Daryl Dixon, The Last Man Standing

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The Walking Dead Meta

Note 1: SPOILERS for entire series, seasons 1-6

Note 2: I began this in depth look at Daryl Dixon back when I first started watching The Walking Dead. My first real episode was the mid-season premiere in season 5. I watched seasons 1-4 on Netflix and what there was of 5 on Couchtuner and AMC to catch up to my family. I’ve mentioned before that not watching the show didn’t keep me from having Daryl as my favorite. I follow the bow. I studied archery when I was in an historical reenactment group. I looked forward to a day that would never come: when I would participate in our reenactment of Agincourt. In the list of favorite characters, the bowman (person) is at the top from Robin Hood to Katniss Everdeen, from Merida to Hawkeye. He’s why I’m on Team Cap, in fact. I’m also a Sagittarius.

Note 3: Episode references or editorial comments are in brackets [ ]. The first number is the season; the second number is the episode. I.e. 3.10 is the 10th episode of the 3rd season. The title follows the number.

When I became aware of the shipping wars, I was amused that I was the only one who could see that Daryl wasn’t romantically interested in either Carol or Beth. What were these people seeing that I wasn’t? I’ve written about his sexuality and how I see his relationships with Carol (parental) and Beth (she’s a kid), and in doing that so many other things came to the forefront; like his abusive past, his loner status in a sea of people, his protection of the children, his acceptance of acts he doesn’t necessarily agree with in the protection of the group and, many others along the way to becoming an integral part of the group’s leadership as well as one of the moral voices. 

Watching the changes in Daryl, and really it was watching him grow up from season 1, and through that we get to see the difference in what he thinks of himself and what others think of him. He keeps adapting and for a long time became the man he strove to be, both at the prison and Alexandria. It’s not until the second half of the sixth season that he’s back on the vengeance path, turning back towards his old self, and becoming more like Merle in the process. After having seen 7.1 [The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be] I may address this in a separate meta.

In 1.6 TS-19, we see Daryl drinking from a bottle of wine, celebrating. He seems a happy drunk. Cheering and sharing the wine in what he thinks is a reprieve from this new world; this horror movie playing before his eyes. Despite the loss of Merle, this somehow feels as though they’ve escaped what’s outside, possibly forever. He’s still that kid; that is still all we see.

In contrast, in 6.14 Twice as Far, he’s taken one (probably more) of Rosita’s found mini bottles of booze and he drinks it while he’s burying Denise. His eyes are downcast. He leans on his shovel, his shoulders slouching, and he drinks the bottle in one or two gulps. He knows it won’t help, but it worked for his his parents, his brother; maybe he thinks it will work for him now. Through this new nightmare. He’s started down the path that his brother was on. He’s regressing from all the growing up that he’s done in the past five seasons and we can feel the anger, the forlorn, the self-blame, and the vengeance. It’s sad to watch. And it’s scary.

So, who is Daryl Dixon?

Daryl was born in poverty to a pair of alcoholic parents, about ten years younger than his older brother, Merle in or near Atlanta, Georgia, but on the edge of lower class suburbia and the rural, deep woods hillbilly place with their shacks and their moonshine and their hunting lodges. Although lodges sounds a bit pretentious, it’s probably not much more than a lean to. He’d call himself a redneck, so I don’t know why I’m so hesitant to assign that stereotypical moniker to him myself.

He was smaller than his friends, maybe he was just younger than the other neighborhood boys. They had slightly more money than he did; they had bikes, whether hand me down or not, Daryl didn’t even have that much. He would have to run to keep up with them. Sometimes, they wouldn’t wait.

His hair was a mop and always in his eyes until he had the money to pay for his own haircuts. The hair in his eyes hid him from the world, which gave him a low-key wariness both from him and towards him. Maybe when Merle came back with his Army regulation hair, Daryl asked for one. Who else to look up to and emulate except his big brother?

