If you're a fan of The Walking Dead's shaggiest character, Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), then 2017 was a bit of a mixed bag. The year started with his triumphant return to the Grimes Gang, and ended with him at odds with its leader, Rick (Andrew Lincoln). In between, the man who once was lovingly described as an "outdoor cat" became myopically vengeful to the point of nearly causing calamity for our group of post-apocalyptic survivors, which is pretty impressive, because, you know... "post-apocalypse" is already pretty bad.
It's not Daryl's fault though. Not really. That's because The Walking Dead doesn't have a Daryl Dixon problem... Daryl Dixon has a Dwight problem.
Dwight (Austin Amelio), who was first introduced in Season 6's "Always Accountable," has consistently been a dark mirror to Daryl, down to the color and shape of his hair (dirty, scraggly blonde, to Daryl's extremely dirty, scraggly brown). Daryl is loyal to fault, while Dwight's loyalty is based entirely on fear of repercussions. Daryl would throw himself in front of a bus for the people he cares about, while Dwight drove his own girlfriend away (after giving her up to his boss, Negan, so she could become one of his wives). Daryl is just a better person. That's no slight to Mr. Amelio, mind you: Dwight realizes that Daryl is a level of pure cinnamon roll goodness he'll never be able to achieve, and has consistently coveted everything that makes Daryl, Daryl.
That covetousness grew into something ugly — even by Walking Dead standards. In their first encounter, Dwight stole Daryl's motorcycle and crossbow. Later, he took Daryl's iconic angel-wing leather jacket. Yep, Dwight totally Single White Female'd Daryl, and when that happened, he took a good chunk of Daryl's power and direction away.
"I'm walking around set and someone is wearing my clothes. It's hard for me — Norman — to accept that."
"Shooting this season, it's different for me," Reedus told TV Guide back during Season 7. "I'm walking around set and someone is wearing my clothes. It's hard for me — Norman — to accept that."
Without these physical touchstones to remind Daryl and viewers who he is, the lingering question was who he'd become. After all, before the zombie outbreak that killed the world, Daryl was a hillbilly with no prospects, abused by his father and following in his racist brother's footsteps. It was only post-apocalypse, when he met Rick, that he found a purpose, a self. That identity, the man who can sweetly try to name a child "L'il Ass Kicker" or get hilariously drunk and torch his Daddy's house with Beth (Emily Kinney) is intrinsically tied with the trinkets he's picked up since the end of the world. Since Dwight stole those totems, though, Daryl has been rudderless, unable to focus on the right path. While other characters like Maggie (Lauren Cohan) have been on an upward trajectory towards leadership, Daryl, after surviving brutal emotional and physical torture at the hands of Dwight and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), spent most of the year aimlessly wandering between communities, ruthlessly murdering any of the villainous Saviors he saw without a second thought.
The reason? Dwight stole a piece of his soul. All of Daryl's actions since then have been focused on finding himself again.
The silver lining here is that Daryl, unlike Dwight, has people to help him find the way. His reunion with Carol (Melissa McBride) in "New Best Friends" relit the spark of humanity in our dear friend. Reedus has always come to life in his (platonic) relationships with the women on the show — Beth brought out the best in him, as does Carol — and it showed throughout one of Season 7's best hours. It makes sense that even a lost Daryl could find himself, albeit briefly, while connecting with someone similarly lost. Carol, sick of the non-stop churn of killing, found a sort of purgatorial happiness by exiling herself right outside the Kingdom community. Daryl joined her in Purgatory House, and halfway between whatever passes for Heaven in the world of The Walking Dead, and the Hell that is Rick's war with Negan, he found some peace.
It was momentary, though. In finding a reason to be kind again — by not telling Carol the fates of Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) at the hands of Negan — Daryl only found himself driven back to his need for revenge. Unable to live a fantasy he knew wasn't true, Daryl set off again with one goal in mind: Kill Dwight. It's not that Daryl turned evil — there's really no clear good and evil in this version of the world, just the need to survive somehow — but Daryl's Big Mistake™ in "Time For After" was entirely driven by the need to reclaim himself in a big way.
That's why Daryl drove a truck into the villainous Saviors' compound, in order to let a herd of zombies inside to chow down on the baddies. It worked, of a sort: a few Saviors died, and for a time they were trapped by the sea of zombies on their ground floor. But they ultimately figured out how to draw the herd away, and ended up attacking all of the communities banded against them in the midseason finale, "How It's Gotta Be." Even though Daryl had a few other members of the group agreeing with him, it was a spectacularly misguided plan that had extremely dire consequences for Rick's war with Negan. The man who once would sacrifice himself to save his friends became so focused on vengeance, he ended up getting a bunch of them killed (or at least those without major speaking roles).
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All this felt like like Daryl was on a path that couldn't be changed — if Carol couldn't turn him, who could? But when Daryl finally gets to his boss fight, reclaims his jacket, and he remembers who he is. Outed as a mole for Rick's group, Dwight was confronted by Daryl — but Daryl didn't kill him. The moment of truth comes when Dwight, begging for his life, reveals that Daryl wasn't truly responsible for the Saviors' escaping from the sea of zombies he tried to trap them in. It was Eugene (Josh McDermitt). It's a small, subtle moment that Reedus plays beautifully: relief washes over his face. Only then do fans realize that what's been driving Daryl hasn't been vengeance at all, but rather guilt. Every person that's died because of Dwight's actions, Daryl has internalized as his own fault. In the midseason finale, Dwight confesses to Daryl that everything that's happened is his own fault, thereby absolving Daryl. And as a reward, Daryl gets his soul back in the form of his jacket, which he rips off Dwight.
It seems silly, right? That a jacket can mean so much to a character? But think literally about what happens when Daryl puts that jacket back on: he's wearing his angel wings again. The man who shot Saviors without a care and brought the war to the brink of disaster is complete, once more. The outside cat has his claws back, ready to scratch and yowl at the moon. Now that Daryl is back on the side of the angels, the war, which has left Rick trapped in a sewer and his allies scattered, has the possibility of being back on track. If there's one thing we've learned watching The Walking Dead, it's that Rick's group is always stronger together. If Rick is the glue, Daryl is the hands holding the pieces of wood together long enough for them to stick.
This past year might have been a mixed bag where Daryl is concerned, but with his vendetta against Dwight in the rear-view mirror, Daryl is now set to be the best version of himself: a crossbow wielding, motorcycle riding, angel-wing leather jacket wearing compassionate badass, once more. He's not on easy street quite yet, but still, it feels so sweet. Bring on 2018.
The Walking Dead returns to AMC on Sunday, February 25 at 9/8c.