In its 11 years on air, The Walking Dead has put its audience through many stories that the viewers have found hard to stomach - the Glenn dumpster fake-out, followed by his graphic death and Negan’s cartoonish reign, among the main contenders. But since Angela Kang took over as show-runner at the beginning of season 9, these divisive storylines seemed a thing of the past. That was, until season 11 brought us The Reapers.
It began with the season 10 bonus episodes (created to fill the filming gap created by COVID lockdown) which aired in the spring. Largely focusing on characterisation, they gave us the impressive Negan back-story episode, and also introduced the two major players of the first installment of season 11.
We were introduced to the Reapers in the first bonus episode, “Home Sweet Home” - the new "big bad", they are a military group who had destroyed Maggie’s new settlement, killing many, and were now hunting down the survivors.
Alongside this, the bonus episodes also introduced us to Leah - a woman living in a cabin in the woods, who formed a romantic relationship with Daryl during his time looking for Rick in the season 9 time jump.
Her introduction was decidedly unpopular with fans of all stripes for reasons well established - it cast aside the likely candidates for Daryl’s first on-screen love story (Connie and Carol), and went against the Daryl’s established attitude to romance. (That he was only able to form a romantic connection with someone he fully trusted, and that he was a one woman man who would fly with his choice forever.)
In the end of the episode ("Find Me") which told their backstory, it seemed as though the entire relationship was a mistake, as Leah issued Daryl an ultimatum to choose between her and his family, and Daryl left. (though he did later return with a change of heart, only to find her gone.)
With the uproar over Leah’s position as Daryl’s first on-screen relationship (even though the vast majority of their relationship took place off-screen) still ringing in their ears, it was an unpleasant turn for the viewers (though not entirely unexpected, as her role had been heavily hinted at on and off screen) when Daryl finds himself alone in the woods coming face to face with his past.
Realising his former girlfriend is a main player in the slaughtering of a bunch of Maggie’s friends, understandably Daryl is disinclined to trust Leah on sight. In self-defense, he immediately lies to her that he has only known Maggie and co for a week, and was simply hired labour. Due to their past connection, Leah wants to believe Daryl, and after a bit of light waterboarding, she puts trust in him, bringing him into her Reaper family.
Despite her role as a “baddie” seeing Daryl emotionally manipulate a woman he once had a relationship with is not pleasant, even if it is for the best reasons. And it’s a good job Maggie’s friend, fellow captive Frost, instinctively knows what Daryl is about because on the face of it, Daryl saves his own skin but throws Frost under the bus with his cover story.
Seeing Daryl play under-cover bad guy is a story that might have been interesting in season 4 when his loyalties might be swayed, but in season 11 it’s a retread and remix too far. It’s his time at Sanctuary with Negan trying to convince him to come to his side all over again, but with less nudity and more ponytails.
When Daryl’s retroromance with Leah was told in “Find Me”, one of the big issues the audience had was “what made Leah so special?” If Daryl was straight and had no issues forming romantic relationships, why had he shown no interest before, and what was it that made Leah the one to change his status?
With her return in season 11, that question becomes even more glaring. It seems as though Daryl’s undercover role is only partly in order to gain intel for Maggie, but also motivated by wanting some form of reconnection to Leah. There are scenes which seem to suggest Daryl could still see a future with her, and hopes to win her over to his side.
Daryl was always seen as the smart, perceptive one whose judgement could be implicitly trusted, so to see him following Leah around hoping she’s been brainwashed into her position - when she’s already told him about her time as a mercenary with the group before the turn - is jarring.
Post-episode interviews with Kang seemed only to muddy the waters, as she tried to say that Pope - the leader of the Reapers - had only become unhinged and extreme in his actions on Daryl's arrival. A ludicrous notion when the bodies of Maggie’s friends have been hanging around town from lampposts.
This playing of Leah’s possible - or not - redemption feels just like a retread of the Governor arc from season 4, where they toyed with the same idea only to reveal, nope he’s still evil. The audience didn’t like that then, and it only lasted 2 episodes.
