One of the most entertaining elements of The Walking Dead has always been its bad guys. Once the initial thrills of zombies were gone, the show has pitted its heroes against jerks, thugs, the Governor, the cannibals of Terminus, the Wolves, Negan and the Saviors, and the Whisperers. Although Negan’s group was an anomaly, the villains have gotten steadily more unstable over the years, and I’m delighted to say the Reapers have followed in that proud(?) tradition.
Really, I’m delighted! While it first appeared that the Reapers were nothing more than alpha male killers pretending they’re in their own real-life Call of Duty game, they’ve got a lot more going on. Episode four of season 11, titled “Rendition,” also works well because it’s a Daryl (Norman Reedus) solo episode, which means the story is more focused than usual and stars a character we unequivocally care for. It begins with the Reaper attack we saw at the end of the season’s second episode.
Daryl scatters like Maggie, Negan, and the others, and gets chased by a lone Reaper. Eventually the two fight, Dog gets injured, and Daryl gets separated from him. The next day, he tracks them both down, and is shocked to see Dog sitting next to the Reaper without a care in the world — and he won’t come, even when Daryl calls him.
Then the Reaper takes off their mask and we realise why: It’s Leah (Lynn Collins), the person he lived with for nearly a year, the woman he nearly gave up Alexandria for, and Dog’s first owner, as seen in the season 10 Daryl and Carol flashback episode, “Find Me.”
Yep, Leah’s a Reaper, and she’s not alone. They capture Daryl, and it turns out Leah’s miffed enough at him — who initially chose Alexandria over Leah despite their relationship, only to quickly change his mind, return to their cabin, and find her gone — to allow him to be repeatedly waterboarded for information about the people he had been seen with. He sticks to his story that he had only been with the group a week, and he didn’t know or care anything about them. Leah still has enough affection for him to buy it, eventually.
Unfortunately, one of the Reapers who was wounded in their attack on Maggie’s group dies and the villains are genuinely upset that one of their comrade-in-arms has been killed. That’s our first new clue that they have a few screws loose because if they don’t want their people killed maybe they shouldn’t seek out people and start shooting guns at them unprovoked. The second clue is the Reapers have a priest who is speaking in tongues over the corpse. The third is Pope (Ritchie Coster), the mustachioed commander of the group, who reacts to the death by saying this: “God is here. He’s angry. I’m angry. Go make them feel our wrath.” Yep, the Reapers are an elite military unit-cum-religious cult (although it remains to be seen how many of the squad are true believers), but we’ll get to that in a second.
Leah tries to convince Pope that Daryl is a perfect fit to join the Reapers (as far as she knows) but he responds that Daryl is merely “trying to get in her pants” which is hilarious if 1) you know Daryl and 2) remember that romantic reunion began with torture. Eventually, Leah convinces Pope to let him join, which is of course why the Reapers lock both Daryl and Leah in a shed and set it on fire. When Daryl saves them from a truly blazing inferno by prying the slats off a window, Pope welcomes him with open arms — not only has Daryl proven he won’t leave a sister-in-arms behind, now he’s been “baptized by fire.” And that’s when we learn the savage, dopey origin of the Reapers.
Thanks to “Find Me,” we knew Leah had served in the military, and met up with her squad after the dead rose. They eventually got separated, during which time Leah and Daryl spent their year together. But after he left, she was able to reunite with her comrades and get back to wearing skull masks and killing people. Post-fire baptism, the commander shares a drink with the newest member of the Reapers and explains their history in more detail, and the quotes here come directly from Pope:
- Prior to the apocalypse, they served as soldiers in Afghanistan where they did terrible things. “We saw God everywhere. He was in the blood, and the horror, and death.”
- Then they formed a mercenary company and did more terrible things in Afghanistan, but were paid better for it. “We did all the ugly, dirty work no one else wanted to do.”
- When the zombie apocalypse started, they were hired to fight back in the States — presumably against zombies and the many living people who were losing their shit over it. “The real dirty work started after the Fall.”
- One day, “God came.” Apparently, the increasingly panicked government just started dropping a ton of bombs on places, and Pope implies that at one point they were intentionally dropped on the squad.
- That included somewhere the mercs were. They holed up in a church, and despite all the destruction raging all around them, they all emerged without a scratch. “And that’s when I knew we were the Chosen Ones.”
Every group of nogoodniks the series’ protagonists have faced has been a cult of one sort or another, because they’ve all drawn people into believing their absurd practices (or made them too scared to disobey), whether it be cannibalism or wearing masks made of rotting human flesh and walking around with zombies. Negan and Alpha certainly led cults of personality. But Pope and the Reapers are the first religious cult we’ve seen in The Walking Dead, which is kind of surprising given the… apocalyptic-ness of the zombie apocalypse.
Of course, what makes the Reapers so Walking Dead-appropriate is that their leader seems to believe they’re on a divine mission from God to wear douchy Halloween-bro masks and murder everyone they see — because of course they do. What makes them even more Walking Dead is that the Reapers care so much about their comrades that their first and foremost tenet is to always have each other’s backs, and never abandon each other. This is why at the end of the episode, Pope celebrates one of the Reapers for carrying his fallen compatriot 16 km back to their encampment. Then he throws that same Reaper into a blazing bonfire because all of his battle wounds are on his back, which Pope decides means he abandoned his fellow squadmate first and lugged his corpse around later.
That’s a wild leap, especially given that the Reapers attacked Maggie’s group from all directions and all of them had their backs exposed to one enemy or another, and it’s even wilder because, again, the Reapers went out of their way to start the fight in the first place. But I suppose people don’t get to lead holy crusades of murder by having an overabundance of common sense — which is why it’s so funny that these purportedly sane people have chosen to follow someone who might set them on fire for God’s glory or some such nonsense at any given moment.
I doubt The Walking Dead will define the Reapers’ religious affiliations beyond them being on a mission from “God.” I’m much more worried about how bad the concept of the Reapers could break if the show isn’t careful with it, because dangerous religious zealots are a very real thing in our world, and the show absolutely doesn’t have the capacity to handle any of that with any amount of tact, grace, or subtlety. But for now, they’re merely The Walking Dead’s newest group of murderous idiots, and I’m going to try to enjoy them as long as I can… Amen.
- Another member of Maggie’s group gets captured by the Reapers and put in a cell next to Daryl’s. Daryl has to tell the guy to shut up, then outlines the full story he’s told the Reapers so this dude doesn’t contradict it. It’s hilariously heavy-handed.
- When Daryl finally has to fess something about the group he was with to help Leah convince Pope of his worthiness, he says their leader was a woman and a “tall, skinny guy who never shuts up.” I thought Jeffrey Dean Morgan had been looking extra-thin this season. He’s no less handsome, of course.
- I regret that Pope and Samantha Morton’s Alpha won’t be able to share a screen together, just to hear their incredibly country drawls battle to the death.
- Daryl’s flat stare at Leah at the episode’s end perfectly sums it all up. The corpse is in the fire, Pope’s yelling about God, and Daryl’s expression to her is, “Really? This is the dipshit you’ve decided to follow?”