When a man washes up, half-dead on the shores of Southern France it appears he may be just another ‘L’âme Perdue’ or ‘lost soul’. In fact, it’s Daryl Dixon, the survivor of a ‘series of bad decisions’, a long way from home and with no immediate way to return to the Commonwealth and his old friends.
After a fateful encounter with a couple of the locals, the injured refugee finds himself being nursed back to health by a group of nuns. But their treatment of him isn’t wholly altruistic. They believe in a prophesy that a man from the sea will help take a young boy in their charge to meet his Messianic destiny in Paris. Daryl doesn’t believe a word of it, but with him leading trouble to the convent door, Daryl finds that he and the sisters don’t have to believe in a shared destiny to have a shared need for survival…
There’s been much talk, a lot of it valid, as to whether the Walking Dead universe was on its last legs. The comic was a phenomenon and the series certainly started out strongly and then became buffeted by cast-changes and pacing over its twelve seasons. And to be fair, in an industry where imitation remains the most sincere form of flatttery and financial bottom-lines, the landscape became littered with not just corpses but inferior – or at least fairly unoriginal – alternatives and spin-offs.
The recent Dead City was less of a retread of The Walking Dead as an opportunistic, half-hearted and questionably CGI’d U-turn to reignite the animosity between two key characters (Maggie and Negan). It offered nothing new except location. Daryl Dixon is legitimately more than that, if not exactly boundary-pushing. Yes, the choice of location once again plays an important role in proceedings – with our hero being literally washed ashore in Southern France and quickly finding himself wrongfully accused of a crime and possibly at the centre of a redemptive prophecy. But though it contains some of the ingredients and tone of the original, its focus on one character and a handful of supporting players makes it feel like a more personal and streamlined investment than the often over-crowded mothership. The idea of a series built around Daryl Dixon was a no-brainer in some ways. Norman Reedus was one of the few actors in the series from start to finish and remained one of the most popular. The original idea was to team him with fellow veteran, Melissa McBride’s Carol, until the actor decided that filming in France would require too much time and distance from her loved ones. Quite how much of the dynamic-duo remit envisioned remains in this more singular version isn’t clear, but the result plays into the solitary hero reluctantly taking on the responsibilities of a young co-traveller and an urgent mission ‘that could change everything‘ ™.
…the series arrives on the coat-tails of a concept that’s been ridiculously prominent in recent years: the grizzled warrior reluctantly protecting a child with a potentially glorious purpose. On paper, at least, Daryl Dixon feels as if someone saw The Last of Us and thought it would be the perfect vehicle… but the actual pilot episode of the show remains sufficiently just different enough to at least feel worthwhile and to stick around to see where it goes….
And there’s the rub… because while there’s a timeless quality to that maxim, the series arrives on the coat-tails of a concept that’s been ridiculously prominent in recent years: the grizzled warrior reluctantly protecting a child with a potentially glorious purpose. On paper, at least, Daryl Dixon feels as if someone saw The Last of Us and thought it would be the perfect vehicle. Of course, in reality – even pre-strikes – television simply doesn’t quite work at that opportunistic speed and Daryl Dixon was in production, in one form or another, long before the HBO game adaptation turned heads. And, thankfully, though the show bears the fingerprints, footprints and bullet-points of a well-trodden genre, the actual pilot episode of the show remains sufficiently just different from its parent show and The Last of Us to at least feel worthwhile and to stick around to see where it goes.
The French countryside, seen from the ground and sweeping drone-shots, may be just as full of woods, ruins and the human detritus of the ‘before days’, but the look and feel gives it some distance from Georgia and the American locations. Simply filming in an area with more genuine history to highlight and play against helps with the timeless qualities needed for the undertaking and really does show up Dead City for the mess it was. The language barrier is played in a useful manner – both Daryl and the domestic audience are immediately a little adrift as we see signposts and meet the locals (not all of them to be trusted). Conveniently, we begin to slide into scenes where words are spoken in English solely for the viewers’ benefit, but it’s done gradually enough that it doesn’t feel too contrived and with some scenes still insisting on subtitles which keeps the zombies and situations at an adequate arms-length to keep you on your guard.
Norman Reedus has long since proven himself in the role of the unwashed outlier and though Daryl Dixon really doesn’t ask him to do more than continue that winning streak, it surrounds him with enough new obstacles off which to bounce, shoot and growl. Reedus’ dialogue is still sparce (it’s ten minutes in before he utters a word and even then it’s kept to a minimum to bring newcomers and die-hards up to speed) but quickly putting him in the middle of some well-intended warrior nuns is a nice change of pace. If The Last of Us is about an adolescent and her protector, this is about a man and his adolescent charge – and that’s a subtle distinction – make no doubt that Reedus is the initial selling-point. Clemence Poésy (the Harry Potter films, Tenet, The Essex Serpent – to name but a handful of her screen appearances) is another solid reason to watch, quietly centred as a pragmatic nun Isabelle, complete with a concrete faith in the mission statement but a pragmatic way of surviving the new world and a nice line in banter. (When Daryl says ‘a series of bad decisions‘ brought him to France and enquires after Isabelle’s history, she says it was ‘a series of good decisions‘). Apparently, we’re going to see more details of Isabelle’s colourful pre-convent past in upcoming episodes, so hopefully the character will be around long enough to enjoy and keep proceedings from being too Lone Wolf and Cub. It’s too early to tell what impact Louis Puech Scigliuzzi will make as Laurent, the young boy they must guide to safety and a potential ‘Chosen One’ ™. So far he’s no Bella Ramsey, but thankfully they make Laurent an intuitive old soul who might be just the right side of precocious rather than all-out obligatory ‘special’ kid with a concrete role in destiny – the idea being that it doesn’t really matter if Isabelle’s convictions about him are correct… it’ll be the journey not the destination.
Of course, we need bad guys and that initially comes in the form of Codron (played by Romain Levi). Though he’s introduced as the major nemesis of the piece (and who believes that Daryl murdered his brother – the truth being a bit more complicated), he feels like quite the generic dystopian thug, so it’s a mixed blessing that we also catch a glimpse of a higher-up leader Genet (Anne Charrier) who feels, well, quite generically despot’y and who may have another connection to the ship which originally brought Daryl to these shores.
Daryl Dixon is familiar enough to be inviting and different enough to feel like a story that will be fun to follow – its streamlined six-episode run promising a lack of baggage except some likely flashbacks etc (a second run has now been confirmed promising more to aim at- but then again, Dead City has also been renewed, so the barometer’s predictions on quality may not be perfect). Right now, it’s not unconditionally magnifique, or ‘ashore’ thing but with story developments and some more zombie evolution (acidic zombies – ‘ewwww‘ and ‘ouch‘ and ‘wait…huh?‘) there’s certainly enough to keep viewers interested…
The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon is on AMC every Sunday at 9:00 EST (and streamed earlier on AMC+)
- Production Design / VFX8