Over the years, AMC’s The Walking Dead has become an exceedingly popular TV show, garnering viewers from all over the world. What makes the show so appealing, though? For some, it rests with an allure to apocalyptic and dystopian situations. For others, the appeal takes the form of a fascination with the grotesque. However, I would venture to say that for many fans, it is the bare display of the human character’s range. The show presents viewers with a plethora of instances in which we are compelled to ponder how we might handle a particular situation. Each decision is a moral dilemma that challenges both the characters and audience to give greater definition to what constitutes right and wrong.
If you are unfamiliar with The Walking Dead, it’s a show that follows Rick Grimes, a former sheriff’s deputy, as he endeavors to protect his loved ones from both humans and the dead. Safety is not his only goal, however. Rick also aims to create a new life for his community in which they can do more than just survive.
So how does this all fit in with the concept of American exceptionalism? After all, how can these principles still apply when an American nation governed by elected representatives no longer exists in the context of the show? Well, the essence of American exceptionalism has always been viewed as coming from the people, not the government. The lack of an effective governing structure does not hinder the members of this society from continuing to embody (or not, depending on the character) the values set forth at the time of the founding. One character who does this better than any other is Daryl Dixon.
When Daryl is first introduced at the start of season one, it is immediately apparent that he doesn’t fit in with the rest of the group. He comes across as a hotheaded loner whose only ally is his repulsive brother, Merle. Right away, you are tempted to write him off as an uneducated hick with little respect for those around him. But it would be a mistake to reduce his character to the confines of this initial impression.
With the season’s progression, you come to realize that though he may be a bit rough around the edges, he is undeniably skilled when it comes to surviving the apocalypse. Able to track, hunt, fight, and live solitarily off the land, his skill set gives him the ability to be adaptive and entirely self-reliant. He takes charge of his own well being and provides for himself rather than taking advantage of others in the group who possess greater resources. His personal responsibility permits him to avoid obligation and exercise greater freedom.
In American society, personal responsibility and the self-made individual are concepts that have traditionally been of the highest value. The idea that anyone can accomplish anything should they work hard enough is one that contributes greatly to the American persona and certainly applies to Daryl.
When survival becomes the only thing that matters, do morals still play a role in decision making? This question is a major theme in The Walking Dead, as the characters are constantly faced with dilemmas that challenge and alter their moral compasses. It is particularly seen in Rick’s case as his firm, unwavering morality in season one slowly erodes away with each ugly decision he is forced to make to protect the group.
Many of the characters view morality from the lens of “new world, new rules.” Their views of the world order and fact have been challenged, overturned, and left in the old era. They believe this new era refutes the idea of absolute truth in favor of the idea that morality is determined based on a person’s circumstances. With each “I had to to survive,” viewers will at times witness the characters’ slow destabilization, stripping them of what makes them human and the ability to live with themselves.
Daryl recognizes this and ironically becomes a firm pillar of morality within the group. He realizes that it is often harder to take the moral high road, especially when killing someone to remove a threat or problem would be easier. Being grounded in absolute truth makes him a valuable asset to the group because he offers sound advice and is able to check those in power. Also, in terms of a growing community, his stable morality allows him to be a good judge of character; thus, he can determine a threat perhaps better than someone like Rick.
Absolute truth and virtue have long been significant as American ideals because they lay the foundation for the inalienable rights that Americans believe all citizens possess. Additionally, virtue cultivates a true freedom that is not licentious, but productive and respectful of others. Daryl no doubt embodies this concept consistently episode after episode.
Individualism vs. Collectivism
Part of Daryl’s moral identity is the way he upholds the value of individualism. He recognizes that each person is unique in their abilities and contributions to the group. It is a respect for the individual that creates value for the collective, not the other way around. If collectivism is valued over the individual, individuals start becoming expendable quite quickly, particularly in apocalyptic situations. In other words, when collectivism rules, an ideology of “if it’s for the good of the group, it does not matter if a few members, even children, get left behind” starts to creep in.
This is certainly a dilemma in season two when a little girl goes missing after the group has a run in with a mass of zombies. Initially, the entire group mobilizes and puts forth a great effort to locate the little girl, but as a day goes by with few clues to her whereabouts, some feel that she is no longer worth the time or resources spent by the group. To those members, her life’s value has become subject to the collective’s needs.
As the search draws to a conclusion, Daryl is the only person, excluding the girl’s mother, who fights to continue the search because he recognizes that each individual’s life should be valued and worth the effort. He dedicates his days and nights to tracking the little girl because her worth is not determined by what she can contribute to the collective but by the fact that she is a person.
Individualism is again an integral part of the American social framework. The Founding Fathers’ were of the mindset that government should work to protect the freedoms of the individual, which would then create an environment suited toward unprecedented liberty, innovation, accomplishment, and so on. Daryl knew the consequences that could arise when an individual’s worth and freedom is dictated by the group, and he fought to prevent those consequences from coming into being.
Daryl’s American Dream
It may seem an odd statement at first, but Daryl has in essence lived out the American Dream. This does not mean that he currently has the perfect life and no longer faces any sort of challenges or loss. However, when you consider Daryl’s reclusive, hotheaded temperament from the shows start, he has come a long way. Through small revelations concerning Daryl’s background, such as his neglectful and abusive childhood, we learn just how far.
Success need not always be measured by economic and material gain. In Daryl’s case, he goes from a social outcast to arguably the most valuable and appreciated member of the group. All of his hard work and personal characteristics, ranging from a self-reliant attitude and strong morality to a firm belief in individualism, have allowed him to grow to command respect and love from the rest of the group. In this sense, he has become a successful and active member in this new form of society created in The Walking Dead universe.
His self-growth should be an inspiration to others in their pursuit of the American Dream. Success will never be handed to you, but requires an application of traditional American values and a willingness to put forth the effort. It’s a great message that may not be apparent upon first glance of the show. Ultimately, watching The Walking Dead over the years has no doubt been a wonderful source of entertainment, but also one providing an opportunity to reaffirm the excellent values of America. It goes to show that American exceptionalism may be found in even the most unlikely of places.