The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon works hard to convince us that Daryl Dixon in France is not exactly Daryl Dixon in the United States. His motorcycle is swapped for a buggy, his crossbow for a fishing spear. He considers the sacrifices of his ancestors, wonders whether God exists, and does a little flirting. This is an even kinder, gentler version of the onetime good ol’ boy who grew to be so much more over 11 seasons of The Walking Dead, and Norman Reedus adapts to these new qualities while remaining as laconically charming as ever. Daryl Dixon isn’t the problem in his titular show — the issues are nearly everything else. The more The Walking Dead changes, the more it stays the same.
The multiarmed AMC behemoth about humanity’s transformation after a zombie apocalypse has been on a treadmill of inertia for a long time, unvaryingly hitting points about the soul-strengthening power of community, the insidious appeal of authoritarianism, and the dangerous rise of nihilism and apathy. This franchise has always had a problem with stakes, even as its body count of supporting characters and new villains ticks higher and higher. And that doesn’t change in Daryl Dixon, which spends most of its six-episode first season overexplaining certain obvious character motivations while obfuscating the mysteriously intriguing ones and ends on a cliffhanger that prolongs one of the narrative’s central questions into the already ordered second season.
Before then, Daryl Dixon admittedly takes advantage of its new digs to make for some beautiful cinematography and inspired grotesquerie. In its first few world-building episodes, the series really commits to the Frenchness of all this, from burning through its drone budget to show off the spookily desolate countryside to leaning into a cliché but entertaining depiction of Paris’s still-hedonistic nightlife. A couple new strains of zombies that differ from the slow-moving American undead are complemented by myriad gloopy and squishy sound effects, and a few legitimately shocking set pieces use reanimated anatomy in creative ways. But the overwhelming sense of Daryl Dixon is that we’ve seen all this before, whether in The Walking Dead franchise or in other zombie-akin series that debuted in its wake.
Daryl Dixon starts with a question: How did our guy, last seen in The Walking Dead series finale, “Rest in Peace,” leaving the Commonwealth community to find the missing Rick and Michonne, end up strapped to a rowboat and washed ashore a beach in France? Flashbacks intermittently fill us in (a little too intermittently; a full in-the-past episode probably would have been more effective), while in the present, Daryl immediately amplifies local tensions as “the American.” Nun Isabelle (Clémence Poésy) nurses Daryl back to health at her convent and tells him that his arrival is fated: He’s meant to defend a tween boy named Laurent (Louis Puech Scigliuzzi), who the nuns and the resistance group they work with believe is the “new Messiah to lead the revival of humanity.” Their request to Daryl that he escort Laurent to a safe house in northern France is complicated by a fascist militia force, led on the ground by the grudge-bearing Codron (Romain Levi) and higher up by the Mussolini-styled Madame Genet (Anne Charrier), who have their own plans for the growing-in-infamy Laurent. But of course softhearted Daryl agrees, and along the way, he, Laurent, Isabelle, and fellow nun Sylvie (Laïka Blanc-Francard) encounter people whose methods of survival reflect civilization’s means of adaptation, including a self-reliant group of children that resembles Hook’s Lost Boys and a cunning entrepreneur (an underused Adam Nagaitis) in a cozy partnership with Madame Genet.
Premiere “L’âme Perdue” smartly relies on Reedus’s craggy visage and expressive eyes to carry us through great stretches of dialogue-free or French-only scenes and on his sarcastic line deliveries to puncture the nuns’ certainty that the strength of their prayer will one day reverse the 12-years-strong apocalypse. After that, though, as Daryl Dixon focuses on other members of this ensemble, it settles into a jagged rhythm that jumps around its disparate groups, and the series’ often opaque character motivations make for a sense of overarching uncertainty. Does Laurent actually have supernatural abilities of empathy and kindness? (Laurent may be the most annoyingly written child currently on television, and Daryl Dixon’s request that we sympathize with him requires some effort.) What does Madame Genet intend to do with zombies that are superfast and superstrong? And why isn’t anyone curious about why France’s zombies now have acidic blood? Leaving those questions open for a second season makes some sense, but their ambiguity also goes back to that issue of stakes. At its most lethargic, Daryl Dixon feels like it’s just rearranging these people in different parts of France instead of prodding at what is unique about this specific place at this specific time.
That’s especially noticeable because of how much certain elements of Daryl Dixon bring to mind other series like Station Eleven and The Last of Us. All three of these shows are operating within a shared subgenre, so it’s understandable that Daryl Dixon’s community of scavenger kids wearing weird masks would seem like Station Eleven’s Undersea of costumed children or that Laurent’s confusion about his parentage and his purpose would align with Ellie’s similarly conflicted consideration of herself in The Last of Us. Dystopian content has been caught in a kind of feedback loop for a long time, and this series references other properties as often as it references The Walking Dead itself.
But because Daryl Dixon doesn’t build on these recognizable elements in its own way, these evocations feel recycled, not renewed. And as easily watchable as Reedus is in this role, that observation applies to his character, too — his brusqueness tempered by selflessness, his resourcefulness paired with compassion, and his bursts of violence in service of protection rather than aggression are beats we’ve seen for more than a decade. Daryl Dixon gives the character new accessories and new counterparts, but it doesn’t change the formula of the narrative he has been stuck in for years. This ride may be different, but The Walking Dead franchise is still spinning its wheels.