The abuse had always been there, getting worse after Daryl’s mom died. Merle took the brunt of it, but when he escaped to join the Army, it fell to Daryl to be his father’s punching bag. It wouldn’t have occurred to him as a small boy to fight back. Those beatings still affect him today. He still has the scars from the whippings made with either a belt or a switch or whatever was handy. He doesn’t look people in the eye, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. He cringes and is guarded, looking wary when voices are raised. He flinches when someone suddenly does something unexpected. [as in 2.1 Seed] Besides the beatings, Daryl’s father didn’t pay him much mind. Daryl disappeared for nine days lost in the woods and no one noticed he was gone, not even when he returned on his own and made himself a sandwich. He was younger than twelve, and Merle was in juvi. Again. His father was off on a bender with some waitress. He didn’t call him father or dad; he was the old man. An itchy ass his only reminder of one small reprieve of his lonely childhood. Well, that and the scars on his back.

The drinking was so ingrained in his family life that his dad had a drinking shack; a place where he kept his moonshine, and got away from his family. He didn’t try to hide it from his boys either. It’s not like he had any kind of respect for his home life, taking target practice in the house. I can’t imagine what the sound of random gunfire inside would have done to Daryl. [Still]

Despite all that, he had a good heart. He had a quiet watchfulness which has served him throughout his adulthood. He probably got that from his mother. Knowing what we do know about his father, it isn’t hard to see his mother in Daryl. Merle said it more than once – “He’s the sweet one, my baby brother.” [3.1 Walk with Me] She was kind and decent, and sweet and good-natured, but getting beaten every day and watching her oldest get beaten, she turned to drinking. It made her feel better. It helped her sleep. How many times had she fallen asleep with a lit cigarette before it finally enveloped her? Was it a coincidence that no one else was home in the middle of the afternoon when their house burned to the ground with her inside?

His whole life changed in an instant with his mother’s death. Not only did he lose his physical mother that day, he lost his potential; the path she might have guided him on to get out of that life. Instead, he followed Merle like a puppy dog, hanging out with his friends, his dealer, drinking, smoking, getting high.  He relied on Merle for his food and attention. He looked to Merle to shape his attitudes about everything from women to drugs to the difference between right and wrong.

He heard the sirens but it was the look on his friends’ faces that told him his mother was dead; his house gone. [3.7 When the Dead Come Knocking] I imagine shock was the closest thing to describe his reaction, but it also wouldn’t be the last time he had to start life all over again. In seeing his reaction as an adult to loss, he would be chewing on his lip to keep him from crying. His fists would be clenched and his jaw locked, teeth grinding. He’d crawl inside himself so he didn’t have to feel anything; his caring pushed deep and hidden.

After his mother was gone, his father drank more and didn’t come home. Merle had to keep Daryl fed and clothed and his stealing is what would put him in detention more often than not. [2.3 Save the Last One] He was taking the beatings so that Daryl wouldn’t have to, but then one day he left, and Daryl was the one getting beat. It may have even started in full force for Merle after their mother died. Merle pretended he didn’t know that Daryl was getting beat, but how could he not have? [Home, 3.10]

We’ve seen in Daryl how one thing changes everything. As briefly mentioned earlier, with the death of Denise, he’s back on the path of drinking and vengeance. It wasn’t only that it happened on his watch, but on the train tracks that he had avoided on the way to the Edison Pharmacy & Gift Shop. She was killed by the man his instincts failed on, and who he believes he should have killed, and it all happened with his stolen crossbow. It’s the Governor killing Hershel all over again. How will this pan out for Daryl? How will he move past the guilt that we know he must feel? In the very next episode [6.15 East], we see him getting a little sloppy because he’s consumed with his anger and guilt.

Looking back once more to his introduction, we meet his character at the same time that Rick does, and it is still through other people’s eyes; their observations of his character are the only windows we have in getting to know him at first. We don’t know if those views are true or seen through their own biases. He’s a bit scary from the look Morales has, but not as scary as Merle is. He’s a racist. They’re a little worried about telling him about his brother. There’s a hush in the truck, a wariness, a fear. Morales and Glenn tell us to expect violence, and a racist reaction: “Might have trouble with Daryl.” “It might sound better coming from a white guy.”

We finally get to first see Daryl in a physical sense towards the end of that same episode, Tell it To the Frogs [1.3], and we see a young, impetuous, angry, impulsive kid with no filter. He’s a hunter and a tracker. His weapon of choice is a crossbow. He takes out his frustrations on the walker eating his game. He spent three days tracking that deer and all that time was wasted. He’s pissed. He gets in Dale’s face and disparages him because he’s still angry about the deer. He calls him an old man and references an old movie about an old man. He also moves beyond that though – beyond the frustration and the anger; he’s still got squirrels he says optimistically. His whole tone changes. They can still eat. Now, to show his brother how well he did on the hunt. He’s searching for approval from the one person who matters. He’s taking care of the group, and he looks up to his brother. We get all of that from his five minute introduction on the screen. What we don’t see is any sign of that angry racist we were told to expect.

