Daryl Dixon has been a stand-out fan favorite of the popular AMC series The Walking Dead from the beginning. Yet, since the Season 7 premiere, he seems to have fallen out of favor with the fanbase. Much of the criticism comes from people thinking his crusade of revenge is out of character and many don’t like that he’s holding such a grudge. But, if we look at his journey, it’s clear that it’s all been building up to his impulsive outbursts in his fight against The Saviors.
Daryl’s a Survivor of Child Abuse
Daryl grew up in a tumultuous, abusive household. Daryl’s father abused him from the time he was a child until he became an adult and his mother died in a house fire when he was young. These experiences left a lasting effect on the way Daryl viewed himself and other people. Since his introduction, he’s shown that he doesn’t value himself or his life. He says in Season 3 that before the apocalypse, he was nothing. Whether or not that’s true, it’s how he was made to feel.
Daryl’s abusive past feeds into how he reacts to The Saviors when they torture him. He reverts back to his years of abuse, choosing to suffer in silence the same way he did as a child. He’d rather deal with anger and revenge instead of confronting the abuse.
His Relationship With His Brother Wasn’t Much Better
Though Daryl would say different, his relationship with Merle wasn’t much better. Merle tried his best to protect Daryl from their abusive father, but he tended to berate and put down Daryl. We first get a glimpse of Merle and Daryl’s dynamic in Season 2 when Daryl falls into a ravine and hallucinates that Merle is talking to him. For the first time, we see Merle from Daryl’s perspective and how he isn’t very supportive of his baby brother. He spews insults at him, puts him down, and attacks him for wanting to have relationships with other people. It paints a picture of emotional manipulation and forced isolation.
Their manipulative relationship feeds into Daryl’s feelings of not belonging and not trusting others. Merle would often insinuate and sometimes outright tell Daryl that no one will love or care about him the way he does, that other people will never see him for who he truly is, and he’ll always be a redneck to them. Merle may not have been physically abusive toward his brother but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t contribute to the harm done to Daryl’s psyche.
He Loses Everyone Close to Him
From the moment that Daryl appeared onscreen, his arc was clear: he would form a bond with someone, get close to them, and then they would die. One of the most significant losses that Daryl faced was Beth in Season 5.
During the group’s time spent in the prison, Beth and Daryl became close. She felt safe with him and even inspired her to be stronger and more resilient. After the prison fell, the pair were separated from the rest of the group. This time together allowed Daryl and Beth to open up to one another and grow on a personal level. Beth really came into her own as a survivor, while Daryl dealt with his guilt and anger over his inability to protect those he cared about.
During a game of Never Have I Ever over some moonshine, Daryl talks about how much resentment he had about his past. He spoke about how he could never rely on anyone for anything. When Beth asked what he did before the end, Daryl told her he was nobody before the apocalypse. But with kindness and patience, Beth showed him that he was somebody and he did matter. She saw Daryl as someone strong and admirable. But when Beth’s life was cut short in Season 5, it hit Daryl hard.
Constantly losing the people close to him made Daryl feel cursed, fostering his feelings of loneliness and discouraging him from getting attached to anyone else. After Beth’s death, he questioned whether his or anyone’s life had any meaning at all. He didn’t want to feel, he didn’t want to confront his grief. He’d rather die protecting those he loves than to lose another person.
The Last Straw
Something that many fans forget is that Daryl has been through physical and mental torture at the hands of The Saviors. Watching one of his best friends get smashed in the head with a barbed wire bat left lasting damage on Daryl’s already fragile state of mind.
The guilt of knowing Negan brutally murdered Glenn out of retaliation for Daryl punching him in the face has even further eaten away at him to the point that he can’t look Maggie in the eye or even be alone with her. He clearly wants to make it up to her that he’s willing to die taking out as many Saviors as possible to give her Negan’s head on a platter in apology.
Daryl’s torture while locked away in The Sanctuary was just the cherry on top of an already traumatizing experience. Because Daryl’s outburst impressed Negan, he was kidnapped in an attempt to break him down into submission. But Daryl is a man of unwavering loyalty and no amount of beatings and dog food sandwiches is going to make him turn his back on Rick or the rest of the group.
Going through something that horrific and coming out unscathed is impossible. The fact that Daryl is still standing is a testament to his inner strength. This abuse piled on top of the abuse he has already been through means his recovery will be a slow process, if he’s even able to recover at all. He’s dealing with his feelings by showing anger and violence rather than actually opening up and facing what he’s been through.
He’s Still a Great Character
Daryl isn’t the same character he was in the earlier seasons and many fans use this as a reason why he’s no longer a compelling character to watch. This is unfair considering that good, complex characters tend to change — and they should change. Evolving and growing is a side effect of character development.
Daryl definitely has changed from the quick to anger, offensive redneck he was in Season 1. He still has his moments of explosive anger, but it’s offset by an underlying sensitivity he’s gained over the years. Right now, he’s lost his way. But Daryl is resilient. He’s changed, grown, and evolved in the past, so he’ll continue to be the fascinating character he’s always been. Don’t give up on him just yet.