Poverty Prepares You to Survive the Worst – Even the Zombies of ‘The Walking Dead’

The ways in which poverty shapes the psyche of The Walking Dead's Daryl Dixon are very rarely seen in the current television landscape.

Country club patrons are hanging by their necks from the rafters. “Welcome to the dogtrot”, a reference to lower-class housing, is scrawled above a pile of bodies. The top half of a dead woman rests on the bottom half of a mannequin, a sign reading “Rich Bitch” pinned to her shirt.

A small class war seems to have occurred at the country club long before Beth Greene and Daryl Dixon, two characters on AMC’s The Walking Dead, arrive on the scene during the latter stretch of the program’s fourth season. The patrons must have tried to maintain their hierarchy even during the zombie apocalypse, and were overthrown by the staff. Daryl picks up on this, taking out his frustrations by beating on the bodies of well-dressed walkers (the term for zombies in The Walking Dead ) before killing them. He briefly exorcises the class resentment that’s been festering inside him his whole life, that’s still festering even now that money is useless. Beth, on the other hand, seems largely oblivious to the exact nature of what’s happened, though her compassionate personality rebels at the idea of anyone being defiled in death.

As Beth and Daryl make their way through the country club filled with corpses, walkers, and trash, Beth insists they take down the dead woman’s body. She puts on a fresh yellow polo shirt she finds on a rack. Her clean shirt is soon splattered with a walker’s brains when Daryl hits it with a golf club.

“Golfers booze it up, right?” The only reason they’re here is so that young Beth can get her first taste of alcohol, her way of coping with having just lost her family. She needs something new to do, a goal to reach, something to keep her moving. She needs to feel alive. Daryl finds it both dangerous and frivolous in the face of all that they’ve lost and all that they still need to survive. Out in the forest, before they arrived at the country club, he was emotionally distant as he fought to keep them alive and to contain his grief over having lost his community, the first real family he’d ever had. He only stirred from rote survival mode to show tenderness when she most needed it. The episode later implies he was partly afraid of getting close to her and then losing her, too.

Daryl’s skills at hunting, tracking, and fighting, along with his skills at weathering trauma, have kept them going against incredible odds up to this point. He learned these skills out of necessity when he was growing up in poverty in rural Georgia: the kind of survival skills that the country club members would have deemed less valuable than their abilities to tee off. As previous episodes taught us, Daryl had to learn to be self-sufficient as an impoverished young child. His parents neglected and physically abused him, and the only people he could ever rely on were himself and a terrible older brother who believed in tough love.

When they finally locate alcohol, all that’s left is Peach Schnapps. Beth, in need of conversation, asks if it’s good, and Daryl simply grunts, “no”. She starts crying before she can drink it. Then there’s the first of several pivotal turns. Daryl stops throwing darts at photos of country club presidents, and grabs up the bottle to dash it on the floor: “I ain’t going to have your first drink be no damn Peach Schnapps.”

The class issues foregrounded in these early scenes of The Walking Dead‘s 47th episode (season four, episode 12), entitled “Still”, set the stage for the interpersonal conflict and resolution that follow. Everything that happens later is to be understood in relation to Beth and Daryl’s grieving processes, which in turn can only be understood through their pre-apocalyptic experiences of class. “Still” shows how the trauma of poverty shapes people’s abilities to survive in ways that are both helpful and harmful, depending on the context. In doing so, it highlights how the past contributes to the future without entirely determining it. “Still” also depicts how the pain left over from trauma never entirely subsides.

When Daryl and Beth arrive at a shack Daryl had previously found, and when he offers her moonshine, we get to see the counterpoint to the country club. The shack is just as trashed as the club was, but we get the sense that it started out that way. It’s a depressing, torn-up place, and it reminds Daryl of home. Beth picks up a giant pink ashtray in the shape of a bra, asking, “Who’d go into a store and walk out with this?” Daryl replies, “My dad, that’s who. Aw, he’s a dumbass. He used to set those up on top of the TV set and use ’em as target practice.” Surprised, Beth asks, “He shot things inside your house?” Daryl’s response is simple: “It was just a bunch of junk anyway.”

Daryl’s previous experiences were always closer to post-apocalyptic life than to the pre-apocalypse lives of the middle class. But being made to feel as if he’s still at home just stirs up memories of the abusive, suffering family he came from, and the life he wants to forget. It stirs these memories as he’s trying to cope with losing people he came to adopt as a family after crisis threw them together, people who needed him. The contrast is too much.

As the two of them play a drinking game Beth learned by watching her friends, Daryl becomes increasingly uncomfortable and agitated. The premise of the game is that one person says something they’ve never done before, and the other person drinks if they’ve done it. Daryl has always been taciturn, especially when grieving, and he feels increasingly exposed by the game while surrounded by memories.

Beth: I’ve never shot a crossbow. So now you drink.

Daryl: Ain’t much of a game.

Beth: That was a warm-up. Now you go.

Daryl: I don’t know.

Beth: Just say the first thing that pops into your head.

Daryl: I’ve never been out of Georgia.

Beth: Really? Okay, good one. I’ve never been drunk and did something I regretted.

Daryl: I’ve done a lot of things.

Beth: Your turn.

Daryl: I’ve never been on vacation.

Beth: What about camping?

Daryl: No, that was just something I had to learn to hunt.

Beth: Your dad teach you?

Daryl: Mm-hmm.

Beth: Okay. I’ve never been in jail. I mean, as a prisoner.

Daryl: Is that what you think of me?

