On ‘The Walking Dead,’ the Redneck Jedi bridges red-blue state divide

Video: The Washington Post's Aaron Leitko describes the "Redneck Jedi," a type of character seen on "The Walking Dead" and "Lost," which makes liberals more comfortable with conservatives. (Feb. 10)

On Sunday, AMC’s post-apocalyptic zombie series “The Walking Dead” will end its two-month midseason hiatus and return to the airwaves with a flurry of guts, gore and melodrama. With it will come one of television’s most fascinating archetypes: what I call the Redneck Jedi, a tough, red-state action hero with blue-state sensibilities.

Odds are, you’re already familiar with him (yes, always “him”). Think Sawyer from ABC’s “Lost.” Jason Stackhouse from HBO’s “True Blood.” Those guys who star in the reality series “Rocket City Rednecks,” which follows NASA-affiliated hicks from Huntsville, Ala., who make moonshine, then use it in science experiments.

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And, of course, Daryl Dixon, “The Walking Dead’s” zombie-slayer extraordinaire. Portrayed by Norman Reedus, Dixon is an anti-hero — a good ol’ boy with a chip on his shoulder, a problem with authority, a torn shirt and a slim-fitting pair of blue jeans.

The Redneck Jedi is more than just prime-time eye candy. In a culturally divided television world where viewers can pick and choose programming to fit their politics, Dixon and his goatee-sporting brethren bridge a gap in American culture: They allow blue America to stealthily embrace — and even worship — red America.

As a Redneck Jedi, Dixon has no peer. It helps that he’s the only consistently interesting character on“The Walking Dead”; he’s part of a story arc blessedly light on tedious, zombie-free exposition. But he also perfectly exemplifies key Redneck Jedi traits. A Redneck Jedi’s rural upbringing makes him familiar with nature’s mystical ways. He knows how to hunt. He knows how to fish. He knows how to track criminals, slay vampires and the undead, and outsmart drug lords. He struggles to transcend a hardscrabble past — in Dixon’s case, one spent carousing with his dirtbag brother, who appears to him as an apparition, like Ben Kenobi in “Star Wars.”

Most important, Dixon acts decisively, setting aside moral hand-wringing to kick butt. While “The Walking Dead’s” sophisticates debate the ethics of killing the undead, this lovable rube rolls up his sleeves to get the necessary zombie-butchering done. In promo posters, Dixon’s portrayed as a cartoon yokel. He wears a sweat-stained undershirt, cradles a crossbow and has a dead squirrel slung over his shoulder (you know, for eatin’). He insists on riding a motorcycle or, better still, riding a horse. He cuts off zombies’ ears to keep a body count. Like many unlikely small-town heroes and jovial meatheads — Bo and Luke Duke of “The Dukes of Hazzard” among them — he drawls.

Yet, the show’s writers go to great lengths to imbue Dixon with depth. When the dead walk the Earth, his stereotypically red-state hobbies (bow hunting, off-road racing) cease to be joke-worthy to urbanites and become necessary for survival. Dixon decapitates reanimated “walkers,” but he’s also sensitive and capable of serious reflection. He’s the Johnny Cash of prime-time cable — a classically rustic dude whom Americans can get behind regardless of their politics and background.

But Dixon’s main selling point — for liberals, at least — is that he’s capable of changing his mind. Because he can accept leadership from other characters on the show, he defuses the central anxiety that liberals tend to hold about conservatives: that they are calcified in their opinions and deaf to logic. Unlike the 112th Congress, Dixon, Sawyer and their fellow enlightened hillbillies make deals.

The Redneck Jedi is the latest iteration in a long line of film, television and literary archetypes that help Americans get comfortable with the unfamiliar. Of these, the “Magical Negro,” a term popularized by Spike Lee, is most noteworthy. An African American supporting character often portrayed as wise and spiritually deep — usually by Morgan Freeman — the Magical Negro’s sole purpose is to help a white protagonist get out of a jam.

Think Will Smith as the titular, Yoda-like golf caddy in “The Legend of Bagger Vance” who helps Matt Damon get his game back, then conveniently disappears. Or Don Cheadle in “The Family Man,” who plays a Dickens-style spirit who whisks heartless yuppie Nicolas Cage into an alternate universe so that he might learn the value of family. And, of course, kindly Uncle Remus in “Song of the South,” a 1946 movie that Disney has bent over backward to erase from existence.

In the 1940s and 1950s, there was a rash of Hero Priests — Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley in “The Bells of St. Mary’s”and Karl Malden as Father Barry in “On the Waterfront” — who helped WASPs cozy up to Catholics. And who can forget the Gay Best Friend, a 1990s romantic-comedy staple who, in matters of the heart, always has the answers, such as Eric McCormack in “Will & Grace” or Rupert Everett in “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”

These caricatures are intended to be flattering, but they’re the antithesis of political correctness, even insulting at times. If Bagger Vance is a spiritual entity possessed with awesome power on the links, doesn’t he have better things to do than play Mr. Miyagi to Damon’s Karate Kid? (Of Migayi’s own archetype, the Zen Asian Master, the less said the better.)

But the Redneck Jedi flips the script. Unlike the Magical Negro, the Hero Priest and the Gay Best Friend — who, however imperfectly, sought to counter ill will against African Americans, Catholics and homosexuals — the Redneck Jedi helps supposedly open-minded liberals unmake their stereotypes about the right. When faced with a choice, he mulls over the facts and decides that, except when it comes to a zombie’s or vampire’s right to an afterlife, the left-most decision is correct.

In Season 1, Dixon seems bigoted. He threatens the show’s black character, T-Dog (yes, that’s his name) with a crossbow and refers to an Asian American character as “Chinaman.” But by Season 2, he’s set his prejudice aside in the name of survival and, when a zombie horde descends upon the group, risks his life to save Mr. Dog. Later on, he even coughs up some medicine from his private stash of antibiotics to save his Kangol-cap-wearing African American comrade from a nasty infection.

Still, don’t write Dixon off as an Elmer Fudd-esque simpleton who, once enlightened, behaves just as the chattering class wants him to. The Redneck Jedi will saddle up with the liberal elite, but only at his leisure. His allegiance is by no means permanent for, deep down, he’s also kind of emo — cuddly on the inside but prone to lashing out when disappointed. Dixon hunts for a missing girl but snaps at her mother when she considers giving up the search; on “Lost,” Sawyer gets sniffly and cranky when his heart is broken, but is always ready for more punishment.

These Redneck Jedi start off as supporting characters but steal the spotlight because the two poles that govern their actions — tough and tender, liberal and conservative — make for richer dramatic turf than that tread by kinder, gentler, better-groomed leading men.

When they are introduced, nobody respects them. But eventually, other characters come around, and we do, too. For a second, the culture war quiets. We share a table with fly-over country’s favorite son and eat that squirrel.

aleitko@washpost.com

Aaron Leitko is a music critic and an editorial aide for The Washington Post’s Reliable Source.

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