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Can Daryl Dixon Bring The Walking Dead Back to Life?

A change in location and some new threats can't hide the franchise’s struggle with diminishing returns.
  • Norman Reedus stars in The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon (Photo: Stéphanie Branchu/AMC)
    Norman Reedus stars in The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon (Photo: Stéphanie Branchu/AMC)

    It's always a worrying sign when a once-booming TV series feels the need to initiate big change. Modifications to the formula that once made a show great are done to spice things up for long-suffering viewers, but they can all too often signify doom. The premiere of Daryl Dixon, the latest spin-off to come shambling out of the leviathan horde that is AMC's The Walking Dead, boasts new zombie variants and a peculiar change of scenery, taking us to the backdrop of France as our eponymous hero (Norman Reedus) continues to do his freaky survivalist thing. But is this enough to get seasoned walker-watchers excited about The Walking Dead all over again?

    Such a wild swing suggests the brain trust behind TWD may have taken its former juggernaut status for granted. Like a lonely biter left to pasture, 11 seasons of prestige walker mayhem and a litany of spin-offs have left the franchise feeling bloated, musty, and hungry. This stagnation has inadvertently allowed a host of ambitious contenders to invade the zombie TV market that AMC once had firmly on lock.

    Among them, The Last of Us has positioned itself as far more than another copycat; the HBO series pulls the kind of ratings that The Walking Dead franchise could now only dream of. Compare the 8.2 million viewers who showed up for its Season 1 finale to TWD's series closer, which drew 2.27 million before AMC turned out the lights. Many factors were to blame for the ratings hemorrhaging The Walking Dead endured, such as the ever-changing streaming landscape. Zombie burnout is not one of them. But one thing is clear: In order to compete or even stay relevant, the world of The Walking Dead is in dire need of a shake-up.

    So here comes Daryl Dixon and, with it, a big hearty slice of brie. The series premiere, titled "L'âme Perdue" (or "The Lost Soul," which, beurk), follows Daryl as the once lethal tracker blunders his way into the care of a convent of warrior nuns. They swing halberds and know their way around rifles, as befits these walker-ravaged times. Chief among them, as far as drama is concerned anyway, is Isabelle (Clémence Poésy), who believes Daryl is "The Messenger," a foretold pilgrim who ventures across the sea to aid them in their darkest hour. Mon dieu, has this franchise gone goofy.

    Who's doing the foretelling? Meet Laurent (Louis Puech Scigliuzzi), a genius-level child who can sense people's nature — and, yes, their future — with his gut, and whose shocking walker-birth leads many factions among the French Faith to collectively believe he is the New Messiah, destined to lead humanity towards its divine salvation. Themes of religion aren't unfamiliar territory for Reedus' realist character, who has addressed his agnosticism in the past. Prophecy and destiny, on the other hand, are concepts that look about as good on the Eastwood-squinting, possum-chomping Dixon as a party hat looks on a walker.

    Speaking of which, here come the brûleurs, or "burners," the much-touted new walker threat that carry a corrosive touch and are harder to kill thanks to their acid blood, à la the xenomorph from Alien. It's nice to see the talented FX artists of The Walking Dead tinkering with their tried-and-true zombie formula, whipping up new strains of gross for viewers who might be feeling like they've seen it all before — been there, decapitated that. Greg Nicotero, longtime TWD horror-meister and executive producer of Daryl Dixon, has teased even more formidable walker strains that may appear further into the show, like walkers who can run. (Rebranding the franchise as The Speeding Dead remains unlikely.)

    Superficial changes this far along in the Walking Dead TV universe construction imply that AMC believes its doldrums are due to an undead oversaturation in the television/streaming market. The success of The Last of Us nips that theory in the bud. It also highlights story similarities between Daryl Dixon and HBO's clicker hit, with the melodrama between Daryl and Laurent loudly echoing that of Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey). Twin pairings of jaded survivors with their humanity-saving charges, wandering the land looking for meaning, instead finding home where they least expect it. Ellie's immunity to zombie bites and Laurent's faction-connecting faith are why they're initially important in their respective stories, but it's their joie de vivre that makes them so special to their grumpy guides — at least, eventually.

    Coincidence? Eh. You'd be just as successful accusing The Mandalorian of the same plagiarism. The point is that Daryl is stuck leading a messiah-child to the promised land that may or may not exist, and he could have embarked on this goofball mission virtually anywhere. One wonders: Why is he in France at all? Not just in a story sense (without spoiling things, answers do come later this season), but in terms of AMC's strategy for the franchise. Pourquoi ici? Pourquoi maintenant?

    There could be an actual reason, but Daryl Dixon, like its hero, is being tight-lipped about it. Season 1 of The Walking Dead hinted that the French equivalent of the CDC was on the cusp of a walker cure before all contact with the country went kaput. The French had been on radio silence (at least as far as audiences were concerned) until 2021 when The Walking Dead: World Beyond suddenly dropped a big clue as to France's place in this dystopian hellscape and what that might mean for the series going forward: The Republic was ground zero for the walker outbreak.

    Daryl Dixon doesn't cover any of this during its premiere, but this news would help make sense of how the country could be on its way to finding a cure, and it might also explain why its walker breed now comes packing superpowers. Answers behind the origins of this catastrophe, if The Walking Dead ever needed them or not, may be on the way. And there stands Daryl, stuck in no man's land without a crossbow — only a newfound purpose.

    Does Daryl Dixon mark the beginning of the end for TWD TV universe, which includes one other ongoing spin-off, Dead City, and the upcoming limited series The Ones Who Live, which centers on Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Michonne (Danai Gurira)? Are Daryl and Laurent on their way to a series-closing cure? Is this silly Parisian death march enough to bring viewers back to the series in droves? Probably not. Maybe its second season will have more tantalizing answers on these fronts. For now, we're left with Daryl and his young charge, walking a lonely path toward salvation in its myriad forms. (Don't worry; those nuns will keep them company.) With its long-running original series now consigned to the walker heap of history, The Walking Dead needs to find a new groove if the franchise is to continue. So far, as the man himself might say, Daryl Dixon ain't it.

    New episodes of The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon stream Sundays at 3:00 AM ET on AMC+ and air at 10:00 PM ET on AMC. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Jarrod Jones is a freelance writer currently settled in Chicago. He reads lots (and lots) of comics and, as a result, is kind of a dunderhead.

    TOPICS: The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon, AMC, AMC+, The Walking Dead, The Walking Dead: Dead City, David Zabel, Greg Nicotero, Norman Reedus, Robert Kirkman