Beth: I didn’t mean anything serious. I just thought, you know, like the drunk tank. Even my dad got locked up for that back in the day.

Daryl: Drink up.

Beth: Wait. Prison guard. Were you a prison guard before?

Daryl: No.

Daryl is angered by Beth’s reliance on stereotypes, by her inability to understand his background or his pain, even while they’re sitting in the midst of it. He ends the game by noisily making a show of peeing in a corner of the shack, upsetting Beth, who warns him he’ll attract walkers with all the noise. He responds by getting louder and angrier. He turns around and starts yelling pretend responses for the drinking game:

It’s my turn, right? I’ve never… never eaten frozen yogurt. Never had a pet pony. Never got nothing from Santa Claus. Never relied on anyone for protection before. Hell, I don’t think I’ve ever relied on anyone for anything. Never sung out in front of a big group out in public like everything was fun. Like everything was a big game. I sure as hell never cut my wrists looking for attention.

Beth hasn’t done anything to deserve Daryl’s wrath, and yet I find myself perversely cheering as he both exposes his injuries and taunts her while playing her drinking game. During these moments I want good-hearted, but uninformed Beth to feel shamed by not understanding what it’s like to have had to struggle in the ways poor people do. This is especially so in Daryl’s case, as he is the kind of poor person who has also grown up enduring physical and emotional abuse.

“I never needed a game to get lit before.”

What the other characters have always viewed as terseness is really much, much more.

It’s Daryl’s lack of knowing how to make himself vulnerable. When you already live a life of extreme vulnerability due to class positioning, every day is another episode in a larger battle. The battle was fixed long ago, and it ain’t in your favor. To keep going under these conditions requires toughness. When you try to allow yourself to be vulnerable, you feel the mark of the crosshairs. Instant reminder: the only thing that’s gotten you this far is your incredible strength.

It’s a lack of material. When you don’t have the wide range of formal and informal educational opportunities others have — like going on vacations or traveling outside of the place you were born — you feel you have less to talk about, or at least less that’ll be valued.

It’s pride, coupled with fear. Pride in your ability to survive difficult circumstances, which requires intelligence, resilience, and strength. Pride in what other people can’t even see about you. Fear that there’s something wrong with you, something that’s destined you to these circumstances to begin with, or that they’ve damaged you irreparably.

It’s a seething resentment about all of this and needing to talk about it, but knowing that the people you’re talking to, these people who aren’t even conscious of having acquired a certain ease in navigating the world, won’t fully get it. If they do learn in the ways available to them, they won’t want to listen repeatedly. No one wants to be reminded that their accomplishments and positive experiences aren’t the results of being more deserving.

Daryl’s behavior makes sense if you’ve struggled with poverty and its endless crises, if you’ve had to learn the skills it takes to still keep surviving, while also being inundated with messages that you are worth less than people from more comfortable circumstances. On top of that, his parents reinforced the message that his life meant little to nothing.

However, I’m intensely uncomfortable after the exchange, when Daryl makes Beth go through the motions of shooting a crossbow a couple of times. His behavior, by being physically coercive, briefly borders on physical abuse. This scene pointedly depicts the fact that many people who’ve survived abuse struggle with learning how to express their emotions in ways that don’t perpetuate harm.

The two of them wind up yelling at each other, and eventually it becomes clear that he feels he should have somehow prevented the loss of their community. Beth, who is strong in ways that aren’t easily measured, recognizes how much he’s hurting and comforts him. There’s a moment of catharsis while he stands with his back to her and sobs in her arms.

After this, the two of them share one of the tenderest scenes in the series. They sit drinking in the stillness of the night, surrounded by the chirping of crickets, an oasis of camaraderie in a show about the relentless onslaught of horror. Daryl opens up and shares an entire story about a near-death experience involving his brother’s drug dealer and a cartoon dog. The point of the story: “You want to know what I was before all this… Nobody. Nothing.” Gone is the anger of earlier. He tells the story in a gentle voice, his body — normally tense and ready to respond to emergency — slack with vulnerability.

People, including Beth, have long been trying to guess what Daryl used to do. Now it’s clear why he’s always resented their attempts.

Beth shares her insecurities with him, too. She worries she isn’t strong enough to survive. At the end of their slowly unfolding, intimate conversation, she winds up pointing out how Daryl’s past has actually prepared him for the present.

Beth: It’s like you were made for how things are now.

Daryl: I’m just used to it, things being ugly. Growing up in a place like this.

Beth: Well, you got away from it.

Daryl: I didn’t.

Beth: You did.

Daryl: Maybe you got to keep on reminding me sometimes.

Beth: No. You can’t depend on anybody for anything, right? I’ll be gone someday.

Daryl: Stop.

Beth: I will. You’re gonna be the last man standing.

Daryl has grown probably more than any character in TV history, evolving over the course of The Walking Dead from the backwards, reactive individual his past conditioned him to be. Many episodes highlight the deeply loving, egalitarian person who sacrifices for his community that his present conditions have enabled him to become.

However, even in an environment where everyone loses friends and family to horrors on a regular basis now, people are still shaped by their pasts. Daryl seems to have become especially empathetic because of his past experiences of trauma. He still struggles because of them, too. Daryl, resourceful and used to hardship, might be the one the other characters believe will be the last man standing, but every day he still has to wake with the by now internalized fear that he was born to be “inferior” and “damaged.” He fears he is and has always been merely surviving.

Dawn Tefft holds a PhD in English, with an emphasis in Creative Writing. Her chapbook Fist is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press, and her chapbook Field Trip to My Mother and Other Exotic Locations was published online by Mudlark.