The Walking Dead Finds Religion In the Compelling, Odd Spinoff Daryl Dixon

AMC’s main property must tremble in the aftermath of “The Last of Us”‘ success at HBO, as I pointed out in my review of the previous “Walking Dead” offshoot “Dead City” months ago. Comparisons are now impossible to avoid with their most recent spinoff, “Daryl Dixon”: Send a veteran, traumatized zombie killer and a tiny child who will usher in humanity’s future on a lonesome, perilous trek to bring the child to safety. That’s “The Last of Us” and “Daryl Dixon” to the point that Craig Mazin and Naughty Dog should give their copyright attorneys a quick call.

There is something inherently compelling about “Daryl Dixon”‘s pared-down, laser-focused presentation, despite all the repetition and trademark oddness of AMC’s most recent attempt to prolong the life of its universe. It’s a ripoff and a spinoff all rolled into one, but it also provides a beloved character the spotlight he was denied in his main program.

The character in question is, of course, the titular Daryl, who is shown in the first minutes of the series premiere perilously washing ashore in France. For the majority of the season, the reasons for his entrance are unclear, and Norman Reedus himself appears baffled as to his purpose in this place. (After all, we last saw him riding his motorcycle to an unknown location in the “Walking Dead” conclusion.)

Soon after being taken in by a convent of fierce nuns who are equipped to fight off both des morts-vivants and the “guerriers,” paramilitary groups that prowl the countryside in search of a mystery villain, our lost traveler finds a new purpose in this strange place. Soon after, he is chosen to accompany a young man named Laurent (Louis Puech Scigliuzzi) to the enigmatic sanctuary known as The Nest, where the nuns proclaim that Laurent is a “miracle” who would herald in a new period of humanity in this broken planet. The two set out to cross the walker-filled countrysides and cobblestone alleys of London under Isabelle’s guidance (“The Essex Serpent”‘s), a warrior nun with multiple ties to Laurent’s unusual provenance.

It’s no secret that “Daryl Dixon” was initially intended to be a “Daryl & Carol” spinoff, but Melissa McBride ultimately decided against taking part. Although Reedus was on the original show for practically the entire run, he had very little to do as the cast continued expanding around him, and the renewed focus on Daryl alone is very welcome. Here, Reedus is prominently featured and provides an exceptionally captivating lead: Showrunner David Zabel (“ER”) employs this biker-in-King-Arthur’s-Court feel to test the limits of Daryl’s reserve despite the fact that he is still buttoned down, brusque, and gruff.

There aren’t many zombie attacks (which is entertaining; get ready for Daryl to switch his crossbow for a suitably medieval flail he can spin around and swing into walker’s noggins), so Reedus has freedom to express the droll stoicism he’s spent more than a decade developing in a brand-new environment. If Gene Kelly had to can-can kick drooling demons in the face, “An American in Paris” would be hilarious. (Daryl must play the “parlez-vous anglais” game with each new French person he encounters while traveling.) When a person like him is placed in the center of a holy crusade in Europe, Daryl cuts the figure of a scumbag Grail Knight, a former redneck bumbling through the unease of France.

Other characters treat him with the same mythic importance; the nuns think it was his destiny to show up at their door, and his fighting prowess put him in the sights of many awed opponents. Even in such an unfamiliar setting, it’s a clever way to incorporate the character’s reputation as a fan favorite into the show’s plot.

Apart from Daryl being more intriguing than Maggie and Negan, the supporting cast is what elevates this episode over “Dead City.” Poésy’s Isabelle is a strong friend, ally, and potential love interest; like Daryl, she was reshaped by the virus, perhaps made better and more honorable. They both find it to be a nice throughline, and Reedus and Poésy chemistry is contagious.

The main weak point is Laurent, mostly because he is one of the most severe examples of the “kid in peril” tropes these novels traffic in. He is intelligent beyond his years, but he also consistently makes poor decisions that get his caregivers in more trouble than they should. We’re in trouble, guys, if he turns out to be humanity’s savior.

Despite the annoying kid MacGuffin, the “Walking Dead”ification of France gives the show’s universe an incredibly original twist. The opening titles are reminiscent of Renaissance paintings, we see an Eiffel Tower with its top severed in the early days of the apocalypse, and by the conclusion of the season, Daryl and his search have come to associate the Normandy beaches with both a personal and thematic meaning.

 

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