Any time I muse about Daryl Dixon, the character from AMC’s The Walking Dead, I find myself thinking about Omar Little, the Robin Hood-styled stickup artist from HBO’s masterpiece The Wire. Both characters live and thrive in dangerous times. Both are outsiders who perform things that seem impossible for the average man to achieve. They are badass, breakout characters with the killer lines.
The duster-clad, gun-toting Omar was the coolest, toughest character in a show full of them. Even President Obama said that Omar was his favorite character. People loved Omar so much that toward the end of The Wire‘s run, show creator David Simon appeared to be becoming heartily sick of the adulation Omar was receiving (he would later describe the fandom as “wearying” to The New York Times). The character, simply by being who he was, was teetering on the brink of fanservice.
And then Omar died, ignominiously, blindsided in a convenience store by a wannabe gangster kid who wanted to make his name by taking down the great man himself. The world stopped for a minute, expanded, contracted, and then life went on.
It was brilliant television. It was fantastic storytelling, and it honored the character and the multilayered world that Simon had created.
Years later, Omar lives on in television history as one of the most memorable characters of all time, and in Etsy shops, where he has inspired products like this:
Which brings me to Daryl Dixon, a character so popular that fans have threatened (fairly convincingly) that they will riot if he is killed. To say he has captured the attention and imagination of the viewing public is an understatement: Daryl is the main character in 68 percent of all TWD fanfiction. That percentage increases to 78 percent when you look at only mature-situations fanfiction. Die-hard fans have debated the merits of Daryl as a romantic interest for almost all of the female characters in the show (ranging in age from the 17-year-old Beth to Carol, who is in her mid-forties), and for several of the men. In addition to these various ships, there is a sizable group of fans who don’t think that there is anyone who is good enough for Daryl, something that is confirmed by the number of heartfelt “Daryl plus original character” fanfics out there.
The character has come a long way in the four seasons since the show started. Originally an irascible loner with a hair-trigger temper who had allegiance only to his brother, Daryl has evolved into a valued member of the group of survivors, even acting as a leader of sorts despite his discomfort with the role. He doles out sage advice, reads situations with startling accuracy, and otherwise makes life a little bit better for everyone at his camp. His good deeds are a beacon in an otherwise bleak world: in a recent episode, he paused during a run for life-saving medicine so he could pick up some jasper for one of the camp members, who wanted to put some on her husband’s grave. He even has two best friends — Rick, the former sheriff who leads the group when he isn’t having nervous breakdowns or crises of conscience; and Carol, the formerly abused wife who has grown from helpless walker bait to coolly (perhaps ruthlessly) efficient survivor. And it is here that we see what the problem is with Daryl now: faced with a choice between his hero (Rick) and his emotional support (Carol), he chooses neither. The man with the strong moral code pauses, but not because of internal debate: he stops because right now Daryl is so universally beloved that the creative forces behind TWD seem to be afraid that by coming down on one side or the other, Daryl will lose fans. Rather than Daryl’s crabby, cynical perspective, viewers are treated to shot after shot of Daryl’s sculpted bare arms. Sometimes the pandering is painfully manipulative, like when Daryl cuddled the newborn Judith, or when he rescued Carol from impending death and carried her to safety. Then there was the episode where he taught that panda sign language. (That last one hasn’t happened, yet.)
The PTB know they have a good thing on their hands, and they are milking it for all it is worth. They coyly tease (or troll, according to some of the more exasperated fans) about Daryl’s various relationships, and whether or not he’ll survive. While first admitting that they were unlikely to kill Daryl off, executive producer Robert Kirkman has recently taken to saying that he considers such threats a challenge, while the actor portraying Dixon, Norman Reedus (who is a masterful user of social media, BTW — other celebrities could take lessons from him), has a stock response: “I love a good riot.”
I just finished watching TWD’s mid-season finale. In it, Daryl fought valiantly (as always), used a walker as an inhuman shield, and ultimately took out a tank via strategic placement of a grenade (the tossing of which, despite the stressful circumstances, nonetheless looked like an easy basketball layup). He was, in a word, awesome. He’s always awesome. And that’s the problem.
Some viewers have become exasperated with Daryl’s perfection, calling fourth-season Daryl a “Gary Stu” who can do no wrong, but who is firmly middle-of-the-road. As Tumblr user Leigh57 puts so eloquently:
Because as much as we all love to talk about Daryl’s loyalty (again, me included), at the moment, he is fiercely loyal to exactly no one. He’s a little bit loyal to Rick and a little bit loyal to Carol, and I’m gonna be honest. Mostly it’s like someone giving me a Dorito when I’d really prefer to eat half the bag.
By trying to please everyone, TWD risks ruining the character. The show has been criticized for pacing and character development problems, which makes Daryl all the more of an achievement for the creative minds behind the show. However, it’s make-or-break time: the show needs to let him be unlikable again if they want him to take the place in the pantheon of all-time great television characters. It also means that they might need to send everyone’s favorite redneck to the Big Sleep rather than wrestle with the temptation to keep him alive forever. And not by some valiant superhero death, either: it should be something ridiculous, like him being mauled by an ungrateful panda offscreen. (Slay also talks about this a little in her mid-season finale review here.)
The bottom line, though, is that The Walking Dead isn’t The Wire, and Daryl Dixon is no Omar Little. In the case of The Wire, pandering to Omar’s fans risked damaging the show’s integrity. In the case of The Walking Dead, the risk is to the character, not the show. As long as there are zombies, there will be a lot of people who’ll watch TWD, no matter how Daryl Dixon is written.