Norman Reedus in Daryl Dixon Review: Vive la The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon, starring Norman Reedus, premieres September 10th on AMC and AMC+.

"God is make-believe in the world of The Walking Dead." That's according to the zombie saga's creator, Robert Kirkman, and it's a nonbelief instilled in Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus). When Beth, the religious daughter of a devout Christian, once admonished Daryl that it wouldn't kill him to "have a little faith," he snarled in response, "Faith ain't done sh-t for us." For a show about the resurrection of the dead, The Walking Dead tended to lean more secular than spiritual. So it's somewhat surprising that The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon (premiering September 10th on AMC and AMC+) has what Reedus called a "religious vibe" with themes of hope and faith.

The Walking Dead series finale ended with a goodbye between best friends Daryl and Carol (Melissa McBride) before Daryl left Ohio's Commonwealth community to go search for Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Michonne (Danai Gurira). "I'll find them," Daryl promised their young daughter, Judith Grimes (Cailey Fleming). "I'll bring them home." After a detour, the 60-minute Daryl Dixon premiere picks up months later with Daryl thousands of miles from home as he clings to an overturned lifeboat adrift in the Mediterranean Sea. Judith's words echo in voice-over: "You deserve a happy ending, too."

Washing ashore in post-apocalyptic France, Daryl "struggles to piece together how he got there and why," per a semi-misleading logline that suggests an amnesiac mystery out of The Bourne Identity. It's not so much a puzzle to Daryl as it is to the viewer, with sporadic memories emerging in flashes to fill in the gaps until the fifth (and penultimate) episode of the first season stops withholding answers and reveals how and why Daryl was transported across the Atlantic Ocean. (AMC made all six episodes available to critics.) Transatlantic ships are scarce, so the new Walking Dead spinoff follows the marooned Daryl "across a broken but resilient France as he hopes to find a way back home. As he makes the journey, though, the connections he forms along the way complicate his ultimate plan."

Daryl encounters nun Isabelle (Clémence Poésy) and takes shelter at the Abbey of St. Bernadette, part of a group called l'Union de I'Espoir ("Union of Hope"). Once a pill-popping pickpocket, the prudent Isabelle found religion after witnessing a miracle at the onset of the outbreak 12 years earlier. She's the guardian of the orphaned Laurent (newcomer Louis Puech Scigliuzzi), a precocious 11-year-old boy born just as les affamès ("the hungry ones") rose from the dead. When it appears that Daryl's arrival is divinely preordained, Isabelle tells Daryl that he's the "messenger" they've been waiting for to deliver Laurent to The Nest: a community up north that will raise and nurture him "to be who he was born to be," says Isabelle. "To be the new messiah. To lead the revival of humanity."

An atheist, Daryl is skeptical of the boy's alleged abilities and seemingly supernatural perceptions — as uncanny as it is when the empathetic Laurent tells him, "I feel your sadness. Not to despair, Monsieur Daryl, but you deserve a happy ending, too." As fate would have it, the treacherous path to The Nest leads to La Havre, a port rumored to be active with operating ships. Daryl agrees to chaperone Isabelle and The Chosen One up north in exchange for passage home, undertaking an odyssey across zombie and peril-plagued Angers, Orleans, Paris, the Seine River, and Normandy.

Daryl's simple raison d'être is to get home. It would be a spoiler to say why Daryl gets tangled in the strife between l'Union de I'Espoir ("Union of Hope") and Pouvoir Des Vivants ("Power of the Living"), a political movement that's controlled most of France since the outbreak. The antagonists — it isn't quite right to call them "villains" — are nuanced in areas of gray. "The American" quickly makes enemies of Pouvoir patriot Madame Genet (Anne Charrier) and her Guerriers ("warriors"), including the tattooed, strong-willed soldier Stèphane Codron (Romain Levi).

With a tasteful, artful approach, creator and showrunner David Zabel (ER, Mercy Street) and directors Daniel Percival (the dystopian thriller series The Man in the High Castle) and Tim Southam (totalitarian sci-fi drama Colony) recall the understated Frank Darabont era of early Walking Dead with real bite. Where The Walking Dead: Dead City evoked the gritty pulp of Escape from New York, Daryl Dixon is thematically and aesthetically akin to Children of Men or The Road. Its questions are intriguing: Is Laurent the messiah, or a false hope? Is the boy supernatural, or spiritual?

The shot-on-location French settings — from the Catacombes de Paris to the Eiffel Tower, an eroding monument of groaning metal eerily looming over the darkened City of Lights — offer a strikingly different aesthetic than The Walking Dead and are beautifully captured by director of photography Tommaso Fiorilli (Baron Noir) and production designer Clovis Weil (BBC's Marie Antoinette). France proves fruitful for action, too, and plenty of it; blood-pumping set pieces include Daryl wielding medieval weapons in battle alongside killer nuns, fighting his way out of a castle's zombie moat, and gladiatorial combat against amped-up super-walkers.

The Walking Dead: World Beyond ended with a credits scene set inside an abandoned French lab that CDC virologist Dr. Edwin Jenner (Noah Emmerich) referenced back in the first season of The Walking Dead. Graffiti in the lab reading les morts sont nes ici — "the dead are born here" — suggested that the zombie "variant cohorts" mentioned in Jenner's video logs resulted from human experimentation. The coda was a clear setup for Daryl Dixon and makes Walking Dead's zombies more of a threat: these variant walkers are smarter, stronger, faster, and deadlier than ever. When Daryl suffers the searing touch of a brûlant ("burner"), mutated hungry ones with acidic blood, the rules have changed. 

Daryl Dixon is epic and entertaining as it expands the Walking Dead mythology with rich world-building. France feels like a lived-in, dramatically different corner of the Walking Dead Universe, populated by an intriguing cast of new characters. Along their journey, Daryl and company encounter Lou (Kim Higelin), the resilient leader of scrappy forager youths; Fallou (Eriq Ebouaney), a well-connected Parisian ally of the Union of Hope; and Quinn (Adam Nagaitis), the dimensional, double-dealing owner of an underground Paris nightclub. 

Norman Reedus is magnifique, reenergized by what is destined to become event television. Already renewed for a second season, the new series delivers what Walking Dead fans want — and something entirely unexpected. Daryl Dixon is The Walking Dead as you've never seen it before, enlivened and reinvented to prove that there's a lot of life left in the zombie drama. Vive la Walking Dead. Long live The Walking Dead.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon premieres Sunday, September 10th, at 9 p.m. ET on AMC and AMC+.