"Son of a bitch, that's my deer!" Those are the first words Daryl Dixon utters in his debut on The Walking Dead. He comes in hot, ranting about the walker feeding on the deer and how he tracked the deer for miles, now wondering if the deer can be salvaged by cutting around the walker bites. For good measure, he kicks the walker, hard, several times. All the while, Rick, Glenn, Morales, Jim, Andrea, Amy, and Dale stare at him like he's deranged. Finally, he sees the walker’s head still moving and shoots it in the left eye with his crossbow. "It's gotta be the brain," he tells everyone. "Don't you all know nothin'?"
Daryl was very rough around the edges back then, which is no surprise since he had Merle for an older brother. He called Dead Amy "a time bomb" and wanted to shoot her before she turned, even as the others respected Andrea's decision to keep watch over her. He derisively called Korean American Glenn both a "Chinaman" and "Short Round" (the name of Ke Huy Quan's character in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). Viewers learn in Season 3 that Merle and Daryl had planned to rob the camp, before Merle got handcuffed to that Atlanta rooftop. So, how did this wary, quick-tempered loner become a respected, trusted individual capable of protecting everyone around him, no matter which side of the Atlantic he's on? Here are some of his monumental turning points, which crushed and sustained him at each bend in the road and formed the character viewers know (and love) today:
SOPHIA'S DISAPPEARANCE (Season 2)
Daryl's the kind of guy who's best suited to survive the zombie apocalypse. Whether that means hunting for food or knowing what it takes to kill the undead, he can even track missing children or gut a walker and figure out if it recently ate a little girl. Because of this, Rick places his full confidence in Daryl when it comes to finding Sophia. "Daryl knows the woods better than anybody and I've asked him to oversee this," Rick announces to the group. Daryl is tireless in the search for Sophia and risks his life in the process when he's thrown from a horse, impaled by one of his crossbow arrows, attacked by a pair of walkers, and mistakenly shot by Andrea. He also has visions of the AWOL Merle, who says that Rick's group thinks of Daryl only as "a freak" and "redneck trash." Although Sophia doesn't survive and emerges from Hershel's barn as a zombie in one of the show's most shocking scenes ever, Daryl is now invested in his chosen family. He forms a close bond with Carol, who tells Daryl that's he's "every bit as good" as Rick and Shane.
LORI DIES IN CHILDBIRTH (Season 3)
After failing to find Sophia, Daryl reverts to his lone wolf tendencies. He refuses to help Lori look for Rick, Hershel, and Glenn because he's "done looking for people." But Carol and Dale have faith in him. Carol tells him he's earned his place in the group, while Dale tells him he's a decent man whose opinion makes a difference — and that buoys him. When Dale gets bit, Rick has trouble putting him down. Daryl is the one who steps up to help Rick do the hard things for the good of the group, so he takes the gun from Rick and shoots Dale. Later Rick wants to thank Daryl, but Daryl cuts him off, saying, "Ain't no reason you should do all the heavy lifting." Rick relies more and more on Daryl, so much so that Daryl takes charge when Lori dies giving birth and a despondent Rick is in no state to make decisions. Moreover, Judith gives Daryl the chance to display his tender side. After going out to find formula for her, he returns to the prison and asks right away how the baby is doing, takes her gently from Carl, feeding her a bottle, and smilling when she stops crying and drinks. When Carl's trying to think of names for the baby, Daryl suggests "Little Ass Kicker," asking her, "You like that, sweetheart?"
ALEXANDRIA ARRIVAL (Season 5)
In Season 5, the group arrives at Alexandria, where Daryl is uncomfortable in a setting of houses, showers, and cocktail parties. Aaron forges a bond with him, commending him for even considering going to Deanna's party and inviting him over for a spaghetti dinner. Aaron then offers Daryl a job as his fellow recruiter. "You're good out there, but you don't belong out there," Aaron reasons. "I know it's hard getting used to people getting used to you, and I understand right now you need to be out there sometimes. So do I." He adds that Daryl is an asset because he knows the difference between good and bad people. Daryl takes the job, in his very Daryl way, saying, "I got nothing else to do. Thanks." A few episodes later, when Daryl and Aaron are trapped in a car surrounded by walkers, Daryl admits, "I came out here to not feel all closed up back there. Even now, this still feels more like me than back in them houses. That's pretty messed up, huh?" In any case, Daryl now has purpose in a large, organized community.
