Over the course of three seasons, now going on four, Daryl Dixon of The Walking Dead (wonderfully played by actor Norman Reedus) has captured the hearts and imagination of the American television-viewing public like few other characters on TV of late except, perhaps, Walter White.
The Internet is abound with Daryl fan sites bordering on the obsessed, entire Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr pages committed solely to this hero who has already approached a near-mythical status in the collective American consciousness. Cosplay, action figures, license plates, memes, tattoos, clothing. An uploaded photo on actor Norman Reedus’ Facebook page shows a fan wearing a mock-presidential campaign sweatshirt reading, “Dixon 2016: In Daryl We Trust.”
No one else on the show, not even in television period, commands such impassioned loyalty and devotion from viewers.
What is it about this character, this man, that compels us so? Here, I try to break down the essence of Daryl’s phenomenal appeal into eight basic qualities. Now if he had just a few of these qualities, he might still be a likable character but not as fiercely loved. But somehow, with all of these qualities interlinked and overlapping, he inspires insanely devoted fandom.
(For those who haven’t started watching the show or who aren’t fully up to date, there will be *spoiler alerts* indicating which season and episode the spoiler spoils).
1. He is of humble origin (This makes him relatable)
Very little personal details of Daryl’s background have been revealed on the show, yet we can make certain guesses based on subtle allusions made by the characters as well as Daryl’s own words and actions. And while, as of yet, he has barely talked about his past, the way he speaks and behaves (even more so in the case of his brother, Merle) suggests that he comes from humble origins, and though we can’t know for certain, it’s also probable that he’s had a limited formal education. Early in the series, for instance, we see traces of some of his possibly racist, “white trash” tendencies which don’t necessarily indicate a limited level of education but the two often do go hand-in-hand.
In any case, regardless of the Dixon family’s economic class or level of education, “highbrow” or “elitist” is not how one would characterize them. As such, this makes Daryl very relatable to a significant portion of the show’s viewers. He is a hero that more people can readily identify with than many, perhaps most, characters on TV today. He’s not a hyper-educated genius like Walter White in Breaking Bad or the eponymous hero in Sherlock. He’s not like the ambitious, rich and powerful men of Mad Men. He’s not like the privileged young singles and couples of Girls. He’s just a guy.
Like the rest of us.
2. He defies easy judgment (This makes him vindicating for many)
The character of Daryl vindicates different kinds of people in various ways because he so often subverts quick and easy judgments of him (and in general most people, in their better moments, subvert quick and easy judgments).
For instance, (**minor Season 1 spoiler**) Daryl’s possible lack of formal education says little about his actual level of intelligence which, clearly, is very high. And that someone from a humble background with limited formal education could turn out to be not just such a strong, intelligent and heroic character but a pivotal member of a group is an inspiration for those of us who are also from various kinds of humble backgrounds.
Upon meeting a person who appeared to be poor, uneducated and possibly racist, a lot of people would probably not be very keen on getting to know him better. Yet Daryl turns our ingrained prejudices and expectations on their head. As other well-written characters in TV have also shown – NYPD Blue’s Andy Sipowicz, for instance – even if a person were to have some racist tendencies, it does not make him a “bad” person necessarily. He is still a complex being with a heart and a soul.
3. He’s flawed and complex (This makes him fascinating)
Characters who are predictable, one-dimensional or bordering on perfect are boring. Daryl is none of these things. He is exquisitely complex and a study in contrasts.
As such, his appeal does not come from being perfect. He’s flawed and scarred, literally and emotionally. In Season 3 Episode 10, “Home,” (**Season 3 spoiler**) during a scuffle with Merle, Daryl’s shirt gets torn off and we see the grooves in his back left by what must have been a belt or a whip. The two brothers refer to a certain “him” and we’re led to assume that it was their father.
Even when he starts to become closer to the team he still rides his motorcycle alone even if there’s plenty of room in the other cars. It’s a bit inefficient in a post-apocalyptic world short on fuel, but it certainly makes for entertaining symbolism. It shows that despite becoming more integrated into the group, he still is still a loner at heart – again, the complexity intrigues and fascinates us.
4. Daryl Dixon is a badass with a heart of gold (This makes him lovable)
Jesse from Breaking Bad, Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica, Andy Sipowicz from NYPD Blue, Homer and Bart from The Simpsons. We love these kinds of characters, the complex anti-heroes who at first seem mean, stupid or just plain rotten or all of the above but turn out to be full of bravery, compassion, goodness and, most importantly, love.