And all the while Daryl is contemplating telling Leah the truth and “saving” her from her family, the Reapers are dominating the screentime. Yet they simply don’t have the complexity or emotional interest to hold the audience's attention.- particularly in this, the last season.
At a time when the audience is feeling nostalgic, and yearns for callbacks to the past, and to see the found family they love supporting each other, they are forced to spend most of their time with a group of characters no one cares about.
And worse, there seems to be little or no point to it all. Despite Pope’s 8 minute monologue (I timed it), 7 episodes in we are no closer to understanding what the Reapers’ ultimate goal is. We know only their military past and that Pope believes they were chosen by God - but to do what, no one knows.
Previous villains’ motivations were clear - Negan’s power-trip was unmistakable, and Alpha’s insanity was unnerving but made sense in her world view. With the Reapers all we know is that Pope has “marked” Maggie, and they want everyone connected to her dead, because they stole Maggie’s settlement and don’t want anyone coming back.
There’s no finesse, no reason for empathy and understanding from the audience for why this group behaves the way it does, and why Leah - if she’s the “good person” Daryl believes she is - would be part of this.
It’s clear AMC and Kang knew they were taking a huge risk with the introduction of Leah, and thus, you would assume they felt this gamble would be worth it for the big payoff. But there’s no sign of that payoff on the horizon.
In the beginning, there seemed to be much dramatic territory that could be mined from the Reapers’ story. Perhaps Connie had ended up in their clutches and Daryl would have to free her; with Gabriel’s involvement, perhaps he and Pope could go face to face in religious mind-games over hearing (or not) God’s voice; as Daryl had given Carol Leah’s military knife, perhaps Carol would capture a Reaper, see a similar knife and realise the Leah connection and set about saving Daryl, or alternatively Carol herself would be captured, and her ownership of the knife blow Daryl’s cover. Can you imagine how differently the Frost torture scene would have played if it was Carol, or Gabriel, or even Negan in that chair?
It seems that every dramatic choice taken is the least interesting one, with the audience’s expectations repeatedly far outstripping the actual stories.
Perhaps somehow this entire story’s impact will be clear in the second part of season 11, but sadly for many viewers that will be too late. Every week they have been waiting for Daryl to be reconnected with his family, for Carol and the Alexandrians to kick ass against the Reapers, and yet we head into the hiatus with a situation where Daryl could return home without anyone knowing what he’s been through (because The Walking Dead is not the best for epilogue dialogue).
In telling the love story with Leah in “Find Me” the writing cut swathes through Daryl’s personality and tore away some of the very things that made him so special and beloved by audiences. In season 11 that damage has continued unabated until there’s so little of the Daryl we know left - with no sign of why or how this destruction is vital to Daryl’s emotional future.
He’s no longer the one woman for life man, now he could be with any woman who holds him at gunpoint. He’s no longer the one whose judgement can be implicitly trusted, now he’s the man who puts his trust in a killer. He’s no longer the one who will never lie, now he’s the one who will lie repeatedly to a woman he was in a relationship with. He’s no longer the one who can only have a relationship with someone he utterly trusts, now he's a man who will give himself entirely over to someone he doesn’t trust at all.
And worst of all, we have all this at the expense of characters and stories we actually care about. Connie’s haunted house story with Virgil could have had an entire episode to itself. Her return and reunions with Kelly, Magna and Carol could have been prolonged scenes, not offscreen conversations. Characters we love have gone missing (Luke who?), whilst the show’s leading lady Carol has spoken at most 10 lines in all of 11a.
All the audience wants as we crash towards the end of the show, forever, is emotional resonance, connection, seeing our “found family” find each other, happiness and security. We’ve been denied that in 11a, and even if there is light at the end of the tunnel, there simply aren't enough signs and signals so far to keep much of the audience on the train.
Photos copyright Josh Stringer/AMC