I used to think it was kind of cheesy whenever I would hear someone claim that the lyrics from a song or a character from a book or a movie changed their life.
With a world filled with so many real-life heroes and heroines, to say that your life changed after watching an episode of Mob Wives seems a bit trivial.
Although I will say that I was more than a little bit moved after watching Cloverfield.
Even if one has never experienced something as profound as being permanently changed by the lyrics of “Girls, Girls, Girls“, one can recognize that watching the “life” of a character from a TV show or a movie can be philosophically interesting.
One character I find philosophically interesting is the character Daryl Dixon, played by Norman Reedus on AMC’s hit horror-drama, The Walking Dead.
Fans of the show like Daryl Dixon because he is a badass.
I like Daryl Dixon because he discovers the meaning of life.
Or rather, that Daryl Dixon discovers the meaning of his life.
Ok, I know I’ve written about The Walking Dead more than a few times already. And I know that some people think that the show is nothing more than inane television. They are befuddled by the fact that ANYONE can enjoy a show with characters that are straight from the TV clichés handbook. They are even more perplexed by the fact that the show is not only the highest basic cable drama on television, but and that anyone would look for, much less find “deeper” meaning in the soap opera-like plots and hammy (sometimes borderline unintentionally comical) acting.
There’s a reason why Mad Men wins the big awards and The Walking Dead isn’t even nominated.
Some people even question the judgment of people who express a fondness for former sheriff’s deputy, Rick Grimes, and his band of survivors.
And to that, I say,
Many TV show characters have a following, but Daryl Dixon may be the only character in television history whose fans have threatened an uprising if the character is removed from the show.
Daryl Dixon is initially introduced in season one as the delinquent younger brother of the racist, sexist, Heisenberg-using Merle Dixon (played by Michael Rooker). Daryl’s entrance is as memorable as his character: he emerges from the woods, crossbow in hand, grimy from head to toe, a bounty of dead squirrels strung around his neck. Daryl doesn’t care about anything or for anyone other than his brother.
Daryl Dixon angrily expresses his contempt (angrily contempt, is that redundant?) for the group when he’s told that his brother (Merle) was chained to a roof and left behind in zombie-infested Atlanta. And when the camp is invaded by the undead, Daryl declares that the reason why the camp was attacked is because the group has reaped what it sowed.
Consequently, Daryl agrees to accompany Rick back to Atlanta not to retrieve a valuable bag of guns that Rick left behind in the city, but to find his brother Merle.
Although Daryl proves he’s handy with a crossbow, without his brother or a defined and/or useful skill (other than brooding and squirrel hunting) Daryl’s place in the group is unclear.
In the post-apocalyptic world of The Walking Dead, everyone’s role is clearly defined:
Rick Grimes is the leader of the group (undeniably). Rick’s former partner and best friend, Shane Walsh, is Rick’s second in command. Glenn is to go-to guy. Old man Dale is the voice of reason. T-Dog is the lone black guy. Carl Grimes is the incorrigible child. Andrea is the useless chick. And Rick’s wife Lori – let’s not talk about Lori.
Nearly every character in the group has a place to fill; a purpose. Daryl does not. He’s just a crossbow carrying, squirrel-hunting, brother-of-a-racist hick who knows choke holds are illegal.
Sure, Daryl Dixon is a fan favorite, a total badass, and can survive in the woods, but he lacks a reason for being where or who he is.
That has “easily expendable” written all over it.
Daryl Dixon is a The Walking Dead redshirt.
Seriously, though. Daryl tells Rick and Shane that choke holds are illegal.
After Shane chokes him.
Cops aren’t supposed to put people in choke holds.
Because they’re cops.
The meaningless existence of Daryl Dixon seems destined to be Dixon’s fate until the first episode of the show’s second season. In the season 2 opener “What Lies Ahead” something extraordinary happens – a character goes missing.
A child. Sophia Peletier.
THIS IS A WONDERFUL THING FOR DARYL DIXON.
Wait a minute. I have to go forward a bit for this to make any sense.
Ok. So in season four, the group is attacked by The Governor and they’re forced to flee the prison. Daryl and Beth Greene (the one who sings) find themselves alone (together) and – wait –
Damn. Now I gotta explain that.
Ok… Rick Grimes and his group find sanctuary at an abandoned prison. They’re able to clear out the undead (they’re never called zombies on the show) and make a safe place for themselves. But then this dude called “The Governor” shows up.
He’s a pretty bad guy.
How do you know The Governor is bad? He’s got an eye patch.
Long story short (too late) The Governor and Rick’s group can’t find a way to make nice-nice during the zombie apocalypse (this should be an easy thing to do, right?) and the opposing groups soon turn to war.
