“Ain’t gonna have your first drink be no damn Peach Schnapps.” — Daryl Dixon, The Walking Dead 4.12 “Still”
Six seasons of one-liners, and that’s the one that sticks.
If you haven’t watched the finale of season 6 yet, here’s your spoiler warning.
The worst villain our survivors have yet to face has finally arrived. Negan, brandishing his barbed wire-wrapped baseball bat, Lucille, has the core group on their knees, surrounded by what looks like every 1%er on the Eastern Seaboard. Rick seems to be in the midst of a panic attack, realizing one of them is going to die. Negan makes his choice by an arbitrary rhyming of “eenie, meenie, miney, moe.” The camera switches to a POV shot, looking up at the smiling face of the leather-clad head honcho Savior, and he swings. Blood trickles down the camera lens – your television screen – the victim’s face – Negan commends him for “taking it like a champ,” albeit muffled from the dying party’s sensory disorientation, and swings again, again, again. The camera cuts to black. Credits roll. We have no idea who is dead.
Prior to this, Glenn, Michonne, Rosita, and Daryl, shot in the shoulder by a Savior henchman named Dwight, have been captured, separate from the rest of the group who are racing to get a miscarrying Maggie to Hilltop’s OBGYN. Negan comments that Maggie looks close to death, and offers to spare her the suffering by sacrificing her. Daryl, covered in his own blood and wrapped in a cheap blanket some charitable Savior gave him, looks worse.
Earlier in the episode, a Savior who appears to be one of Negan’s right hands mentions to a captive man that they, “killed the one who shot first as an example.”
The theories about Daryl being the one to meet Lucille have been spiraling for weeks, and this episode seemed to do a lot to foreshadow that being a likely course of action. In the comics, it’s Glenn who gets the bat at Negan’s introduction in issue 100, but several execs involved immediately with writing and production had stated in interviews that in this case, as in others, the AMC original would be making changes to the television adaptation of this pivotal moment.
These things in combination have revived the fandom’s pledge: “If Daryl dies, we riot.”
I have long been a member of Team Daryl. I have appreciated his dry humor and tactical prowess. I have been touched by his selflessness and rare moments of genuine emotion. (Remember that breakdown in the woods after they lost Beth at the hospital? Yeah. I cried, too.) What I have never been, in contrast to a wide swath of the female viewership of this show, is sexually attracted to him. I get it, though: the rough-hewn handsomeness, the bad-boy sort of air with the golden heart beneath, the notion that he could protect you from any- and everything, all of it makes sense. But rather than idealize him, I have identified with Daryl Dixon in a way that I have not identified with another character, in film or in print, ever.
Does it matter that Daryl is a man and significantly older than I am? That he has a myriad of skills I do not? That our histories differ quite dramatically? Not one iota. This is the zombie apocalypse, after all, and choices are limited.
What I share with Daryl is a personality type, the ISTP, and one which I have never seen replicated quite so clearly as in him, despite a myriad of other characters (from Han Solo to Katniss Everdeen) claiming the same four-letter distinction. (As an aside, some may claim that Daryl is not quite cold enough to be a Thinker, that he has shown too much softness. What those people fail to realize is that Feeling is an inferior function for this type, which means it is much harder for a Thinker to understand and control their emotional response than a Feeler. Counterintuitive, perhaps, but accurate.)
I’m not going to claim to be a character expert, here. I am not Yvette Nicole Brown. I do not have notebooks full of detailed notation. I do not rewatch episodes just to connect one dot to another. What I do have is a lot of hours of this show under my belt, a lot of observation, and a lot more emotion in regard to this particular fictional human being than I had ever planned.
Yesterday, I shook through the entire 90-minute episode (and after) even though he was only in the last 15 or so minutes.
The thing is that almost every choice Daryl has made, almost every time he has been on screen, I can comprehend. I can think through the situation and come to the same conclusions he does. I can see through the details of the moment and understand exactly why he decides and acts nearly every time. That is something I’ve never been able to do with another character. And when you can finally do it, if you have yet to meet someone on either page or screen with whom you connect so well, it really is like stepping into another world. For as much as imagery and set design and “immersion” are important to getting a person involved in a story, so is finding someone to tag along with. I have found that in Daryl.
I was Daryl sleeping in his own tent away from the rest of the group at the Greene farm. I was Daryl bringing back that Cherokee rose for Carol. I was Daryl following Merle back into the woods, saving Beth, chasing that car down the dirt road in the dark. I was Daryl shooting Dawn without thinking twice of the potential consequences. I was Daryl getting cagey inside the walls of Alexandria. I was Daryl finishing that smoke inside the car with Aaron. I was Daryl returning the cooler to the people in the forest, and I was Daryl regretting not killing them instead. I was Daryl stopping for the soda. I was Daryl keeping that dumb novelty keychain. I was Daryl out for blood and revenge. I was Daryl getting sloppy – getting caught.
I don’t want to be Daryl against the bat, if only because that’s not a choice that Daryl gets to make. I truly believe that Daryl will be the orchestrator of his own fate, when the time for him to face the music does eventually come. He will be the one to make the call, to sacrifice himself for the good of someone else, I wouldn’t doubt. I do not want him to be the martyr for the sake of martyrdom. I do not want his end to be chosen by anyone, even a villain so worthy of the task as Negan. He deserves more dignity than that.
It will be six more months before we finally learn the identity of Lucille’s first victim. Six months that we have to think about that blood streaking down the screen. Six months to have nightmares about Negan’s laughing face as he drives her over and over into someone’s skull.
If Daryl dies, I won’t riot.