I think it also shows that deep down he’s more of a glass half-full kind of guy rather than angry and mean. We don’t see it tangibly yet, but there is something different about him than how he’s been described; he is almost the opposite of Merle, but right now he still resides in Merle’s shadow.

When he’s first told about Merle not being in the camp, he thinks he’s dead; he puts up a shield and tries to hold back his emotions. He thinks he’s lost his brother and he’s not only trying to process that emotionally, he’s also trying ts to process it pragmatically – how will he survive? What’s next for him? Crap! He’s on his own. When he’s told that he didn’t come back from Atlanta, his eyes well up with tears. He needs to stay tough, strong, can’t “pussy out” like Merle would tell him and he hurriedly wipes his eyes. Then the anger comes when he’s told the whole story.

He lashes out, he states his intention to go to Atlanta and bring his brother back. He doesn’t care if he has to go alone; he plans on going alone, but I think he’s probably relieved that Rick’s going to go with him. Of course, he can’t show that. He doesn’t need anybody else but himself. And he’s anxious. He has to believe that Merle is still there on that rooftop, waiting to be rescued.

In the end, when he actually does lose Merle on that Atlanta rooftop, he’s definitely upset about losing his brother. We don’t often see a lot of actual fear in Daryl, especially in the early parts of the series, but I think it was definitely in him from the moment they found Merle’s empty handcuff. With his big brother gone, how will he survive? Not so much how; I’m sure he thought he had the skills to get through this new world, but could he realistically do it alone? Would he want to? He had to look at his co-survivors with a little more objectivity than simply as marks to rob [Home, 3.10]. And he said it in response to Andrea that he never could go at it alone. [3.16 Welcome to the Tombs] Merle’s missing and probably dead and that was the first time that reality of being alone set in for Daryl.

Losing Merle threw him back to his abusive childhood when Merle went off and joined the Army; it was a tremendous blow. I don’t think Merle lasted long there; he was kicked out of the Army, but the damage had already been done to Daryl.

We know Merle was an asshole, but he was also the big brother – the protector, the role model. He was his partner, his best friend. Now, Daryl was well and truly alone.

While Merle’s a racist and says whatever comes to mind without filtering, Daryl is somehow different. I don’t recall him using racist language. In fact, I seem to recall him recoiling at Merle’s use of it: calling Michonne a Nubian warrior [The Suicide Kings, 3.9], referring to the Spanish speaking family as beaners. [Home, 3.10] When Daryl refers to Glenn as a Chinaman, it is more of an identifier – the Chinese kid rather than the sheriff. [1.4 Vatos] Yes, it’s based on a stereotype, but it’s not said with malice or the intention of mean-spiritedness. It’s not used as an epithet. He actually meant it as a compliment. He doesn’t know any better. He made the joke later on about Glenn’s driving and Asian drivers, but again, it wasn’t meant as a racist, you’re lesser than me dig, but as a stereotype; perhaps even to lighten the moment. It was a friendly jibe, and Glenn laughed at it. [2.13 Beside the Dying Fire] Much later on, we see that he’s learned something. [3.10] When Merle says he “almost killed that Chinese kid”, Daryl corrects him. “He’s Korean.” Merle’s response of “Whatever” mirrors Daryl’s response to Glenn the first time his race is brought up.

In Chupacabra [2.5], we see an inside look at how Daryl views his brother and himself, which mostly comes from and through his brother’s eyes. We understand that it’s a hallucination, but there’s Merle being cheerleader in his bullish way – denigrating the people Daryl’s grown close to – using racist epithets, sexist, derogatory, but still using that in egging him on to get him to climb up, rescue himself, and prove Merle wrong. Merle tells him that he’s the only one who’s there for Daryl, and Daryl’s response? You were never there for me. Despite Merle being on drugs, hooking up with girls, being locked up in juvi more than a few times, and joining the Army to get away from his father’s abuse, we know that Merle still thinks that he’s been there for Daryl, and Daryl’s probably been told by Merle how much Merle’s been there for his sorry ass. He calls him baby brother, little brother, the sweet one, he tells him that he would have never survived if he didn’t have Merle right there by his side, and there’s Daryl talking back, finding himself, knowing that he can survive because he’s always survived.

