This Walking Dead article contains spoilers for the show.
Daryl Dixon, The Walking Dead‘s very own living, breathing human tank, has faced many challenges throughout the show’s many seasons, whether it be hordes of walkers, cannibals, or, well, an actual tank. And to the glee of viewers, Daryl has always lived to fight another day, crossbow at hand. But how did we get here? Daryl has always walked on the edge of death, but he never seems to slip. How did he earn his fan armor and has he finally lost it?
The internet has many unsung heroes, but the greatest and least known has to be Wikipedia user “18.104.22.168.” For on, February 17, 2012, 22.214.171.124 wrote one of the greatest sentences to ever appear on the “Early Life” section of an actor’s Wikipedia entry. He or she wrote: “He was first discovered at a party in Los Angeles where he started screaming with giant sunglasses on, until someone asked if he wanted to be in a play.”
The “He” to which 126.96.36.199 refers is Norman Reedus. Also known as Daryl Dixon of The Walking Dead. And it’s the perfect distillation of Reedus’ appeal. Reedus is a man so intense, so bursting with raw artistic energy that it only makes sense that if you saw him screaming at a party, you would think, “This guy’s gotta be in a play.” Sadly, Wikipedia has now amended the passage to simply read “He was first discovered at a party in Los Angeles,” and Reedus later clarified that he was incredibly wasted during said screaming. Still, it makes a disturbing amount of sense that a young, stone cold sober Norman Reedus would find wearing giant sunglasses and unleashing a primal scream through the Hollywood Hills an appropriate thing to do. Because Norman Reedus is cool.
Norman Reedus is so cool that he’s joined the likes of bacon in “Things the Internet Cannot Get Enough Of.” Based on his social media activity and appearances on talk shows, you’d think he just wandered the Earth like a monk in search of meaningful interaction with fans. Buzzfeed has made enough Reedus appreciation posts to fill the servers at the Library of Congress. Just to highlight a few…24 Reminders That Norman Reedus Has Always Been Ridiculously Sexy, A Brief Reminder That Norman Reedus Is Really Damn Fine, and 36 Photos of Norman Reedus That Will Give You a Zombie Boner.
Equally as cool as Reedus is his Walking Dead character. Daryl Dixon has long been the character on The Walking Dead fans have connected to most. He’s got the three crucial characteristics that create Tumblr fandom perfection. Daryl Dixon is: 1. Extremely proficient in combat and violence, 2. Still fundamentally a softie, and 3. Has great hair.
The fact that he also almost exclusively uses a crossbow and rides a chopper almost veers him into a parody of a badass, but somehow falls short because Reedus is just that inherently charming. For a long time, our collective plea to The Walking Dead has been “kill anyone you want, but please leave our sweet Daryl alone. Take my eyes! Leave the Daryl!” But shows in their eighth seasons have this (frustrating for some) tendency to change and evolve, and it’s time to confront the unfortunate fact that The Walking Dead has, at least for the moment, evolved past Daryl.
Daryl was so exciting for so long because he was hyper-efficient in this new zombified world. As the other characters struggled to gain their footing, Daryl hit the ground running, thanks to his hillbilly survivalist upbringing with his brother Merle. But by the time jump in season 9 rolls around, the rest of the accountants and soccer moms have lived long enough to learn how to skin a squirrel and operate a firearm. Daryl is no longer a superman by comparison.
If that weren’t enough, in a post-Darabont, post-Mazarra Walking Dead, showrunners Scott Gimple and now Angela Kang are hewing more closely to the original comic book source material, of which Daryl is not a part. For a while, the writers have been able to find things for Daryl to do befitting of both his and Reedus’ badassness.
Now that Rick Grimes has left for greener pastures, there is more pressure on Daryl than ever to start pulling his dramatic weight. Here are some ways the show could better incorporate the younger Dixon brother.
Don’t Be Afraid to Make Him Too Powerful
You can almost highlight the moment where The Walking Dead writers thought “maybe we should dial this guy back a bit.” In the midseason finale of season four, Daryl mows down dozens of zombies and then takes out an actual tank with ease.
Viewers and critics alike responded to this with a hearty chuckle. It was utterly absurd. And since that moment, Daryl has never come close to those superhuman heights again, as if the producers were afraid they had turned him into an OP video game character. They mistook the audience’s bemused enjoyment for disdainful laughter. Daryl killing the tank isn’t unlike a young Reedus wearing giant sunglasses and screaming. It’s over the top, for sure, but that’s part of the appeal. It shows that while the rest of his survivor friends have caught up to him in the badass department, he still reigns supreme.
Since then, Rick has pretty much stolen every ludicrously superhuman performance from Daryl. To a certain extent, that’s fine. The Walking Dead is in part telling the story of the ubermensch, after all. But Rick has the charisma and leadership abilities that Daryl doesn’t have. It’s not entirely fair that he’s stolen all of his combat skills as well. Daryl’s role in The Walking Dead should be the ultimate Swiss Army Knife in the ongoing struggle to survive. Regardless of how adept the other characters have become at surviving, Daryl should be at least just a smidgeon better.
Stop Leaving Him Alone
Daryl is like Jack Sparrow: a supporting character who should remain a supporting character. Too often, however, The Walking Dead has now cast him off onto the other side of the map to survive on his own or with only one or two other people. This is partially a product of the show starting to resemble the comic book more and more, and the natural plot lines for Daryl to insert himself into beginning to disappear.
Still, the show can’t continue to cast Daryl off onto his own narrative island if he is to be rehabilitated as a character. By definition, Daryl is not a person who talks much, so shouldering the load of a plot is a big ask, yet he is asked to perform it again and again. He spent the first few episodes of season 7 at a prison camp, mopping hallways and herding zombies around the Sanctuary fence. Season 8 has thrust him more into the action but that’s because everyone is in on the action. Daryl doesn’t have anything else special to do befitting his character.
I spoke earlier of Daryl as a Swiss Army Knife of survival for the rest of the group, and it’s now clear that Daryl has become a Swiss Army Knife of sorts for the writers as well, but not in a positive way. He is inserted into any plot that needs a main character that’s not already featured in the comic books. He’s used basically as a set of eyes for the camera to operate through – in this year’s case, revealing the way the Saviors work and the Sanctuary is run. That’s just a waste of a tremendous talent and all-around baller. Get him back with the group where he can concur with whatever Rick says, grunt occasionally, and kill scores of zombies.
Just Kill the Guy Already
Look, you don’t want to read this, but it’s true. I may come from a particularly troll-y school of storytelling, but if a fandom cries out an impassioned plea of “If Daryl dies, we riot,” the first thing I’d want to do as a writer is kill Daryl. Not just to fulfill a waning God Complex, but because it’s the most dramatically interesting thing to do. The Walking Dead might as well be called “The 22-Season-Long Gut-Wrench.” The Walking Dead is about an amoral universe where bad things don’t just happen to good people, they happen to strong people.
Of course, this now becomes more complicated with Daryl taking over as “lead” character now that Rick has taken his leave. That doesn’t mean, however, that Daryl should be spared the specter of death if his character arc truly calls for it. Norman Reedus might be fun to have around but there is compelling evidence now that there’s not much left for Daryl Dixon to do.
Give him a noble death, befitting of his character. Give him a sad, pointless death at the hands of an encroaching sociopath. Or just give him the most random, frustrating death in the history of television, where he just gets a staph infection in a random episode and dies peacefully in his sleep. But just kill the guy already. If Daryl dies, we’ll stay quiet.
A version of this article first appeared on January 7, 2016.