Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A grizzled and world-weary loner of a man finds himself as the unlikely ward for a child whom some claim to be the future savior of the post-apocalyptic world in which survivors are struggling to live. Together, the man and child embark on a road trip that may bring them closer together while also sometimes tearing them apart due to the monsters and murderers who now claim the lands.
Yes, let’s address the zombified elephant in the room; The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon is clearly derivative of The Last of Us (TLOU) and awkwardly comes just a few months after TLOU impressed as a live-action TV series based on the beloved Naughty Dog game. Though TWD’s Greg Nicotero incredulously says he had no idea about The Last of Us until recently, it doesn’t really matter. TLOU hardly created this trope. From The Road and The Book of Eli to The Girl with All the Gifts and The Passage, the surrogate-dad-versus-monsters ground is well-trodden. Thankfully, Daryl Dixon does more than just retell a familiar tale.
The story setup of Daryl Dixon sounds a bit silly at first. With Daryl almost inconceivably ending up in France after spending the main series on the US east coast, obvious questions are there to be answered, namely how did this happen and how might he return to the loved ones we know? To this end, the six-episode first season does really well to delay turning over every stone for the viewer, and that’s aided tremendously by a compelling central plot and a new cast of characters who deserve their screen time.
Unlike Dead City, the Maggie and Negan spin-off which features a supporting group of characters who never felt like more than future zombie lunches, Daryl Dixon is packed with strong performances and compelling characters, like Isabelle and Laurent, a reformed nun and the aforementioned child who might just save the world, respectively. I was sincerely surprised to find just how well the secondary characters are written here, as even the main series struggled with this for years. I can’t point out a single character in Daryl Dixon who outlives their intrigue or feels like wasted space in such a short season. Compare that to Dead City, in which no one but the co-leads filled me with any sort of curiosity, and it’s clear to see how much better this second effort is as a “phase two” spin-off, to borrow a term from Marvel.
The series’ jump to France ends up paying off incredibly well, too. Even as it’s worn down to hell and full of mayhem, the beauty of Europe is still apparent in every shot, and the crew wisely uses the new stomping grounds to its advantage, with scenes filmed at Normandy Beach, the catacombs, and, of course, the Eiffel Tower, which is featured in a fall-of-Paris flashback that would make an amazing short film in the zombie genre in its own right.
The main show was so often filmed in nondescript woods that it feels refreshing to see such interesting and well-known architecture and beauty juxtaposed as the backdrop for the horrific stories that play out. The show has a distinctly different cinematic eye. Dare I say it feels elegant, with some beautiful shots of the French countryside strewn throughout the show, an often slower pace with incredible music fitting of the setting, and of course, Daryl, who continues to be one of the series’ best characters.
Norman Reedus isn’t phoning it in for this series even if some wondered whether these spin-offs would amount to more than cynical cash-grabs, and the smaller cast and focus on him as the one familiar character plays really well, as we get to see new sides of him. Not for nothing, but he’s also allowed to swear a lot more outside of the FCC’s purview on AMC+. Daryl lets the F-bombs fly, and it really works. Even in its worst era, The Walking Dead could pull a great character episode out of nowhere once in a while, and with Daryl Dixon, it feels like viewers get six of those in a row, partly thanks to Reedus, but the material and supporting cast feel much improved.
Daryl Dixon feels like it’s learned from many of the series’ long-established mistakes, with villains that behave like real people with complex motivations, rather than caricatures of the worst parts of humanity. Before, when The Walking Dead would try to make a big point, like the mainline series’ final season that tried to say something grand about democracy, it felt hamfisted or ineloquent. Here, Daryl Dixon keeps its soapboxing dreams smaller and more realistic, mostly using themes of godliness and fascism as colors with which it paints its characters.
As for that aforementioned trope of a premise, the series subverts what we’ve seen there before, too. Sure, Daryl and Laurent won’t always see eye to eye, and some of the story beats feel rote as a result, but across six episodes, the pair also rarely travel alone, giving the story a more crowded feeling than something like TLOU or The Road, in which our two main characters meet others but usually just briefly. In fact, Isabelle, played by the wonderful Clémence Poésy, is as pivotal to the plot as Daryl or Laurent, which alone changes the dynamic in every episode.
This new spin-off doesn’t fix all of the mistakes of the series’ past, though, with the most glaring being some suspect action scenes. Reedus still handles himself well, and some new secondary characters look the part. But far too often, characters will freeze from terror in the middle of a horde of walkers, or a lone “stealth” walker is able to get the drop on a hero. In-universe, it’s been 12 years since the walkers arrived. It’s inconceivable that anyone alive at this point is so helpless.
…the crew wisely uses the new stomping grounds to its advantage, [like] a fall-of-Paris flashback that would make an amazing short film in the zombie genre in its own right.
As a way to spice things up, the series also continues down a path we saw hints of in the latter days of the main show: special types of undead who can climb and perform other feats the usual husks could not. Personally, I don’t need this element of the fiction as I wasn’t bored with the status quo of shambling zombies, but it seems like it’s here to stay and will continue to factor into The Walking Dead Universe (TWDU) for years to come. I only wish by now we’d get a better understanding of their origins, as these special undead feel underexplained even after this series takes a few confusing steps in that direction. At least in this case, the comic-booky nature of the monsters doesn’t ruin the otherwise classy chaos of the show.
The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon is the best entry in The Walking Dead Universe since the main series’ glory days. It achieves more in its six episodes than Fear The Walking Dead has done in the past half-decade combined, and it commits very few of the errors of this year’s Dead City. Seeking reasons to stay invested in TWDU beyond the main series has been largely fruitless so far, but Daryl corrects course and suggests this can still be a world I enjoy visiting in the form of new stories for years to come. As a surprisingly elegant, wisely solemn, and fascinatingly fresh continuation for Daryl as a character, it feels like The Walking Dead has found its je ne sais quoi.