NEGAN KILLS GLENN (Season 7)
Even before Negan bashes Glenn to death with Lucille, Daryl had beef with the Saviors because of Dwight, the person he saved, who then robbed him of his motorcycle and crossbow and murdered Denise. So, when Negan beats Abraham to death, Daryl is having none of it and attacks Negan. An outraged Negan then decides to beat Glenn too and a horrified Daryl feels responsible. Before long, Negan takes Daryl captive and Dwight is his torturer, feeding him dog food sandwiches and playing Collapsable Hearts Club's "Easy Street" on a loop in an attempt to turn him into a member of the cult of Negan. Daryl subsequently escapes, and upon returning to Hilltop, does his best to avoid Maggie. When she forces him to speak to her, all he can do is cry and apologize. He disagrees when she says that Glenn's death was not his fault. "You're one of the good things in this world. That's what Glenn thought, and he would know because he was one of the good things too," she explains. She implores him for help. "We have to win. Help me win," she says. He nods. From that moment, he's more committed than ever to defeating the Saviors.
RICK GOES MISSING (Season 9)
As much as they rely on each other, Daryl and Rick have their ups and downs, especially in Seasons 8 and 9. They disagree over the best way to overcome the Sanctuary, when to kill people that are a threat, and whether Negan should have been kept alive. The two of them even get into fisticuffs, more than once. The last time they see each other, they've just fought but put aside their differences. Daryl leaves on his bike, while Rick gets on a horse to lead a horde away from a bridge that's being built. "Hey, be safe," Daryl warns Rick as they go their separate ways. Rick is presumed dead when the bridge he's on blows up in a fiery explosion. Daryl sees the whole thing happen and is thrown into a downward spiral of isolation. For six years, he lives in the woods while searching for Rick's body, living part of that time with Leah.
When Carol and Henry find him, he's alone and almost feral, shaggier than usual, with just Leah's dog for company. Carol wants him to return to Hilltop to keep an eye on Henry, but Daryl refuses to shield him from danger, saying, "He's gonna have to learn, just like everybody else. Just like you and I did." But after Dog is caught in a trap and Henry helps save Daryl from walkers, the two have a heart-to-heart talk, where Henry declares, "You know, my mom, she says you're her best friend. The one who's always had her back, no matter what. She misses you. She worries about you. You can see that, right?" Daryl counters that Carol knows how to find him and asks if Henry really wants Daryl looking over his shoulder all the time. Henry informs Daryl, "It isn't just about me." The next morning, Carol is thrilled to see that Daryl is going with them after all. When they arrive at Hilltop, Aaron reveals to Daryl that Eugene is missing and they "could use a good tracker." Daryl replies immediately, "Yeah, of course." And with those three words, Daryl's back in his rightful place and he doesn't stray from his mission again, no matter if it's overcoming the Whisperers, the Reapers, and the Commonwealth or developing into a father figure to Judith and R.J.
To explain how much Daryl has evolved over the years, no one said it better than Carol, who knew him from the beginning. "It's like you were a kid. Now you're a man," she states simply. He's the man who used the encouragement of those around him — Rick, Glenn, Maggie, Dale, Beth, Aaron, and most of all Carol — to surmount his harrowing childhood and evolve into the person who's now entrusted with shepherding Laurent to his destiny in The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon.
The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon airs on Sundays at 9/8c on AMC. Episodes are available to stream on amc.com (with a cable provider login), and the AMC apps for mobile and devices. You can also watch episodes via AMC+ at amcplus.com or through the new AMC+ app available on iPhone, iPad, Android, Fire TV, Apple TV, and Roku plus Samsung and Vizio smart TVs. AMC+ can also be streamed through a variety of providers, including AppleTV, Prime Video Channels, DirectTV, Dish, Roku Channel, Sling, and Xfinity. Sign up for AMC+ now.