“You were never there! You’re not here for me now!”

It’s possible that their mother told Merle to watch out for his baby brother or is that something Merle took upon himself? Neither of them could rely on their father, and their mother must have known about Merle’s beatings; she was probably being beaten herself, and she turned to alcohol, which led to her death (along with cigarettes). Virginia Slims. He remembers the name of her brand of cigarettes like I remember my father’s (Pall Mall). She probably had Daryl run out and buy them for her. That was common in those days.

And when Merle was there, what kind of influence was he? Did he help Daryl with his homework? No. He took him to hang out with his drug dealer, watching cartoons and getting high. [4.12 Still] 

Growing up, his family doesn’t have a lot of food. That could be because of the prevalence of alcohol for both his parents. He had to fend for himself more than other kids his age. Everyone knew he was poor. He didn’t have a bicycle. He learned to hunt at a young age. He’s used the bow all his life. He didn’t go camping as much as lived outdoors, probably all summer, and used the bow, hunting for his dinner. [2.3 Save the Last One] He hunted, skinned, and cooked the animals himself with Merle showing him the finer points of life in the woods while at the same time avoiding their father.

If we take a close look at Daryl’s various relationships, he takes a special interest in the children. He is always looking after what’s best for them. He is their protector and one reason for that is that he didn’t have that as a child. He either had to look after himself or he looked to Merle to take care of him, but I don’t imagine that Merle was much of a maternal type. He wouldn’t comfort him when he was upset; he would tell him to get his ass in gear and be a man.

He got lost for nine days and no one even noticed. He came back and made himself a sandwich. Merle was in detention and his Dad was off on a drinking spree, a bender with “some waitress.” [2.3 Save the Last One] 

He looks for Sophia. When he’s asked why he’s looking, his response is that he’s got nothing better to do. We’ll get back to that response later. He looks for her at night. He tracks her. He cuts open a walker for her. He tries to comfort her mother even though he doesn’t know them at all. Little girl’s missing, he steps up.

Just like he steps up after Judith was born. She needs formula, Rick’s in shock after Lori’s death. Daryl’s response is typically Daryl. No one else is going to die! He gets on his bike and goes with Maggie. They come back and he’s the one who feeds Judith her the bottle. He’s the one who names her Little Ass Kicker. 

He protects Beth after the prison is lost. He acts as if he doesn’t care, but even when he leaves her alone, he’s still near enough to help out if she can’t handle herself. When they’re in the funeral home and he opens the door to the walkers, the first thing he does is hold them off and yells at her to get her shit and get out. [4.13 Alone] He avenges her death. [5.8 Coda]

When they arrive in Alexandria, in his first interview with Deanna, what is he concerned with? The only thing he’s concerned with is that the “boy and the baby” have a safe community to live in. They “deserve” a place. [5.12 Remember] He’s all about the kids. Always the kids.

Think back to when Deanna visits them for the first time, their first night in Alexandria, and is only a little surprised to find them all in one house, together in the living room, and where is Daryl? On a bench or window seat or something adjacent to a window, right next to Judith in her porta-crib, his knife either in his hand or close by, always ready to protect her. [5.12 Remember] He’d step in front of a bullet for those kids; any one of them.

He is however, very stingy in his touching of others. He was touched only harshly by his father and Merle. If he had sex, it was as a teenager and young person. I can’t see that being sweet and slow. Until halfway through season 3, his touch has been purely utilitarian and rare. 

During the first night at the prison, he gives Carol a shoulder rub. He’s trying to help her pain. When she turns it to romantic/sexual, he immediately stops. When she talks about his butt, he tells her to stop. [3.1 Seed] After Lori dies and he, Oscar and Carl are doing sweeps in the cells, he’s telling Carl about his mom’s death when he was a kid. He puts his hand on Carl’s shoulder, squeezes it, expresses his sympathy. [3.7 When the Dead Come Knocking] It’s a small moment, but it is quintessential Daryl. Simple, subtle, and layered with meaning. It gives us an inside look into Daryl’s thinking and his self.

