Shane Walsh. Lori Grimes. Hershel Greene. Glenn Rhee. These are just some of the many fan-favorite faces we've lost along the way in "Walking Dead," even if the jury is still out on that last name on the list.
Indeed, the current reaction to Glenn's "death," whether or not it sticks, is a testament to just how much a beloved character's death can incense the AMC zombie drama's fan base — so much so that it makes you stop and wonder: If this is the reaction to Glenn, what the heck is going to happen if "Walking Dead" ever kills off Daryl Dixon?
Before we continue, I ask that you lay down your pitchforks and torches, or crossbows and middle fingers as it were. I promise I am not spoiling anything that's coming up in season six, or anything from the comics. (Don't you know Daryl isn't from the comics, anyway?) I am not advocating for Daryl's death, either. This is simply an opportunity to muse on the reality that no one is ever truly safe in the world of "The Walking Dead," and that includes the show's decisive fan favorite zombie killer.
It was love at first sight, when "Walking Dead" first introduced us to Daryl, hungry for venison and angry at the news of his brother's whereabouts. We have loved him every moment ever since, all the way through his recent motorcycle ride at the front of the zombie parade.
No one wants to see Daryl die — but want might not have much to do with it, given the reality of the show's universe.
But this isn't a question about should, will or when. It's a question about what happens next in the hypothetical universe where "Walking Dead" decides to remove Norman Reedus' crossbow-wielding badass from the table. What's the reaction? Would fans truly revolt, as some have declared? (More on that in a second.) Would the Glenn thing look like a drizzle compared to the hurricane of a reaction to Daryl's demise?
Simply put: Can "The Walking Dead" survive without Daryl?
The question was first raised in the MTV newsroom by editor Alex Zalben, who attended the "Walking Dead" season five premiere party at Madison Square Garden a few weeks back. (Read his excellent recap of the evening here, then come back.) He talks about the rousing reception Reedus received when he showed up at the event, easily the most popular person in the room. After seeing the love for Daryl in person, Alex floated the question my way… can this show survive a world without Daryl, or is he too big at this point to kill off?
If this was a question about the "Walking Dead" comics, there's no question that Daryl would die at some point. Heck, he probably would have died 50 or more issues ago. Writer Robert Kirkman's source material is way more liberal about killing fan-favorites than the AMC series, and it's easy to see why; to paraphrase what Kirkman often says, it's easier to bump off characters in the comics because it's a matter of Charlie Adlard no longer drawing certain configurations of lines on paper. Killing people on the show essentially means firing actors, people that are beloved by the crew, and just as importantly beloved by the viewers.
Reedus and Daryl are at the heart of that equation, and beyond heart, there's business to consider. Daryl is more or less the show's poster boy in a very real way. He's the central character in a spinoff video game. (Two games, actually.) He's the action figure everyone wants to own. If you're one of the key decision makers behind "The Walking Dead," how do you voluntarily decide to break that toy? What sense does it make to cross that line?
As I chewed on the question a bit more, I kept coming back to five words we often hear about this character: "If Daryl dies, we riot." It's a mantra within certain corners of "Walking Dead" fandom, and it's hard to tell if it's a show of support for the character, or an honest threat about what will happen if Daryl dies — as the following tweet helpfully demonstrates:
It doesn't sound like an active threat, at least not from the mouth of Tommy Kammerer, one of the admins for the "If Daryl Dies, We Riot" Facebook group. I reached out to Kammerer and asked him for his take on whether or not "Walking Dead" could live on past Daryl, and he replied:
"I believe it can. Daryl is a good character and helped teach the group all his knowledge about tracking and other things. Carol and Michonne both have stepped up and really become leaders in the group."
He adds that "there would be a lot of upset fans" if Daryl ever dies, to put it lightly, but he nevertheless sees the show moving itself into a position where death is a possible option for the character.
"They've been stepping back [on] Daryl," says Kammerer. "He hasn't done much in the new season, and didn't really do much in the last season."
What Kammerer thinks would upset fans is if Daryl were to die or disappear under ambiguous circumstances, like how things are playing out for Glenn right now.
"Many people would be extremely pissed if they did a death scene like they did for Glenn," he explains. "The ambiguity of it all has been annoying for the fans. No other character has 'died' like this."
Not that Kammerer speaks for every single Daryl fan, but perhaps his take is a reflection of where we are with the show right now.
Yes, Daryl remains one of the most entertaining characters on the show, but there's a deep bench filled with compelling figures, like Carol and Michonne and Morgan and on and on. It might have been inconceivable even one season ago, but in the Alexandria era, there's so much meat on the bone that losing Daryl wouldn't spoil the whole meal — just as long as taking this bite would mean something, and would come in the form of a major moment that would do Daryl and his fans the justice everyone deserves.
So, what's the verdict? We'll see what we see if there's ever anything to see, but for now, here's my unsolicited hot take: Given a proper exit, an unforgettable sendoff that would light his fans' hearts with passionate fire, I do think "Walking Dead" could survive without Daryl, albeit with a very heavy heart and a very sad face.
Whether or not I think we'll ever see the show reach that point? Again, that's another question entirely — and before we even start asking that one, let's see how this all shakes out for poor Glenn first.