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The Walking Dead season 6, episode 6: Why Daryl is the show's most popular character

He seems like a rogue, but he's actually an audience proxy in disguise.

Everybody loves Daryl's fashion sense and grooming.
Everybody loves Daryl's fashion sense and grooming.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

If The Walking Dead has a breakout character — by which I mean a character who's become so popular with viewers that he rose up from a minor role to a much, much more important one — it's probably Daryl Dixon, played by the effortlessly charismatic Norman Reedus.

But why Daryl? Reedus does a great job with everything The Walking Dead tosses at him, but you can't say his character arc as written has been incredibly, enormously compelling. The show has better characters, more essential characters, and more intriguing characters. Daryl just sort of is, a force of nature who strides through the post-apocalyptic zombie hellscape with a crossbow and a conscience.

And that, in a nutshell, might be why he's so popular. This kind of character is always popular, and in a Daryl-heavy hour like "Always Accountable," it's worth considering why.

Daryl seems to be the rogue of this particular operation — but is he?

Daryl and his crossbow.
And he looks so good with his crossbow, too.

Broadly speaking, Daryl fits into the character type known as the "rogue," the apparent wild card who always comes in at the last minute to save the day. Think Star Wars' Han Solo or Lost's Sawyer. They're the guys who have the most swagger. They get to tell the best jokes. When they enter a scene, you know it.

What's interesting about Daryl is just how taciturn he is compared with the other rogues I've listed. Both Han and Sawyer were known for their quips. Daryl has uttered some choice lines over the years, but he generally keeps his mouth shut, to the degree that this episode featured lengthy stretches in which he was made to stay silent. (Is it possible Daryl's popularity despite his relative lack of dialogue indicates the show's ... inconsistency in that particular department? Could be!)

But what's also interesting about Daryl is that The Walking Dead hasn't really flirted with the idea of him breaking rank. There have been times when his allegiance to Rick and the gang has been tested, and there have been times when he's been swayed by others, particularly his brother, Merle (remember Merle?). But Daryl always comes back to the group at the end, and he always falls right back in line.

Of course, that happens with Han and Sawyer, too, but there's always the sense that those two characters subscribe to markedly different philosophies than the others they spend time with. Han famously doesn't really believe in the Force at first, while Sawyer and Lost's hero Jack often came close to all-out brawling because of their differences of opinion.

On The Walking Dead, the times when Daryl has been sorely tested in such a fashion have been few and far between. When Rick is pressured to shift his leadership philosophy in one direction or another, it's usually because someone thinks he's being too harsh (often, traditionally, Glenn) or simply not harsh enough (Shane, in the show's early going). Daryl might quibble here and there, but he usually gets with the program more quickly than others.

Daryl looks like a rogue. He carries himself like a rogue. But the key psychological element of a rogue type is someone who seems like he could break bad at any moment. And we don't really get that from Daryl. So who is he?

Like Glenn, Daryl is an audience proxy

Daryl and his bike.
Daryl is ultimately a good guy, and that means he keeps helping people who will only screw him over (or take his bike).

One of the reasons there was so much howling around the supposed death of Glenn (a death the show seems to walk back in the last moments of this episode) was that Glenn was the guy many in the audience were able to imagine themselves becoming in the post-apocalypse.

It's hard to imagine being as good at swordplay as Michonne is, or taking on the burden of leading all of these people like Rick has. But trying to do the right thing and loving your spouse purely and wholly? That's something anybody can aspire to.

Daryl operates on similar principles. In many ways, he's a canny inversion of the rogue archetype. If most rogues threaten to turn toward the forces of darkness every so often, Reedus somehow manages to make it feel surprising when Daryl does the right thing — even though this is literally the entirety of his character arc, as "Always Accountable" underlines.

Daryl helps the trio of people he finds in the woods, even though they took his stuff and forced him to be their prisoner. He actually helps them to the point that he gets his stuff taken all over again — even though he almost certainly had to know there was a good chance that would happen. (The Walking Dead trades heavily on props as character iconography, so I'm sure Daryl will get his crossbow back sooner or later.)

