Sooner or later (or much, much later), it was inevitable that we’d finally meet the Reapers, including their mysterious leader, Pope. Call me naïve, though, because I did not see this twist coming: a reunion with Leah, the brief but intense flame from season ten whom Daryl fell for, then abandoned, then lost. Her reappearance brings much-needed weight to this new band of bad guys, who — let’s face it — aren’t all that interesting or believable, at least not yet.
The clock rewinds once again to the Reaper assault, as Daryl and Dog are separated from Maggie’s group. He evades a trio of Reaps — including the odd combat decision to throw his crossbow at one of them — and resorts to the ol’ zombie-guts camo technique to avoid attracting walkers. (This is a rare TWD episode with only one zombie encounter, and this one isn’t even undead — it’s, like, dead dead.) The Reaper in the red mask seems to capture Dog, but Daryl learns why the pup is especially friendly with the enemy — it’s his old caretaker, Leah, who appears to have found the last surviving hair salon. (Anyone else think that was Andrea for a split second when she took off her mask to reveal those blonde locks?)
It’s worth taking a moment to briefly recall what happened with these two star-crossed lustbirds a while back. Their mostly-off-again relationship began at gunpoint, and it took more than a year (and a fish delivery) for Daryl to even learn her name. Leah would eventually share a tragic backstory involving Dog’s pregnant mother and her own adopted son; there was also mention of a “squad” that Leah described as feeling more like family than her own ever did. (This is all a bit curious, knowing what we know now; hard to imagine the Reapers being okay with having a kid in tow.) These two finally shacked up in the shack, and because Daryl can’t have nice things, he ran off — which he now explains as being scared of “letting go.” When he returned to the cabin, Dog remained (again, curious), but Leah was gone.
Hard to blame her for indulging in a little revenge, though I’d argue waterboarding is an overreaction to being ghosted. Pressed for details about his group, Daryl sticks to a story about finding them on the road less than a week ago. He’s thrown in a cell (thinking back to his time with the Saviors, has anyone been locked up more than Daryl?) and makes a big, loud show of acting like he barely knows Frost, one of Maggie’s pals who’s also held captive. At one point, Leah changes tactics from bad cop to ex-girlfriend, confiding to Daryl that she still cares about him. He returns the compassion by offering a mixed bag of intel: his group is led by a woman (true) with a priest and a “tall guy who never shuts up” (also true). But he remains dispassionate about them and offers a warning: They’ve got three dozen fighters, more than double the surprisingly small size of the Reapers.
Whatever feelings Leah still holds for Daryl, they take a back seat to her allegiance to the Reapers and Pope. We first see il padre consoling the “brother” of a dead Reaper who didn’t survive the run-in with Maggie’s crew. At first glance, he’s reminiscent of previous TWD big bads in that he’s not your typical villain: With a bald head, prominent ears, and a bushy mustache, Pope looks like a survivalist variant of Locke from Lost with a shaky Southern lilt. But unlike most of the power-hungry nutjobs roaming what’s left of the East Coast, Pope actually has a background suited to armed takeover. He’s ex-military, and the Reapers all met in Afghanistan (oddly enough, given the timing of this episode’s airdate and current events). He explains that they became mercenaries after coming home, adding that the “real dirty work started after the fall” of civilization. While bombs dropped and fires raged around them, his team took shelter in a church and survived unscathed. To Pope, that was a clear sign that God still exists and chose them for something special. It’s pretty batshit, but I guess a global zombie takeover on top of pre-existing PTSD will have that effect on people? There’s also something to the Reapers that feels a wee bit recycled — the cult-like following of the Governor, the masks of the Whisperers, the paramilitary vibe of Commonwealth.
As a final test to see if Daryl is indeed a worthy recruit, as Leah insists he will be, the Reapers push hazing to a new extreme by locking them both in a shed, which is then set ablaze. Daryl manages to break through a boarded-up window, push Leah to safety first, then escape before the whole thing goes up in flames. Leah knew this was a test all along, as she proves by calmly joining the audience of Reapers who watched her near-death experience. Pope — a name that’s a little too on-the-nose for the leader of a quasi-religious cult — heartily approves: “Forged by fire, ordained by God,” he announces to his platoon. “Welcome him!”
Pope and Daryl share a drink and a smoke and some quality time at the Reaper Bonfire Jamboree, though all the while, the look on Daryl’s face suggests he’s thinking, “What in holy hell have I gotten myself into?” Little does he realize the worst is yet to come. Pope is a little too excited about Daryl’s trial by fire and a little too curious about the circumstances of the Reaper he consoled earlier. While Daryl put Leah’s life ahead of his own, evidence suggests this Reap turned his back on his fallen comrade. Pope’s punishment: Shoving the guy into the bonfire (a little too easily for a hardened soldier) and stomping his face into the embers. Our punishment is a closeup of the dude’s face frying and the sounds of his flesh roasting. You figured the Reapers must be a tough fraternity to join, but they take the “death before dishonor” pledge very seriously.
As Pope yells, “We are the chosen ones! We run into the fire!” Daryl can’t decide where to fix his stunned gaze — the Reaper flambé at his feet, this wack-job commando captain, or his ex-girlfriend who calls these people her “family.” Whenever Connie returns, she should have no competition for Daryl’s affection now. And difficult as it is to say this, let’s address the real elephant in the room here: If Dog is really on Team Leah, maybe he’s not the good boy we thought he was.