The cast of The Walking Dead is mostly made up of people that were, at one point or another, devoured. Such is the natural result of eleven years of zombie mayhem. But one character that lasted from the early days of the first season all the way to last November’s conclusion is Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), the belligerent redneck with a crossbow that grew into the show’s most famous symbol of survival and, somehow, emotional connection. To reward his efforts in not getting bitten by “Walkers,” he’s headlining a new spinoff in the franchise, The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon. It’s the best that the series has been in years, thanks to Reedus’ commitment to his character and its uncomplicated narrative drive.
However, no matter how “back to basics” this new show has gone, it still comes on the heels of more than a decade of storytelling and if you need a refresher on the journey that Daryl has taken up to this point, here are twelve episodes that detail his growth.
“Tell It to the Frogs” (Season 1, Episode 3)
When we first meet Daryl Dixon, he is mad. Even before sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) tells him that they handcuffed his brother Merle (Michael Rooker) and left him on a roof in downtown Atlanta for being a wild liability, Dixon refuses to get along with anyone. He’s a feral survivalist, feeling more at home in the woods than in a makeshift community, and he lashes out regardless of whether or not someone deserves it. After hearing the news about Merle, he even tries to stab Rick and his partner Shane (Jon Bernthal), turning him into the one character in the main cast that is, at least for now, perhaps more rabid than the zombies.
“Cherokee Rose” (Season 2, Episode 4)
Quite a few relationships form over the course of The Walking Dead, but none are as beloved by fans as “Daryl and Carol.” By Season 2, Daryl has calmed down a little bit and his borderline revolutionary ability to show hints of affection intersect with the character growth of Carol (Melissa McBride), an abuse survivor (her husband got beat up by Shane and then eaten by zombies, so he’s out of the picture,) who, at this point, is searching for her lost daughter. As Carol gains a rougher edge and Daryl loses his, Daryl tries to comfort her with a “Cherokee Rose,” a flower that symbolizes the plight of Cherokee women during the Trail of Tears. The two never end up as an official couple during the series, but “Cherokee Rose” is a great example of the bits of kindness that they consistently lend to each other.
“Chupacabra” (Season 2, Episode 5)
By Season 2, it’s very clear that the creators of The Walking Dead have grown attached to Norman Reedus’ portrayal of Daryl, to the extent that they go out of their way to give him more important stuff to do than grumble about everyone. This also entails giving him a little extra psychological depth, emerging in “Chupacabra” in the form of his hallucinations over his older brother Merle.
After becoming injured in the woods, Daryl begins to see visions of his brother, giving us insight into their relationship. It’s not pretty though, as the Merle Mirage mostly antagonizes his younger sibling for not trying to find him again, revealing Daryl’s guilt over the situation. When he gets back to the group, though, Carol is happiest to see him, setting up a choice between family and found family that Daryl will have to eventually make.
“The Suicide King” (Season 3, Episode 9)
Aaaand he chooses family. Finally reunited with his brother in the tyrannical Governor’s (David Morrissey) village, Daryl is given little chance to relax before he has to decide between sticking with a group that’s distrustful of Merle and the tough, yet familiar bond of brotherhood. Daryl sets off with Merle, falling back into old habits with his “blood.” But this decision is also indicative of something that, three seasons in, has become clear about The Walking Dead’s favorite redneck: Daryl is not yet a leader. He tends to follow strong personalities despite his penchant for isolation, and there are none more prominent in his life than Merle.
“This Sorrowful Life” (Season 3, Episode 15)
Daryl and Merle’s reunion tour, much like Merle’s run on the show, is pretty short-lived. But before he kicks it, he has a “face turn” of sorts, killing some of the Governor’s men before being killed himself. Daryl eventually finds his zombified kin, and can barely bring himself to put him down. Daryl’s breakdowns are rare; In a show full of displays of mankind’s chaotic nature, Daryl tends to maintain a stiff upper lip. When they do happen, though, Reedus goes all-out, contorting his face into a mess of agony and replacing his confident swagger with boyish cringing. This particular breakdown will kick off an emotional arc that sees Daryl at his most lost, scrounging for companionship and someone to guide him.
“Still” (Season 4, Episode 12)
Perhaps Daryl’s most noble attribute is his instinctual protective nature, something that tends to give him purpose. However, in “Still,” his attempts to play bodyguard end with him spilling his emotional guts rather than a zombie’s physical ones. While stranded alone with Beth (Emily Kinney), the young woman who, having just lost a father, is attempting to branch out into the world, they find an old cabin that reminds Daryl of his past. They get drunk off moonshine together, and, as is often the case with moonshine, Daryl sobs over his regrets. He even reveals to Beth some details about his troubled home life with Merle before the apocalypse, with the two opting to burn the cabin down in a symbolic attempt to move on.
