Friday, March 28, 2014

Daryl Dixon and the phantom menace of his turn to the dark side

Eventually, I'll stop beating up on AMC's The Walking Dead. Eventually. Probably when it's over.

In the meantime, I want to use the last episode to pick out one of the things that show routinely does wrong. And my example is Daryl's most recent character arc. (arrrr! thar be spoilers ahead.)

So, in the season's penultimate episode, we see Daryl slowly (though unintentionally) ingratiating himself to "the marauders" and warming up to their leader, Joe. For the majority of the story, he struggles against their medieval philosophy of discipline and punishment, refuses to participate in their ethic of "claiming" ownership of property, and tells them that he's only traveling with them temporarily. That is, until Joe kills Len, the marauder who had been giving Daryl a hard time. Daryl resists the urge to cover Len's body with a tarp (oh, he's so cold!) and, later, symbolically joins the marauders by claiming a strawberry bush. The ostensible pay-off for this story is that, simultaneous Daryl's act of assimilation, we realize that the marauders are tracking a man who killed their friend. Dramatic irony alert: that man is Rick.

Now, I'm not going to complain at length about how clich├ęd the marauders are. Because, of course: grizzled, bearded murderers who exist in a state of nature, looking like the stock end-of-the-world bad guys that populate every narrative in this genre. (see: WaterworldThe RoadChildren of Men, etc.) And Jeff Kober, as Joe, has been type-cast with hilarious predictability. So, I'll complain that it's unimaginative, but, yes, not at length.

What I want to complain about is how hilariously unconvincing I find this ham-fisted attempt to create drama and tension. We're supposed to believe that Daryl is already falling-in with this new group, both socially and, I guess, emotionally. That's he's reverting to type. That he might not be loyal to his previous group. That the way he cared for Beth (as well as the rest) is, I suppose, easily forgotten. And, most importantly for the season finale, that he might turn on Rick.

Ugh. Really?

No, really? This is how you elevate the stakes for the end of the season, by having us wonder whether one of the most fiercely loyal characters in the series will turn? Remember, this was the guy who defended his asshole brother in spite of his asshole-ishness, who diverted a horde of zombies from Beth's direction by pinning himself in the basement with almost no weapons, and who has made a habit of saving pretty much everyone with little regard for his own safety. This was a guy who, at the beginning of the season, found purpose as the community's provider and protector. And this is a guy who is, at this point, so unquestioningly one of the good guys that we ask questions like 'will he hook up with Carol or Beth?', not 'will he turn out like his brother?'

Sure, he's also surly and reactionary, but he's also one of those rogues with a heart of gold. (Which the series has seen fit to establish again and again. And again. And again.) And we're supposed to believe, even for a second, that he'd forget all of that so easily?

The only tension here is whether the show's own bad writing might turn an otherwise implausible (or nigh-impossible?) storyline into a groan-inducing reality.