If the first “Walking Dead” spinoff following the finale of the flagship series, “The Walking Dead: Dead City,” seemed to mark the beginning of a new era for the franchise, the second certainly feels like a continuation — tonally, if not chronologically. “The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon,” which premieres on AMC on Sept. 10, builds on the tentative good will established by “Dead City,” even arguably improving on some of its strengths.
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“Daryl Dixon,” like “Dead City,” is a six-episode, largely self-contained story featuring a beloved core character transported to a brand-new setting. Where “Dead City” saw Maggie and Negan travel to New York City, this show sends the title character (played by Norman Reedus) across the Atlantic Ocean to post-zombie-apocalypse France.
In the opening moments of “The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon,” Daryl wakes up on a beach in southern France. He eventually lands in the care of a convent, where he meets a nun named Isabelle (Clémence Poésy) and her charge, a precocious tween named Laurent (Louis Puech Scigliuzzi) whom the nuns believe is destined for greatness. Daryl is enlisted to protect Laurent and Isabelle as they journey north to an outpost called “the Nest” in exchange for help finding a ship back to the States.
Daryl and his charges travel via checkpoints manned by an ecumenical network of faith-minded communities who all believe in Laurent’s messianic potential. Of course, the path is also beset with antagonists. A totalitarian leader named Genet (Anne Charrier) has sensed Laurent’s potential as a threat to her power and has set her guerriers on the group, including Codron (Romain Levi), a battle-hardened soldier with a personal grudge against Daryl. Naturally, there are plenty of zombies as well (here referred to as “the hungry ones”), including the new, super-fast variant previously hinted at in the final moments of “The Walking Dead: World Beyond.”
Exactly how Daryl wound up in France is initially unclear; all will be revealed in due time, though once we do learn why, the reasons aren’t terribly germane to the plot. Indeed, Daryl himself isn’t terribly germane to the plot for much of the six-episode run, though it’s nice to have him there, if only to growl “I don’t speak French!” at the top of every scene, thereby minimizing the number of subtitles the viewers have to read. Though a few heart-wrenching scenes in the final episode lend surprising new depth to his character, Daryl mainly serves as a catalyst for Isabelle and Laurent’s story.
Arguably, Daryl was always at his best in this exact capacity throughout his tenure on the original “Walking Dead” series; the departure of Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes left a leading-man vacuum that Reedus, and Daryl, often seemed to have difficulty filling. His own spinoff, ironically, returns him to the more comfortable co-pilot position — never absent from the action, but not exactly at its nucleus. The fact that the initial pitch of “Daryl Dixon” featured Daryl and best friend Carol (Melissa McBride) sharing the action indicates that this has been carefully considered from the beginning; the eventual final product, though it doesn’t feature Carol, ensured that Daryl was not called upon to carry the entire show himself. (Incidentally, fans who miss the Daryl/Carol dynamic will not be totally shut out; there are several oblique hints that Carol could easily play a role in future seasons.)
In a spinoff, asking viewers to care more about the new characters than the old ones is a dicey proposition, but in short order, Isabelle establishes herself as one of the better characters the franchise has introduced in recent years. A complicated backstory, told via flashbacks and present-day run-ins with a figure from her past, helps the audience get to know her as thoroughly as they know almost any character from the original series. Poésy, mainly recognizable to Americans from her role in the Harry Potter films (she played Fleur Delacour), adds depth with her nuanced portrayal. Her chemistry with Reedus is an integral piece to the puzzle; Isabelle is more than capable as a foil to Daryl Dixon’s gruffness.
“The Walking Dead: Dead City” set a precedent for setting-as-character, which “Daryl Dixon” has expanded and improved upon. Where “Dead City” occasionally had to stretch to incorporate uniquely New York elements while filming on a soundstage in New Jersey, “Daryl Dixon,” largely filmed on location, is as jam-packed with French points of interest as a Rick Steves travelogue. Sojourns through the Paris Catacombs, Père Lachaise Cemetery and the beaches of Normandy underline the deadness of this world, while the vine-covered facade of Notre Dame and the twisted metal wreck of the Eiffel Tower serve as stark reminders of the before times. There is never any doubt that Daryl and his compatriots are in France, and no chance this story could take place anywhere else. As a result, the overall tone of the series is markedly different from its predecessors.
Beyond the hyperspecificity of the setting, this universe’s attention to detail is astonishing, with no visual elements wasted — every weird zombie-related set piece the group encounters will eventually receive a corresponding explanation that furthers the overall plot. Showrunner David Zabel has carefully considered the surroundings and how they would influence any given “Walking Dead” scenario: for instance, Daryl uses a medieval flail as a weapon as he fights his way out of a castle moat filled with the undead. In Episode 3’s cold open, a truly twisted zombie tableau underscored by Ravel’s “Bolero” puts French flair on a tried-and-true “Walking Dead” trope.
However intricately shot and well-acted the series may be, it does suffer from some of the same pitfalls as its predecessor spinoff. Namely, as with “Dead City,” “Daryl Dixon” takes far too long to build to the good parts. The atmospheric premiere episode contains long stretches of silence punctuated by Daryl’s trademark grunts, and it takes most of the second episode to set him on the quest that forms the main arc of the season.
With only six episodes in which to tell a more or less complete story, there should be no room for a slow burn, yet “Daryl Dixon” doesn’t find its true rhythm until it hits a soap-opera-worthy plot twist midway through the third episode. Given that the only people likely to give this series a shot to begin with are franchise devotees who’ve endured a lot worse from previous “Walking Dead” series, this seems a relatively inconsequential hurdle. But faster pacing in the early moments would have elevated this series from “enjoyable” to “classic.”
“The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon” premieres on AMC on Sept. 10, with new episodes airing weekly.