'The Walking Dead' Just Killed Off Its Most Beloved Character (or Not)

The Walking Dead, The Walking Dead Cast

This article contains spoilers -- and spoiler-ish theories -- about the most recent episode of The Walking Dead, "East."

Daryl Dixon is dead. Or maybe that should be: is Daryl Dixon dead?

At this point it’s difficult to say. Daryl has been the most cherished character on The Walking Dead since he was introduced early in the show’s first season. Fans of actor Norman Reedus wear T-shirts promising riots if the showrunners dare to write him out or kill him off. And it was bound to happen; The Walking Dead does not promise its cast much in the way of job security. But if there’s one death virtually guaranteed to provoke an uproar, it’s Daryl’s. Not even Rick’s safety seemed so assured -- and he’s the lead.

Daryl Dixon, The Walking Dead

Here’s what we saw: Daryl left Alexandria in pursuit of Dwight, the Savior who killed Denise last week, and whose survival Daryl blames on himself. Rosita, Glenn, and Michonne, rightly fearing the worst, quickly followed. When briefly separated in the middle of the woods, Dwight and his Savior cronies ambushed the latter two. Daryl and Rosita attempted a rescue, only to encounter a trap: Dwight was waiting for them. The episode ends with Dwight shooting Daryl point-blank in the back of the head.

This seems cut and dry. A bullet to the head isn’t ordinarily an injury you walk away from, and Dwight, having twice run afoul of Daryl (and having sustained a pretty ghastly injury during the last confrontation), has every reason to keep his victim down. Add to that the over-the-top deluge of blood erupting into camera at the moment of the shooting and it’s difficult to conclude anything but the obvious. One niggling detail keeps hope alive: Dwight’s final words. “You’ll be alright,” he drawls. Was it sarcasm? Is “you’ll be alright” code for “you’re half-dead and permanently disfigured, but it's mendable?” Does “you’ll be alright” imply “for now”? Nobody can say for sure. Walking Dead contorts face value.

Precedent might save Daryl's life. The Walking Dead pulled our legs in the past, fooled us into thinking that a character was dead only to reveal, an episode or two later, that it was just a canny bit of misdirection. Only a few months ago, hungry walkers tore Glenn apart after faceplanting into the horde. The show kept up the ruse, aggravatingly, for a whopping four episodes before revealing the truth that he survived. That’s only the most galling example to date. Glenn had a second brush with death in the half-season premiere. Daryl's brother, Merle, "died" before -- surprise! -- reappearing in season three. Even baby Judith had her death briefly (and cruelly) teased back in the Governor days. At this point we should treat every death as suspect until we see a corpse on the ground or a head removed from the body.

The Walking Dead Cast

We've been noting throughout the season that Daryl’s death wouldn't be a complete surprise, fan love notwithstanding. It would make a certain moral sense, after all: Rick and the others have been so carelessly underestimating the threat of the Saviors this season that the most suitably punishment for their hubris may be the loss of their strongest player. It would also set up this new Big Bad as a villain worth taking seriously. Negan is about to meet these two -- and Rosita and Michonne -- during next week’s finale. And it is very, very likely at this point that the finale will end with the scene readers of the comics have been anticipating since the beginning of the season: Negan taking a baseball to the head of one of heroes. So even if Daryl survives this particular encounter there’s no reason to assume he’s in the clear.

Whatever the case, it's unlikely the story of Daryl Dixon ended last night. Even if Dwight’s bullet took him down, The Walking Dead writers would give the man a proper goodbye. (Worst-case scenario: a quick bleed-out and a few last words. In the very least fans need something to remember him by.) That’s what makes the decision to end the episode in such a way so frustrating. It’s the most shameless kind of cliffhanger: five brutal seconds that threw a beloved character's fate into sudden doubt.

Meanwhile thirteen million viewers are left to wait in agony until next Sunday night. Is Daryl dead or isn’t he? We don’t know and we can’t know. But the show knows -- and loves to make us wonder.

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Calum Marsh is a freelance writer with a love of the undead and an eye toward the future. Follow him for more prognostication: @calummarsh.