“A” (Season 4, Episode 16)
As Season 4 entered its final lap, Daryl joined a group called the “Claimers,” an ensemble of raiders that likely reminded Daryl of his brother Merle until they revealed their innate sadism. This came when, having captured Rick and his son Carl, they threaten sexual violence on the boy, leading to Daryl to rebel against his former gang and Rick to bite their leader’s jugular out in fevered rage. Rick and Daryl work together to violently put away the group, wrapping up their era of deep contention that ensued after Rick refused Merle’s entry into their community back in Season 3, and from here on, they realize that, for the most part, their senses of right and wrong align.
“Coda” (Season 5, Episode 8)
If there’s two plot beats you can count on in The Walking Dead, it’s surprise deaths and people going missing. This episode provides both, but not in a way that’s good for anyone, especially Daryl. Kidnapped and held hostage in a hospital by a deranged former police officer, Beth is eventually discovered by Rick and Daryl’s crew who try to enact a kind of hostage exchange for her. Beth tries to get revenge against her former captors, though, leading to her being killed, which then prompts Daryl to immediately kill Beth’s killer. It’s the brand of “Huh, welp, I guess …that’s it?” ending that the series would become infamous for as it went on, but the image of Daryl carrying Beth’s corpse is undeniably powerful. She was the only character that Daryl had truly opened up to, and now he was forced to bury her.
“Always Accountable” (Season 6, Episode 6)
Daryl getting taken captive happens more than once over the course of the series, likely because his prickly personality and refusal to give up is the most fun to bounce off of wannabe tormentors) This won’t even be the last time on this list that it occurs! But “Always Accountable” stands out because it introduces Daryl’s most important male relationship after Merle and Rick: Dwight (Austin Amelio). Introduced as a kind of anti-Daryl and a man set to go on an emotional arc of his own, Dwight is the right hand man of Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the boss of The Saviors group. Bearing a callous attitude (and long hair covering his face in many shots,) he’s the perfect character to rile Daryl up by essentially serving as a somehow-even-more-uncouth mirror image of him.
“The Cell” (Season 7, Episode 3)
Season 7 of The Walking Dead kicked off with a simultaneous bang and whimper. Negan graphically bashing two characters’ heads in — including that of the beloved Glenn (Steven Yeun) — with a baseball bat was shocking, but in a way that would turn its fanbase against it. The gruesome despair that the series had honed over the previous few years had become too much, and even before the creators would watch ratings drop after the episode, it seems like they knew that they needed some kind of positive fortitude to balance it out.
Enter Daryl, once again a Saviors hostage and now the subject of their torture. He refuses to give in or join their group, frustrating Dwight and confounding Negan. Overall, it’s an episode that’s a good indicator that perhaps a Daryl Dixon-centric spinoff would work; He can shoulder the show’s narrative while also reminding viewers that there’s more to expect from it than pure doom.
“Wrath” (Season 8, Episode 16)
By the end of the eighth season of The Walking Dead, the show was barely recognizable from its stripped-down beginnings. A cast of a few ragged survivors had ballooned into multiple warring factions and Daryl, once the unhinged guy eager to beat people up for little to no reason, was on the cusp of becoming its leading man. (Rick would depart from the series in the next season.) In “Wrath,” which sees the defeat and imprisonment of Negan after two straight seasons of skirmishes, Daryl also manages to act in accordance with the code of morality that the protagonists have been working towards.
Taking Dwight into the woods with plans of killing him, Daryl eventually relents and offers his doppelgänger the chance to flee under the accord that if he ever returns, Daryl will kill him. It’s a hard stance with room for grace, a reflection of both Daryl’s growth and the show’s transition away from the more cynical brutality of its early years. He’ll let his enemy live, but only under the strictest circumstances. Spoken like a true Walking Dead hero.
“Rest In Peace” (Season 11, Episode 24)
Daryl giving a speech that turns the tides of a battle and saying “I love you” in a single episode? It must be the finale. That first action, sharing an optimistic outlook to a group of soldiers that’s a complete 180 from his survivalist attitude in his first appearance, is the culmination of his emotional arc. Meanwhile, his final embrace with Carol puts a cap on their relationship, one that had evolved long past a typical Will They/Won’t They and into a testament to stable friendship in a world that quite literally wants to devour you. Fanshippers might be disappointed, but in the end, Daryl needed someone to be there for him far more than he needed a romance. And as he rides off to find Rick Grimes, Daryl provides evidence that even in an eleven season show that became notorious for its repetition, change was possible.