Norman Reedus leads a meditative and spiritually charged quest in the latest spin-off of AMC’s zombie franchise.
Plot: Daryl washes ashore in France and struggles to understand how and why he got there. The series tracks his journey across a broken but resilient France as he hopes to find a way back home. As he makes the journey, though, the connections he forms along the way complicate his ultimate plan.
Review: The Walking Dead, AMC‘s megahit zombie series, became the cable network’s mainstay when it debuted to massive ratings in 2010. Over the series’ one hundred and seventy-seven episodes spread across 17 seasons, The Walking Dead spawned the spin-offs Fear The Walking Dead, World Beyond, and Tales of the Walking Dead. While hardcore fans stuck with the flagship series for two decades, many comic book enthusiasts faded from the show when it began to get mired in repetitive melodrama and rote zombie violence. Since the ending of the main series, AMC has debuted the mediocre spin-off Dead City featuring Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Lauren Cohan and has the Rick and Michonne event series, The Ones Who Live, slated for 2024. But, before that, we get fan favorite Norman Reedus headlining the eponymous Daryl Dixon. The six-episode series takes the crossbow-wielding warrior halfway across the world for an adventure through France that shares more than a little in common with HBO’s recent hit, The Last of Us.
While The Last of Us has become the new benchmark against which all zombie stories and post-apocalyptic tales will be measured, the parallels between HBO’s hit and Daryl Dixon are fairly stark. Both follow broken men who have developed skills after the downfall of society and are now charged with shepherding orphans who may be mankind’s chance for a cure while facing off against villains who want to retain their tenuous hold on power in the new world order. The difference between the video game adaptation and this comic book spin-off is Norman Reedus. Originally a secondary character who became a fan favorite, Reedus’ portrayal of Daryl Dixon became a central focus of The Walking Dead. Whether it be his gruff demeanor, his unrequited romance with Carol (Melissa McBride), or his anti-hero status, Daryl resonated with fans. He became a central figure after the departure of Andrew Lincoln, Danai Gurira, and more. But something doesn’t quite work in his solo outing.
The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon opens with Reedus floating in a raft on the shores of France. The explanation of how and why he ended up on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean is parsed out across the six-episode series, but at the beginning, it is explained away when Daryl says that he went out to find something, and things happened. While there is an answer waiting for patient fans, it comes after a lot of familiar ground is retread. First, Daryl encounters a new type of zombie unique to France, which can burn your skin on contact like a corrosive acid. A cool twist on the Walker formula: these new monsters are vastly underused. Instead, the writers seem to think viewers will be intrigued to see just how different the pandemic treated folks in Europe. The answer is not very much. Paris and the country are segmented into survival colonies, similar to North America, but the control seems more organized. Daryl meets Isabelle (Clemence Poesy), a member of a religious colony. Essentially a nun, Isabelle has her own backstory, which informs her desire to believe in Laurent (Louis Puech Scigliuzzi), a young boy cut from his mother’s womb who also happened to be a walker. Laurent is believed to be a savior, and Daryl is commissioned to take the boy to The Nest, a haven where they may use Laurent’s abilities to save mankind.
By unceremoniously dropping Daryl on a new continent and promising answers over the season, The Walking Dead showrunners have a lot of confidence in the patience of their audience. Within the first hour of the series, I felt like I was watching something plucked from the final seasons of the main series rather than something new and vital. While each episode boasts a title in the French language, Daryl seems to have stumbled onto some universal translator as every French person he meets speaks fluent English. Despite the stretches needed to make this story work, the presence of Norman Reedus prevents Daryl Dixon from being a bust. Reedus’ popularity on the flagship series waned as Daryl was underused even when he was the most tenured cast member in later seasons. By taking Daryl out of The Walking Dead and putting him into unfamiliar territory, the series benefits from exploring who he is as a person far more than they ever did in the main series. The Walking Dead has long been an ensemble series, but Daryl Dixon has enough focus to tell a new story while diving into the popular character’s backstory.
Showrunner and series creator David Zabel took part in scripting four of the six episodes of Daryl Dixon while directing duties were shared between Tim Southam and Daniel Percival. The production values are on par with the other series in The Walking Dead universe. Still, the decrepit ruins of Paris don’t look much different than those of Atlanta, Philadelphia, or Washington, DC. Still, I credit Greg Nicotero, Angela Kang, and Scott M. Gimple for trying something we have not seen before. The fish-out-of-water concept of Daryl Dixon is woefully wasted as are the new zombies. But, the shift to a more spiritual narrative was an unexpected one. I had expected more attention to the origins of the plague that created the zombies, but maybe that is a tale to be saved for a future chapter in The Walking Dead franchise.
Daryl Dixon is the more refreshing take on The Walking Dead formula between this series and Dead City. But, it is still tried and true to the beats we have come to expect from AMC’s zombie saga. There are answers about how and why Daryl is where he is, and some familiar connections to The Walking Dead pop up in a way that will please long-term fans. But The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon feels far more derivative in the wake of The Last of Us finding massive success earlier this year. Because it only runs six episodes, this is an easy watch but will serve more as hope that there is still worthwhile material lurking in the annals of this fictional dystopia. I hope what comes next from The Walking Dead takes a cue from Daryl Dixon and tries something even more different than this series. Saved by Norman Reedus’ presence, The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon is good but not quite good enough.
The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon premieres on September 10th on AMC.