Then this happens:
And then this happens:
So this happens:
Now, the natural inclination for any The Walking Dead fan on the prospect of an entire episode devoted to Beth Greene (she’s the one who sings) would be to avoid that episode at all costs. That would make sense if you watch the show solely for a weekly fix of blood, guts, and badassery. But remember, there are things more important than watching a character shoot a crossbow and kick ass.
Namely, that The Walking Dead is also a philosophical show.
You see, the search for little Sophia allows Daryl to find his purpose.
It’s Daryl who leads search for young Sophia and is the most dedicated to finding the lost girl.
Well, I guess the girl’s mother would be the most dedicated to finding Sophia.
Daryl is thrown off a horse, impaled on one of his own crossbow bolts, gnawed on by a zombie (luckily it was only biting on Daryl’s boot), and is grazed on the side of the head by a bullet when Andrea mistakenly assumes that Daryl is a zombie and attempts to shoot him in the head.
Daryl helps Andrea to find a reason for living. He supplies T-Dog with antibiotics after T-Dog’s wound is infected. Daryl saves Glenn from a simplified Randall. And let’s not forget that it’s Daryl who steps forward to put down Dale after Dale is attacked by a zombie.
I’m not even going to say spoiler alert.
Daryl consoles the grieving Carol Peletier by delivering her a Cherokee rose and telling her the tale of grieving mothers on the Trail of Tears.
When Rick kills Shane by stabbing Shane in the chest, Daryl steps forward to occupy the newly-vacant position as Rick’s new right-hand man. When Daryl is nearly fatally injured and hallucinates a vision of his missing brother Merle, he rejects “Merle’s” allegation that the group rejects Daryl and has no use for him.
Of course we know that Daryl is actually arguing with himself.
Daryl’s steadfast devotion to find Sophia shows the audience that Daryl not only cares for the group (Sophia, anyway), but more importantly, that he no longer is just Merle Dixon’s little brother. Daryl starts to forge a place for himself in the group.
In a world where Beth Greene attempts suicide because she finds life in a land full of the undead not worth living (Beth specifically uses the word “pointless”), the zombie apocalypse gives Daryl the opportunity to establish himself as a useful and trustworthy member of the group; a member with an essential role as protector, provider, multi-weapons specialist, tracker, and trusted confidant. By the end of season four, Daryl Dixon is not at all like he was when he was introduced at the outset of the show. Daryl has a purpose.
And through a purpose, Daryl Dixon’s life has meaning.
Daryl confesses to Beth that in the pre-apocalypse, he hadn’t done anything with his life other than follow behind his older brother Merle. Daryl’s life, other than his devotion to Merle, lacked engagement in any other significant activity – activities that, for most people, make our lives meaningful.
(Sidenote: the whole scene where Daryl confesses to Beth is a little weird. Beth is supposed to be about seventeen years old or so. That’s fine and dandy until you ask “how old is Daryl?” The actor who plays Daryl Dixon, Norman Reedus, is in his mid-forties. The way Beth extracts info from Daryl is while playing a variation of Truth or Dare (just truth, no dare). The whole situation is kind of creepy (and not just because they play the game while swigging moonshine). The situation gets downright odd when Daryl tells Beth not only has he never been arrested (ok, fine), but he also gives the impression that he’s never done a few OTHER things, as well. Yes, THAT. Are the viewers expected to believe that Daryl Dixon is THAT inexperienced? Is his character supposed to be closer to the fictional Beth Greene’s age and not the actual age of Norman Reedus? Does anyone know? )
The philosopher Susan Wolf says that a meaningful life is a life that a person is “actively engaged” in “projects of worth”. Active engagement, according to Wolf, is any activity that a person is “gripped, excited, involved” in.
To be actively engaged in something is not always pleasant in the ordinary sense of the word. Activities in which people are actively engaged frequently involve stress, danger, exertion or sorrow… However, there is something good about the feeling of engagement: one feels (typically without thinking about it) especially alive.
Life in the zombie apocalypse may be a life that is, as Hobbes described in Leviathan, “nasty, brutish, and short”, but it is in this world that Daryl Dixon finds his meaning in life. Daryl Dixon is actively engaged in protecting the lives of his fellow survivors. He is a man that others look to with admiration and for guidance (like the unfortunate
patient zero Patrick). The world may suck and Daryl himself may not be aware of it, but Daryl Dixon’s life is not nothing; it‘s not meaningless. He’s done plenty with his life.
And not just hunting squirrels with his crossbow.
Well, if anything, this is the purpose of Daryl Dixon existence:
This is it. Right, ladies?
Susan Wolf. “Meaning In Life”. The Meaning of Life: A Reader. 2008. Eds. E.D. Klemke and Steven M. Cahn. NY: Oxford University Press. 232-3.