One of the best things about “Rendition,” the latest episode of The Walking Dead, is just how little actually happens. To anyone who has stuck with the show through thick and thin (and boy, these last few seasons have been awfully thin at times), it’s a welcome reminder that the series used to effortlessly toss out installments like this—episodes where the point is less what happens than how it happens, otherwise known as good storytelling. And while the show’s long-in-the-tooth history may blunt some of the effectiveness of the introduction to what is almost certainly the final Big Bad we’ll ever meet—simply because we’ve seen variations on this theme before—it’s nonetheless a potent and effective way to meet the Reapers, and their obviously unstable leader, Pope. When the episode ends with Pope kicking his soldier into the fire, for one of the most gruesome onscreen deaths I’ve ever seen on this show (and that’s really saying something), it not only felt satisfying; it felt inevitable, in a good way.
It can be tough to parse out why some plots like this—stories where it feels like you’re steadily marching to an inevitable end, and there’s only one way it can turn out—work better than others, since the ability to predict everything that’s coming can also very easily be an indicator that the thing you’re watching is absolute garbage. Again, it all comes down to execution: As opposed to just cranking out a rote installment, “Rendition” lets us sit with Daryl. And sit. And sit. It earns that exhausted ending, where our hero stands by and watches the disturbed head honcho of the group that massacred Maggie’s community turn on one of his own people. It felt right. Director Frederick E.O. Toye leans into the minimalism, letting Daryl’s impassiveness do all the talking. When he looks over at Leah in the final seconds, rarely has such an unmoving expression so effectively conveyed a message of, “Cool group of people you got here, Leah.”
That shared history goes a long way toward explaining why this episode worked. Daryl and Leah’s relationship, so uninteresting as a standalone story in “Find Me,” finally pays some dividends, as the two meet again on opposite sides of a conflict, and Daryl successfully tricks her into thinking he wasn’t actually part of Maggie’s crew. (I’m desperately curious to know whether they would have attempted a version of this without the benefit of those bonus episodes; would “Rendition” have been split into half flashbacks, half present day? Would they have simply eliminated the personal connection that brings Daryl into the Reapers’ fold?) Forcing Daryl to play dumb, and combine several half-truths and lies together as a way to try and keep his people safe, worked far better than it would have without Leah’s presence to keep him invested in the situation above and beyond his survival and the safety of Alexandria.
As a result, the story beats all worked better than they would have without the tangle of his past flame. Being waterboarded, yelling at Elijah in a manner that would convey his cover story without giving away the gambit, and enduring Pope’s dicey onboarding process—all of it was more effective, thanks to our knowledge of Daryl’s sense that he let Leah down way back when, abandoning her and only returning when it was too late. “I got scared,” he tells her by way of explanation for his actions. “Of what?” “Letting go.” That’s true, and it’s much easier to believe lies that are preceded by truth.
Pope, in turn, felt less ham-fisted than he might’ve without Leah there to preface his posturing with all her talk of family. Yes, his whole monologue was still a game of wait-for-the-heel-turn (In case you’re wondering: “That’s when I knew… we were the chosen ones,” is the moment he exposed his crazy), and he lacks either the unpredictable menace of Samantha Morton’s Alpha or Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s high-camp villainy in Negan’s bad-guy days, but the Reapers as a whole got a large boost of intensity with that murdering of one of their own in the fire. (Waterboarding Daryl and forcing him to escape a burning room with Leah didn’t hurt, either.) I’m still not convinced he’s going to come anywhere near the ranks of this show’s best villains (the Governor remains the high-water mark), but at least it’s not as big a letdown as I feared.
The religious angle has potential, and it was shot in a way that implied some real unsettling implications—especially that invocation of last rites that felt like a scene from a haunted house—which is another testament to this episode’s overall effectiveness. Nicole Marante-Matthews’ script kept returning to the idea of belief and salvation in menacing. ways: “God is here. He’s angry. I’m angry,” Pope first says, before returning to the topic during his talk with Daryl and driving home the messianic view that drives the Reapers. This was a solid introduction to this new threat, and while Daryl is clearly playing the waiting game, his connection to Leah adds a depth and uncertainty to it that helps keep it from being overly simplistic. This episode was straightforward enough; happily, its implications are anything but.
- It made for an interesting twist at the beginning, to make it seem like Daryl was on the hunt for the Reapers, only to gradually reveal he was just trying to escape.
- The moment when the Reaper tossed Dog was the obvious “oh no!” it was clearly intended to be.
- Leah tells Daryl he has no right to judge, and in the moment, she’s not wrong in the slightest. Anyone still alive has had to make too many tough choices to be in a position to condemn her in that moment. At least, until Pope kicks his loyal little buddy into the fire.
- Elijah’s not looking too healthy in that other cell.
- I do like the fact that Pope has more faith than Gabriel at this point.
- There was a split second when Pope first appeared that I was convinced it was good old Terry O’Quinn, a.k.a. John Locke from Lost. Ritchie Coster is a fine actor, but so far, the character doesn’t quite measure up to the series’ pantheon of impressive creeps.
- Lynn Collins as Leah, however, did fine work; she really kept Leah’s true feelings close to the vest—I have no idea where her loyalties will fall.