In 4.1 [30 Days Without An Accident], Beth hugs him and he doesn’t know what to do with his hands. He’s stiff and at first gives a little flinch. The touch surprises him; it’s foreign to him. he’s not used to being touched by anyone in a way that’s not being hit or hurt. He finally puts one hand on her elbow, but he doesn’t hug her back and he keeps his other hand awkwardly at his side.

At the funeral home with Beth, after they see that the stranger at the door is a dog, he puts his hand on her shoulder and guides her back into the kitchen. [4.13 Alone]

Over the course of six seasons, Daryl has gone from loner and guarded to group leader and friend. In the first two and part of the third seasons, Daryl stood apart from the group. He was with them, but not all the way. He lived on the fringes. He looked for Sophia alone. He recuperated from his gunshot wound alone in his tent. He forgave Andrea for shooting him because she was protecting the group. He set up a camp away from the farm. Lori asked if he was moving to the suburbs. [INSERT CITATION]

He didn’t go to Deanna’s cocktail party, but he did have dinner with Aaron and Eric when he was invited. That morning, he and Aaron went hunting together.

He lives in a house down a far lane in Alexandria, still in the town, but alone. On the fringes.

Except for one or two outbursts, Daryl is quiet and observant. He pays attention. He watches everything going on around him, mentally taking notes, while drawing no attention to himself. As many child abuse victims, he has learned the fine art of seeming invisible. This is especially true of his appearances in the first two seasons.

On Hershel’s farm, he listens to the group while they discuss Randall’s fate. He doesn’t give any opinions. When Dale calls him out on what he said privately to Dale about the group being broken, he’s almost embarrassed that his words are repeated back to him in front of the rest of the group. That would draw attention to himself. [2.11 Judge, Jury, Executioner] 

In the scene in Seed, [2.1], they’re holed up in that abandoned house, each searching for food and supplies. Daryl finds and shoots an owl in an upstairs room, and Carl scavenges the kitchen. They’re all sitting in the living room, Daryl is picking out the owl’s feathers, and Rick sees that Carl is about to open and eat a can of dog food that he found under the sink. Rick takes it from him and violently throws it into the fireplace. Daryl flinches, his eyes never leaving Rick while he’s still plucking owl feathers, but he does look away when Rick turns around to face the group again. Classic abuse behavior.

There are many ways that Daryl ‘s behavior illustrates his abusive childhood. He downplays his accomplishments. He’s not the smartest. He probably dropped out of school or missed many days because he was too bruised to go in. He thinks of his outdoor smarts – hunting, fishing, camping – as being survival skills. Anyone can learn them if they had to. He had to. He’s not book smart. I’d bet he could take apart his bike and put it back together again, but better. He has an ear for what’s wrong with his bike just from listening to it. Everyone in the group admires this about him, but to him, he’s just a stupid redneck who they wouldn’t wipe off the bottom of their shoes. Where does he get that idea? His hallucination of Merle told him that; he probably heard that on a regular basis from his father.

Does he even refer to his father as a father or my dad? No. It’s “my old man had a place like this.” “The old man was on a bender with some waitress.”

He also takes care of other abuse victims. It’s one of the reasons he’s so close to Carol. In 5.6 [Consumed], Daryl takes it on himself to burn the bodies in the women’s shelter so Carol doesn’t have to. He’s taken her feelings into account. She doesn’t ask him to do it, but he knows how hard it was going to be for her to see the shelter workers who helped her now as walkers and then have to put them down. He didn’t want that for her.

In Still [4.12], Daryl gets angry at Beth. After so much time together with the group, she sets him off by implying that he’s been in prison. She tries to backpedal it by suggesting he was a prison guard or just in the drunk tank. He thought things were different. He wasn’t out of his shell, but he was letting his guard down; they were becoming a family, and it turns out that Beth feels the same way about his redneck white trash self that he felt from everyone else in his life.

He takes it out on her, yelling, forcing her to shoot the walker. He mocks her life or his perception of her life – the life of a sixteen/seventeen year old girl. He never had a pet pony. He never got anything from Santa Claus. He never relied on anyone for protection. He never cut his wrists for attention.

