “children, a wife, parents” and Daryl responds, “No, nothing like that.” But The Walking Dead’s central theme is found family. For some years, Daryl has been a surrogate father to Judith and RJ Grimes; he is not married, but he loves Carol. He does, unquestionably, have something like a family. Why he won’t admit it once he washes up in France can only, within the narrative, be attributed to whatever identity crisis is also responsible for him second-guessing – for even a moment – his choice to return home.

Hallowed Be Thy Name
Problematic in a more general sense is the tired, outdated “white male American savior” motif which forms the entire premise for this show. Isabelle concludes that Daryl is “the one” because she sees him fight walkers (“the hungry ones”) and is impressed by his strength and skill. But France, it emerges as the series progresses, is full of people who are skilled fighters. As they travel, Laurent comes to idolize Daryl, asking himself “What would Daryl do?” in tricky situations. If Laurent is the Christ, then Daryl is God the Father – the powerful facilitator of salvation for all, through his guidance of the boy. And, by the end, someone whom Isabelle considers a father figure to Laurent.

We encounter two other Americans during the series, one of whom conceals his nationality like, he jokes, “a dirty secret,” and the other of whom embodies a “proudly American” stereotype in the most objectionable way. But the show’s self-consciously European disdain for the United States and its relative youth as a nation, its uncouth customs and parochial worldview, is undermined by the fact that the story, in essence, is this: France needs an American hero to save it. It is a meaningless gesture to snigger at the reluctance of American immigrants to learn French when it is only by the grace of a Southern redneck that the country can be restored.

The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon will please fans looking for a change from the original show’s aesthetic, and previewing it made me an admirer of both Poésy and Nagaitis, with whose other work I was only passingly familiar. Despite the quality of their performances and the enchanting French setting, however, I found myself unimpressed by the showrunner’s handling of his characters – both Daryl as an established character and Isabelle as an original one. The nature of whatever inclines her towards suffering, evidenced by the scars on her wrists, is never really explored, its provenance buried somewhere in a past which we do not see even in flashbacks. For Zabel, those wounds are merely a vehicle for connection with Daryl, whose daddy issues take precedence.

His solo spinoff has been described by Norman Reedus as a “reset” within The Walking Dead universe,2 and by Greg Nicotero as virtually a “standalone” show.3 This is honest marketing. But whether Reedus, Nicotero, and Zabel like it or not, Daryl Dixon is a spinoff series counting on the goodwill and investment of fans from the flagship show for its audience. Trying to be something “way different,”2 the show occupies an uneasy space between spinoff and original limited series, and in doing so positions Daryl in a frustrating limbo between stranger to The Walking Dead audience, and cherished friend. Unfortunately, more stranger than friend.

Bonus Thoughts:

There is a particular flashback scene in episode 5 which moved me to tears, and in which Reedus was superb.
Why does Daryl, in episode 6, take the time to put his coat and skinny scarf back on before completing a rescue?
  Laїka Blanc-Francard as Sylvie is likely to be underrated because of the quietness of her role, but she is a joy to watch.
  *  I am admittedly a fan of religious subtext, but having almost every character in this show recite Old Testament stories with ease and insight stretched my credulity.
  *  The closing scene of the final episode made me optimistic for what season 2 might hold, and I am looking forward to watching it.


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