In an era when vampires, werewolves, serial killers and other forces of the underworld freely prowl the television airwaves, "The Walking Dead" stands alone as the series that best combines genre fiction with deep character study. Now in its third season, AMC's zombie plague survivor series, which initially drew fans of the graphic novel it is based on, has exploded in popularity, becoming the top drama series in the coveted demographic of adults ages 18 to 49 and drawing an average of 10 million viewers — an unheard-of high for basic cable.
Still, the show has had its bumps in the road — fans complained last season that its adrenaline level had dropped precipitously, and this year, perhaps in response, the gore factor has been amped so high as to spawn complaints that the series has gone over the top. But as the levels of head chopping and brain stabbing get worked out behind the scenes, what keeps fans tuning in every week are the relationships and developments among the small band of survivors at the heart of the show.
They've lost more than their share of members, and the dynamics have shifted among the remainder. One character in particular has stepped up to new heights of leadership and attachment, which makes one thing in this bleak world of survival clear:
When the zombie apocalypse comes, who wouldn't want a friend like Daryl Dixon?
Sure, he's from a redneck, drug-addled, abusive clan; sure, big brother Merle is a murderous psychopath now intent on tracking down the group that forced him to cut off his own hand. But bow-hunting, master-outdoorsman Daryl has gone from sneering squirrel-flinger to integral part of "The Walking Dead's" protagonists and in the process has become one of the series' most interesting characters — largely due to actor Norman Reedus' nuanced portrayal.
Daryl is something of a wild card, as he hasn't appeared in the comic book so far. The show's brain trust hasn't been shy about diverging from the source material in ways shocking to devotees. It's possible that Daryl's having no blueprint has resulted in a windfall of creative leeway.
"He grew up in this racist family. He grew up with drugs around, but he didn't take them. That was in the script early on [that he did use drugs]," Reedus says, "and I fought against that. I wanted him to be more of an Al-Anon member than an Alcoholics Anonymous member." He says that he and series creator Frank Darabont never had an in-depth discussion about the character. "He's becoming the man this world is allowing him to become. No one ever relied on him before, and now people need him, and it's allowing him to become the man he wanted to be."
The actor has worked that back story into his scenes in subtle ways.
"When [group member] Carol kissed Daryl on the forehead, I flinched — the back story of him being an abused child," Reedus says by phone from Atlanta, where the series is filmed. "When we got the script where we're cutting open a zombie, looking for [a child's] remains, I knew I was going to say, 'Here, I'll do it.' I wanted to be the guy who takes out the trash."
Reedus knew nothing of the Robert Kirkman "Walking Dead" comic book before reading the pilot script.
"I knew it was going to be good. It had Frank and Gale Anne Hurd and [makeup designer] Greg Nicotero, and it was on AMC, which was the only channel I was watching anyway, besides watching 'South Park.' I was reading all these pilots, and they were cop drama, hospital drama, buddy drama. So it stuck out."
Born in Hollywood, Fla., the soft-spoken Reedus is very much a New Yorker now, with no trace of a Deep South accent. He is an accomplished visual artist whose short films, sculpture and photography draw influence from Luis Buñuel and Hieronymus Bosch. He's not even much of an outdoorsman.
"I took my son fishing not long ago and I used bacon. We didn't catch a single fish. I didn't understand why. I figured everything likes bacon, you know? So I'm not really that good," he says. "I'm working on it."
Reedus does, however, cop to certain points of intersection with his character, apart from riding motorcycles.
"We're both socially awkward. Until I get to know you," he says. "I'm still insecure, but when I first started acting, I was really insecure. I glared at a lot of people. I assumed everyone hated me. Somehow that scowl has turned into an acting career. And I kill someone in everything I do, so … ."
And though an attraction is clearly brewing between Daryl and Carol, he hasn't exactly burned up the bedsheets ("I'm really trying to play him with no game whatsoever," says Reedus, laughing). Yet female fans still offer enthusiastic tributes.
"One girl handed me a bag of meat, it was sort of in this yellow oil, and she said it was squirrel. She goes, 'I hunted it down with a shovel.' That was pretty weird."
Happily calling the current season "tough as nails," Reedus says Daryl's inevitable reunion with Merle, the collision of his group with the Governor, the formidable leader of a sanctuary for survivors, and the mental collapse of Rick Grimes, who led the core group to the safety of a prison, will make for "a lot of drama inside the walls — more so than outside the walls. I see what's been shown so far, and I think of where we've gone [in production]; we haven't even started yet. It gets crazy."