He blames himself for losing the prison to the Governor and for Hershel’s death. Beth’s dad was Daryl’s surrogate dad; the dad he would have chosen if he’d been able. If only he’d kept hunting the governor, her Dad would still be alive. He didn’t, Hershel isn’t, and it’s Daryl’s fault. Beth puts her arms around Daryl’s waist in an attempt to comfort him. He tries to pull away at first, but then gives in and he lets go of everything. He doesn’t hug her back or even touch her, but he cries and cries for the first time since Merle’s death. It should be cathartic, but it’s only superficial; Daryl will carry that guilt for the rest of his life.

It does give us a lot of insight into Daryl and what drives him and what he’s thinking, especially about himself, his obligation to the group.

We’ll see this much later in 6.15 East when he refuses to let Dwight go for killing Denise. He can’t let it go, and it has to do with this residual guilt of losing a father figure like Hershel. In their conversations, he could have been a big brother to Denise. That would have been good for both of them emotionally. Another parallel of Merle-Daryl and Daryl-Beth. It was an opportunity lost, and she was dead , not only because he didn’t initially kill Dwight, but because he trusted Dwight and got his crossbow stolen. The same crossbow that was used to kill Denise. The only person who might understand what he’s thinking is Michonne [her sword was used to kill Hershel], and they haven’t had a chance to talk about the similarities to their situations and their feelings. Not that Daryl’s a big emotional talker, but it would have been something.

Daryl is something of a shrugger. He’s never doing the right thing or the important thing; he’s not doing anything that anyone wouldn’t do. He’s got nothing better to do. He uses nearly those exact words when he’s looking for Sophia. He says it to Carol [2.7 Pretty Much Dead Already] He says it to Hershel when they defend the farm. [2.13 Beside the Dying Fire] When he and Carol are chasing after Noah [5.6 Consumed] his bag spills out. He’s taken the book on how to help child abuse victims. He and Carol share a look; his is this shrug, whatever, got nothing better to do. I mentioned his interview with Deanna. In addition to what’s best for the boy and the baby, he shrugs. He is of no import; he’ll be fine. Whatever. He says the same thing to Aaron when he’s offered the motorcycle parts and to be the second recruiter. He says he’s got nothing better to do. He shrugs as if he doesn’t care, but in reality he’s very touched that Aaron thinks so highly of him. But if we think back to meeting Aaron in The Distance [5.13] as they’re discussing whether or not to go to Alexandria, he says, “We’re going. This barn smells like horse shit.” Again, playing down his preference of going. Whether it’s for him or the kids, he makes it sound as though he doesn’t care; it doesn’t matter. The horse shit’s the reason, and not anything else. He can take it or leave it either way.

He’s wrong in many respects, but he doesn’t think he’s the smartest or the strongest, but he still believes he serves a purpose, whatever that might be.

He hides behind the mask of uncaring unless you rile him up; jump start his basic survival/protection instincts. When Aidan takes a swing at Glenn [5.12 Remember] he begins pacing like a caged tiger, trying to get past Rick to get in on the fight, to protect his people. I think, and I think Rick recognizes that he is partially posturing. He’s keeping the Alexandrians on their toes. He gets puffed up like a wild animal who’s either corned or not willing to get cornered. Don’t mess with his herd. He finds Carol’s knife, and has the same caged animal instinct before he goes after the walker behind the door, which turns out to be Carol. [3.7 When the Dead Come Knocking]

He has great respect for Rick and defers to him. He switches off with Glenn; he’s a good second in command. He kills Dale before he turns so Rick doesn’t have to. [2.11 Judge, Jury, Executioner] He’s willing to listen, but if he truly disagrees with Rick he will speak up. This started at the farm and continued over the seasons. When Daryl wants to go look for Merle, but Rick insists they get Glenn and Maggie out is the priority, Daryl acquiesces. [3.8 Made to Suffer] Rick also values Daryl’s moral center. He is one of the only ones who can talk Rick down from escalation. In the trade for Beth, Rick is going to shoot the third officer and Daryl tells him that three prisoners are better than two. [5.7 Crossed] When Carter is plotting to kill Rick, Rick has the gun up to his head. All Daryl needs to do is say Rick’s name, and Rick sees the alternative. [6.1 First Time Again] 

One of the first times he’s shown to be Rick’s moral compass is when Rick is discussing giving up Michonne to the Governor even though he knows that’s more than a death sentence. “Just ain’t us, man.” [3.15 This Sorrowful Life] He doesn’t insist, but he’s beginning to feel what’s right and what’s wrong, and that he needs to speak up.

