While there are some undeniably strange things afoot at the Commonwealth, it’s the Reapers who take center stage in this relentlessly fast-paced first-third finale. As dangerous leaders go, Pope has proven himself to be among the more volatile threats — prone to wild mood swings, well-armed, backed by devoted followers, on a mission from God. Despite a curious southern accent, he’s a formidable foe that waxes and wanes like the moon over Meridian. But the crack in Pope’s body armor is Leah, and when Daryl finally rolls the dice in hopes that he can convince her to turn on the boss, the resulting bloody coup ends rather badly.
Before we turn to Daryl’s big gamble and Maggie’s assault, there’s trouble right here in A-town with a capital T and that rhymes with B and that stands for “biblical freakin’ monsoon.” The rain is pounding, the wind is howling, and everyone’s huddled together, hoping their already-weakened village can survive the storm. The odds are not in their favor — the A-town wall blows open, and a fire at the windmill serves as a zombie magnet. A plan is needed, and Aaron decides they’ll split into three teams: He’ll fight the fire, Carol is on wall-repair duty, and Rosita will fortify the house they’re holed up in. Connie doesn’t hesitate to volunteer, despite being fresh off a living hell at the freak-show house; no surprise there, since she is a total rock star. What’s shocking is that Carol actually turns down Judith’s offer to help. Isn’t putting kids in harm’s way kind of her jam?
It’s odd that the action never turns to Carol on the wall or Aaron at the windmill. Instead, the focus stays on the house as the storm rages and walkers line up for a meal. Amid the chaos, Virgil shares a tender moment with Judith, noting how she reminds him of Michonne and lifting her spirits a bit. But the uplift is brief. While practicing her sword-swinging moves, Gracie gets a little too close to a vulnerable window and needs a lifesaving assist from Judith. Then it’s Rosita’s turn to be the hero: She grabs a blade and a spiked set of brass knuckles, then proceeds to single-handedly clear the porch of a whole mess of walkers. In a nod to Evil Dead, she comes in from the rain, soaking wet and bloody, then turns to the kids and delivers a perfect Ash Williams deadpan: “Let’s stay away from the windows.”
As forces of nature pummel A-town, Maggie prepares to unleash her zombie army on the Reapers. However, her plan is not too subtle: Sensing something is odd about the mindless “rotters” gathered at his door, Pope sends a flunky to investigate. This dude is way too confident in his wrangling skills, but to be fair, he did not expect to meet some stab-happy Whisperer 2.0 creepers in the herd. (Maybe his problem was that long leather jacket. Zombie apocalypse rule No. 1: safety before style, people.)
Leah learns that Pope somehow knew Maggie was out there but chose to send a soldier to his likely demise anyway. This is another example of Pope’s mercurial leadership in Leah’s eyes. Sure, he tells a great tale, like the heartwarming one about the beloved rescue dog that he strangled after it bit him. But Leah’s devotion is tested by his willingness to sacrifice his own people in the name of some godly master plan that only he understands. Pope preaches that family is the “only real thing we’ve got left in this world,” yet he betrays his own time and time again.
The guy does have a knack for big-ticket firepower, however. In defense against the zombies approaching Meridian’s gates, Pope has (a seemingly endless supply of) land mines hidden in the field — much to the horror of Daryl, who knows his friends are out there. Then there’s the ace up his sleeve, a huge contraption on wheels that is armed with scores of arrows strapped to fireworks, ready to be lit and launched. For those of you who aren’t versed in 15th-century war machines, this thing is called a “hwacha,” and Pope utters the unintelligible word to prompt its unveiling. (His command to Shaw: “Ready the hwacha!”)
The conflicts inside and outside of Meridian come to a head when Daryl helps Maggie and Gabe infiltrate the compound. Their goal: raid the food supply and get the hell out of there. Maggie executes her end of the plan by busting a hole in the wall, allowing the herd to stream inside. But it’s Daryl who faces a more daunting task, hoping to convince Leah to join him in toppling Pope and the Reapers. When Pope arrives on the roof and Daryl draws his knives, there’s a brief, fantastic moment of tension as Pope braces for a fight to the death — it seems like he always knew it would come to this with ol’ “Dixon.” The real surprise comes as Leah sinks her blade into his throat, then puts a boot on his back and finishes him off.
Did anyone really think Leah would leave her “family” behind to join Daryl and the group she’s been hunting for so long? Probably only Daryl, who’s stunned when she radios that Pope is dead and it’s Daryl who killed him. You’d think Leah would want to take out her ex as well; instead, she lets Daryl go before ordering the gates closed and arrow launcher lit. Negan and Maggie can’t figure out why the Reapers are running away. Perhaps Daryl should warn them of the massive ancient weapon that’s about to unleash hell upon them?
As the curtain closes, it’s hard to tell who’s in more danger: Maggie’s team at Meridian or the A-town gang. Rosita smartly decides it’s time to take the high ground, allowing the zombies to take over the ground floor while they rally upstairs. But leave it to the kiddos to screw up an otherwise sound plan. You’d think Gracie would have learned her lesson with her earlier near-undead experience; instead, she’s alone in a fast-flooding basement searching for a weapon. Once again, Judith comes to the rescue, but the two of them end up stuck between rising waters and the walkers who’ve filled the house above. Perhaps these two story lines send all of the survivors on an inexorable path to whatever hidden dangers lie within the Commonwealth.