As season four of The Walking Dead creeps towards its close, let’s take a moment to ponder: why do more than 19 million people watch a show about zombies each week? Why do you have to go back to 2008 to find a show that could beat The Walking Dead in the ratings? Compared to other super-powered monsters (like vampires) zombies are pretty pathetic. They can barely even climb stairs. Plus, they’re gross. Did Robert Kirkman, the creator of the original comic book series, dream of the phenomenon it would become?
The TV show’s developer, Frank Darabont, most likely has something to do with its success. He wrote and directed The Shawshank Redemption; maybe the best ever adaptation of a Stephen King story. The show diverged from the books from the very beginning: some characters and plot lines have been cut, radically transformed, or freshly invented. Darabont was ousted from the series, however, while Kirkman remains an executive producer. One thing hasn’t changed: The Walking Dead isn’t a series about zombies. It’s a series about people struggling to survive in a hostile world. Viewers who hate zombies can appreciate that.
Let’s focus on one of the show’s most popular characters: Daryl Dixon. Daryl, played by Norman Reedus, is a surly redneck of few words who dispatches zombies with a crossbow. Recently hailed by Forbes magazine as a “working class hero,” he doesn’t exist in the comics, but was invented for TV. None of the characters ever look super-clean, and Daryl is always one of the scruffiest and dirtiest. I get the feeling that he didn’t care a whole lot about hygiene before the zombies. Despite his gruff demeanor, he does care about people, especially children. He scoured zombie-infested woods for half of season two when one of them was lost. Daryl is the closest thing the series has to a super hero. Fans have threatened to riot if he is killed off. In response, Kirkman has said he’s tempted to call their bluff.
I admit, during season three I would sigh or roll my eyes every time Daryl fought his way out of a seemingly unkillable mass of the undead. When a character no longer struggles to survive, do they have a place on a show about survival? Then came the heartbreaking scene where Daryl confronts his freshly-zombified older brother, Merle. His face crumples in on itself, and in that moment, Reedus shows you every bit of Daryl’s humanity. Well-played, Kirkman and company. You’ve won me back to the Daryl fan club.
Season four, especially the second half, has given Reedus many more opportunities to show us Daryl at his most vulnerable. In the episode “Still,” we watch him process feelings of guilt and pain that extend all the way back to his impoverished childhood. Then, in the episode “Alone,” he fights his way out of a seemingly inescapable building and runs himself to exhaustion in search of another missing girl. Ah well. When we last saw him, he was surrounded by something more frightening than zombies: a group of human survivors who don’t care about other people. This isn’t a situation he can fight his way out of, and he knows it.
I hope that Kirkman doesn’t plan to kill Daryl off any time soon. He’s just too human, now, and his struggle is one I want to watch.
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