Not much scares him, but I can think of two very distinct moments: the first is when he’s brought hooded into the Governor’s cage match, and the hood is removed to the crowd’s jeering. He’s scared here. He doesn’t know what to expect. We can see his mind turning options over in his head, but he’s worried about how this is going to turn out. He sees Merle for the first time, and he’s not sure what to think. He really doesn’t know if Merle will help him. It’s not until after Merle tells him to “follow my lead, little brother” does he know that he and Merle are fighting against the world again. [The Suicide King, 3.9] 

The second time is tied up at Terminus. Tears come to his eyes. He struggles, not only to keep them from kneeling him next to the trough but trying to untie or loosen his bounds. He knows what’s coming and it’s confirmed when they hit the first victim with the baseball bat and then slit his throat. [5.1 No Sanctuary] 

Aaron tells Daryl that he can tell people from walkers and good people from bad people. That was why Aaron came out to meet the group – because of Daryl. In that same episode, he won’t let Daryl sacrifice himself for Aaron. He’s making Daryl an equal to him, something that Daryl still needs to see – his own value, not only to the group but to himself. [5.16, Conquer] 

In what happens with Dwight, Daryl is questioning his skills in that department of knowing who’s good and who’s bad. He miscalculated Dwight, inviting him to return with him to Alexandria right before he steals his bike and his crossbow.

For one thing, Dwight is inherently good. I can almost imagine how he’d be if he had trusted Daryl and gone to Alexandria instead of back to Negan. Things would be different. So there’s a circle here – he blames Daryl and Daryl blames him for what’s happened. But Daryl also blames himself.

Denise is dead, and it’s with his arrow, from a guy who’d be dead if Daryl was heartless. [6.14 Twice as Far] Or if Daryl were more like Merle. He and Denise had been kind of bonding over their brothers, as much as either of them can. “Sounds like we had the same brother.” He tolerates her giving him oatmeal bars. He’s comfortable enough to say that they look like shit, but he’s not saying it to be a jerk; he’s being himself, and the fact that he thinks he can is an accomplishment.

When Glenn tries to stop him from going after Dwight, he steps in front of him. Daryl tries to go around, but he’s willing to listen to Glenn. They’re family. He’s not just going to punch him in the face and move on. He doesn’t want to listen, and so he begins his caged animal pacing. He’s looking right into Glenn’s eyes, but the whole time he’s also figuring out a way to get around him. He pauses when Glenn talks about home and he knows it’s true. He’s never really had a home, not a real one, and he has that in Alexandria. He has his space and his place and the room that he needs to breathe. Once he decides, and let’s face it, he’s already decided before he got to the railroad tracks, to not go back, and we, the audience knows this is a bad idea. He’s too emotional. He’s being sloppy. He has one thing on his mind, and that is vengeance. He’s becoming like first season Daryl. [6.16]

He drinks that little bottle of alcohol when he’s burying Denise, and there’s a glimpse of Merle there. He also remembers that he and Michonne gave up on the Governor and he destroyed everything they’d worked so hard for. He’s not going to let that happen again. That’s why Michonne tells him that she won’t let it go. She’ll make sure that it’s taken care of, but let’s go home first. She feels the same as Daryl does, but she also repeats what Glenn has said.

When Daryl sees Glenn and Michonne tied up, gagged, and he remembers Michonne and Herschel being taken by the Governor and Hershel’s murder, there is no way he’s going to let that happen to Glenn and Michonne. Not again. Never again. And that gives Dwight the opportunity to sneak up on him. Dwight knows he’s coming. He’s promised that he’ll be sorry and Dwight knows he won’t let up. He’s not leaving his friends, and Dwight knows that’s his weakness.

Daryl probably knows this too but his head is pounding with vengeance, and he thinks he’s within a hair’s breadth of getting it.

In part two, I’ll talk about the seventh season premiere. Even though it is only one hour and it covers a lot of material, there is so much related to Daryl in these moments, and where he’s going to go from being Dwight’s prisoner at the end of season six.

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