Saluting Daryl, 'The Walking Dead's' Subversive Redneck Hero

Saluting Daryl, 'The Walking Dead's' Subversive Redneck Hero

AMC’s The Walking Dead may be the most gripping show on television, brimming with superlative effects and wonderfully flawed heroes.

The show’s most noteworthy element is Daryl, the redneck rebel played by Norman Reedus. He’s a southern boy to the core, surly at times but always ready to slay a zombie when necessary. And when the world is overrun with zombies, that means Daryl is one busy redneck.

The “redneck” label is why Reedus’ character is so subversive. Hollywood routinely diminishes southern characters, mocking their faith, their manners (or lack thereof) and other regional attributes. Daryl long ago shed most demeaning Southern tics, emerging as both a fan favorite and an example of television scribes writers pushing past stereotypes.

The character remains loyal to his brother, Merle (Michael Rooker), an unabashed racist who remains a threat to our heroes despite turning against the show’s human villains early in the current season. Their bond is complicated, to be sure, fine fodder for current and future story lines. But Daryl sees something redeeming in Merle even if virtually every Dead viewer can’t.

Daryl is hardly a hormone-driven hunk. He’s not much for romance despite the gentle advances from fellow survivor Carol (Melissa McBride), and he’s the last character to sugarcoat the reality they all face.

“This is a tomb,” he said during a recent episode when Carol welcomed him back to the group’s prison sanctuary after a brief separation.

The show’s heroes rely on Daryl’s strength, his hunting skills and his knack for being in the right place at the right time. More importantly, he’s become a de facto leader, the person the survivors look to in times of trouble.

None of this would be possible without Reedus’s knack for embracing Daryl’s culture without demeaning it. The actor, best known for the Boondock Saints franchise, doesn’t exaggerate his roots, but he also won’t let us forget where’s he’s from all the same. With one squint Reedus conveys the pain of living in a post-apocalyptic world as well as the sense he’ll go down fighting no matter the odds. It’s a terrific balancing act, one that gives the show’s writers the freedom to make Daryl a superlative hero.

The series is famous for killing off key characters, but it’s hard to imagine the writing team angering fans by dispatching Daryl to the hordes of hungry zombies.

The viewer outrage would be palpable, and it would be a blow to television to see such a groundbreaking character meet his maker.