It is Daryl who (**Season 2 spoiler**), during the search for the lost Sophia during Season 2, conducts the search with the most unflagging determination and optimism. After Rick’s daughter is born in Season 3, he ogles over her more than any of the other male characters, bottle-feeding her personally and calling her “Little Ass Kicker.” And, in the Season 3 finale, during the rescue operation at Woodbury, he lays down cover fire, potentially sacrificing himself so that the rescue party can have a chance to escape.
And although Merle, for the majority of the time, was an unlikable jackass, (**Season 3 spoiler**) it is the unconditional loyalty and love that Daryl shows him that, perhaps, helps Merle to work up the guts for his final act of redemption. How can we not fall in love with a character like this?
5. He has manners without pretense (This makes him likable)
“Clean this up,” she orders.
“Yes, ma’am,” says Daryl demurely.
It’s a fine moment illustrating a fact that has gradually become more apparent. Despite his grizzly appearance and sometimes blunt behavior, Daryl has manners. He’s a gentleman. Just look at the way he treats Carol. In a world gone to hell, a simple show of manners can go a long way towards winning people’s hearts, and Daryl has done just that, both with the characters within the show and with his legions of fans.
But you know how some people have very good manners but go about it in a way that’s pretentious or calculated? Daryl doesn’t have an ounce of pretense in his body. In Season 4 Episode 1, “30 Days Without Accident,” when a boy named Patrick thanks Daryl for bringing in the deer for food and asks to shake his hand, Daryl, who had been eating something with his fingers, sucks them clean in plain view before offering his hand. He’s not trying to be gross. It’s just his humble, earthy way of trying to be considerate by cleaning his greasy fingers before shaking someone’s hand. Whereas someone else might have gone flitting about for something to wipe on, Daryl just does it the old-fashioned way without pretense or self-consciousness.
6. He learns and grows (This makes him cathartic)
Many of the characters on The Walking Dead grow and change, for better or worse. But it is Daryl’s growth that, so far, is the most dramatic and the most moving.
He has evolved (**overall series minor spoiler**) from being an unpredictable hothead in the early part of Season 1 to being one of the most reliable members of the team, the level-headed right-hand man to Rick that Shane never could be.
Though he may have started out in the series as emotionally stunted, Daryl nevertheless has repeatedly risen to the occasion during acute crisis situations, keeping a cool head and being the leader who leads invisibly, without seeking credit, even as strong Alpha male characters like Shane and Rick start to lose their grip on sanity.
But perhaps the most gratifying development is his slow but sure process of learning to love and be loved. As he becomes increasingly cherished member of his community, he starts to let down his habitual emotional armor and, as Carol puts it in Season 4 Episode 1, “learn to live with the love.”
7. He’s skilled and reliable (This makes him reassuring)
There’s a Facebook fan page titled Keep Calm and Hide Behind Daryl Dixon that amusingly expresses this ethos. Basically, when Daryl is present in a scene, it feels like everything will be okay, even if there’s danger lurking around the corner. And although the events we watch are occurring within the fictional world of a zombie apocalypse, I believe that on a subtle, subconscious level Daryl’s reassuring presence carries over into people’s waking lives, soothing their daily, real-life anxieties.
He’s also very useful – indeed, he’s one of the few surviving humans in the zombie apocalypse who truly earn their keep.
As I’ve already noted, Daryl is intelligent, but he doesn’t have a lot of academic or theoretical knowledge packed into his head, which is just as well ‘cause all those kinds of guys have probably been eaten by zombies looong ago. (Remember the scientist at the CDC in Season 1 Episode 6? I mean, what good was he, right?) What good is academic knowledge when all hell breaks loose, literally or figuratively? What we really need in such times are people with practical know-how, people close to the Earth, people like Daryl.
In this vein – and this is just a personal theory – I believe that Daryl, on a subconscious or semi-conscious level, vicariously vindicates the considerable segment of the American population who have either overt or latent survivalist inclinations (add to that all the guns on the show and you have a ready-made, loyal audience).
8. He’s hot (This makes him hot)
And, finally, this one’s for the ladies (and some of the guys).
Now, even as a straight man I can happily admit when a dude is sexy. And capping off all his other admirable qualities, Daryl is just one damn good-looking bloke and that never hurts a character’s popularity. A lot of actors/characters on TV are obviously attractive but this in itself isn’t enough to make us love the character. However, when combined with all the other qualities listed above, it’s the final touch that makes female viewers everywhere swoon.
If the word “hot” makes you bros out there uncomfortable, replace it here with the word “cool.” I mean, that crossbow! Is that just uber-retro-cool or what? Everyone in the show uses guns as their primary weapon except Daryl (and Michonne). And something about that crossbow speaks of a different time and place – of greater simplicity, calmness, honesty and of being grounded and close to the earth.
In short, it’s a symbol of everything that Daryl Dixon himself represents.
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