Abraham and Sasha spend a lot of time fretting about whether he'll rejoin them after they're separated, and even though you know what Daryl is going through to get back to them, they make it semi-convincing that they would believe he's either dead or leaving them behind.

Thus, Daryl is a slightly cooler audience proxy than Glenn. He's the trusted right-hand man, the guy who always does what needs to be done but is also not terribly interested in seizing power for himself. He is, fundamentally, a follower, and he's earned Rick's trust so readily because of that fact. Once he stopped being under Merle's sway, he very quickly switched allegiances.

Indeed, the handful of times when Daryl has been tempted to cut against his friends have been times when he's come in contact with some other charismatic leader with a code of some sort that could prove more readily handy in zombieland. And, intriguingly, that's just what The Walking Dead seems to be setting up.

Traveling away from Alexandria was a dumb plan — but it makes for great world building

Abraham on The Walking Dead.
Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) flirts with nihilism. Wouldn't you?

On its face, Rick's plan to lure the zombie herd 20 miles away from Alexandria was pretty dumb. And in the opening moments of "Always Accountable," we realize just one of the reasons why — there just might be people living 20 miles away, people who probably don't need zombies wandering around in their communities.

Granted, the people that Daryl, Abraham, and Sasha encounter are armed with machine guns and seem sort of terrifying in their insistence on making sure people pay for what they take. (I'm assuming the machine gun folks and those Daryl half-sees out in the woods are one and the same, because it makes more sense than not.) So I'm not too upset about them having to deal with extra zombies. But it's also easy to see how such a group might interpret Rick's actions — no matter how well-meaning or clueless — as an act of war.

One of the nice things about this half-season of The Walking Dead is that it's slowly but surely shifted the focus of the show from the endless movement among various doomed locations to one where it seems like the characters are really intent on making this Alexandria thing work. I outlined last week why this hasn't worked as well in practice as it might have, but in theory it's one of the single biggest shifts to The Walking Dead's status quo ever.

Of course, if Alexandria is going to be a community worth saving, there are probably other communities around as well, ones that will play by different rules and have different codes entirely. I don't really think Daryl is likely to play by the brutal rules of the group in the woods — he's too compassionate for that — but this season's open questioning of just what the best method for living in this world might be has upped those stakes substantially. Maybe open brutality really is the best method. Maybe we just don't know it yet.

And the few characters who might argue for that point of view are featured in this episode as well. First there's Abraham, who seems to be embracing a nascent death wish by crawling out on a perilous overhang to grab a rocket launcher from a zombie (in a great — if not especially tense — gross-out moment). He doesn't really have much to live for anymore, although there are hints of an impending romance with Sasha sprinkled throughout this episode.

Then there's that voice that croaks out over the radio at episode's end and sure seems to be Glenn. If there's anybody who's decided it's high time to abandon the notion that all human lives have worth in a world so Darwinian, it's likely the guy who just got dragged into a feasting herd of zombies by someone he didn't think was up to the task of survival in the zombie apocalypse.

Yeah, if Glenn's alive, he's going to have some thoughts on this whole thing — and if anything might convince Daryl to follow a different path, it'll be someone he trusts making an argument he can't easily refute.

Join me at noon Eastern for the weekly culture chat. Ask me questions in comments — and answer mine!

Abraham in ill-fitting uniform on The Walking Dead.
Abraham's ill-fitting uniform was the moment of the episode for me.

First, a warning: This is the first time in quite a while when we've found ourselves in a place where comics fans will have quite a bit more knowledge than non-comics fans. Please keep your comics spoilers out of the discussion or clearly mark them, so others can skip past!

Second, please ask me anything you like about the show, pop culture, or surviving the zombie apocalypse. My question for you: Which TV character with a famous death scene would you most want to see resurrected and why?

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