As I mentioned in my review of the previous “Walking Dead” spinoff “Dead City” months back, AMC’s flagship franchise must bristle in the wake of “The Last of Us”’s success over at HBO. With their newest spinoff, “Daryl Dixon,” the comparisons become even more inescapable: Pair a grizzled, traumatized zombie killer with a young child fated to usher in humanity’s future and send them on a lonely, dangerous quest to take said child to sanctuary. That’s “The Last of Us,” and it’s also “Daryl Dixon,” to a degree where Craig Mazin and Naughty Dog ought to speed-dial their copyright lawyers.
But for all the repetition and signature oddness of AMC’s latest attempt to extend the life of its universe, there’s something innately fascinating about “Daryl Dixon”’s stripped-down, keenly focused presentation. It’s a ripoff and a spinoff all in one, but it also gives a beloved character the room to shine that he was denied in his flagship show.
The character in question, of course, is the eponymous Daryl, who finds himself in the opening minutes of the premiere having precariously washed ashore in France. The reasons for his arrival are obscured for much of the season, and Norman Reedus himself seems perplexed as to why he’s even here. (After all, we last saw him in the “Walking Dead” finale, riding his motorcycle to unknown destinations.)
It’s not long before our adrift stranger finds a new purpose in this strange land, as he’s taken in by a convent of badass nuns who’ve armed themselves to fend off both des morts-vivants and the “guerriers,” paramilitary forces who raid the countryside for a mysterious villainess (Anne Cherrier’s icy Genet). He’s soon recruited for a holier purpose: escort a jeune garçon named Laurent (Louis Puech Scigliuzzi) to a mysterious refuge called The Nest, where the nuns tell him he’s a “miracle” who’s fated to usher in a new era of mankind in this broken world. So off the two go, escorted by Isabelle (“The Essex Serpent”’s Clemence Poésy), a warrior nun with more than one connection to Laurent’s unique provenance, to navigate the walker-filled countrysides and cobblestone streets of France.
It’s no secret that “Daryl Dixon” was originally conceived as a “Daryl & Carol” spinoff, with fellow stalwart Melissa McBride choosing late in the game not to participate. But the renewed focus on Daryl alone is so refreshing; despite lasting almost the entirety of the original show’s run, Reedus got precious little to do in the back half of the show, swallowed by an ensemble that kept growing around him. Here, Reedus is front and center, and he makes an incredibly compelling lead: He’s still buttoned down, terse, and gruff, but showrunner David Zabel (“ER”) uses this biker-in-King-Arthur’s-Court vibe to test the confines of Daryl’s guardedness.
Zombie attacks are relatively sparse (but fun; get ready for Daryl to trade his crossbow for a suitably medieval flail he can twirl around and swing into walker’s noggins), leaving room for Reedus to channel the wry stoicism he’s spent more than a decade cultivating in a whole new setting. Imagine “An American in Paris” if Gene Kelly had to can-can kick drooling demons across the face. (Take a drink every time Daryl has to play the “parlez-vous anglais” game with a new French character he meets along his journeys.) Throwing a guy like him in the middle of a holy crusade in the middle of Europe, Daryl cuts the figure of a dirtbag Grail Knight, a reformed redneck stumbling his way through France’s anxiety mystique. Brave, brave, brave Sir Duck Dynasty.
Other characters treat him with that same mythic importance; the nuns believe it was his destiny to arrive at their doorstep, and his fighting prowess put him in the crosshairs of many an awed foe. It’s a nifty way to weave the character’s fan-favorite status into the show’s fabric, even in such a new environment.
What puts this show above “Dead City,” apart from Daryl being more interesting than Maggie and Negan, is the supporting cast. Poésy’s Isabelle makes for a formidable friend, ally, and potential love interest; like Daryl, she was reinvented by the plague, arguably made better and more noble. It’s a lovely throughline for both of them, and Reedus and Poésy are magnetic together. Keep your eyes peeled for major French actors in small but wonderful parts (like Jean-Pierre Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon as a charming Parisian pigeon messenger).
The major weak spot is Laurent himself, mostly because he’s one of the most egregious examples of the ‘kid in peril’ tropes these stories traffic in—he’s wise beyond his years but also makes one dumb decision after another that gets his caretakers in more trouble than they deserve. If he’s the savior of mankind, we’re in trouble, folks.
Annoying kid MacGuffin aside, the “Walking Dead”-ification of France puts an exceedingly novel twist on the show’s universe. The opening titles evoke Renaissance paintings; we see an Eiffel Tower whose tip was shorn off in the apocalypse’s opening days; Normandy’s beaches take on both personal and thematic significance for Daryl and his quest by season’s end. Familiar zombie-fight trappings (like the oft-repeated zombie arena) get some welcome spice thanks to genetic experimentations, super-strong zombies, and walkers whose touch burns their victims.
Late in the season, someone says to Daryl, “Sometimes when a person leaves home, he comes to find he belongs someplace else.” “Daryl Dixon” is a fun, compelling example of that well-worn story, putting a long-underused icon right in the spotlight amid a novel, unsettling environment. If you were put off by the endless seasons of “The Walking Dead” and desperately want to return to the glory days of Daryl, this might be a good enough excuse to send you shambling back.
The entire season was screened for review. “Daryl Dixon” Premieres September 10th on AMC and AMC+.