The Walking Dead unmasks the Reapers and reveals the origins of the killer company commanded by Pope (Ritchie Coster). Spoiler warning for Season 11 Episode 4, "Rendition." When we first saw the enemy group hunting The Wardens leader Maggie (Lauren Cohan), who was marked by Pope sometime before the events of Season 10, they sent a ghillie-suited sniper (Mike Whinnet) after Maggie and Daryl (Norman Reedus) before attacking their Meridian-bound group on the road. After Daryl reunites with Leah (Lynn Collins), his ex-turned-enemy as a soldier in Pope's unit, it's out of the frying pan and into the fire as he's captured by the masked marauders that Maggie's people came to fear as the Reapers.
At Meridian, where Maggie and the Wardens lived before Alexandria, Mancea (Dikran Tulaine) prays in tongues over fallen soldier Michael Turner. Pope invokes the wrath of God on their enemies and demands intel on Maggie and her group, who were en route to take back Meridian when the Reapers attacked in "Acheron: Part 2."
Leah, answering to her last name Shaw, tells Daryl her squad went private as mercenaries to pay the bills. The dead separated Leah from her found family when Daryl found her alone in a cabin years ago in the Season 10 episode "Find Me." Leah's unit never stopped looking for her and brought her back to her family, explaining what happened after she disappeared.
Daryl is forged by fire and "ordained by God" when he survives a literal baptism by fire: the Reapers lock Leah and Daryl in a shed set ablaze. Pope sees this as a sign Daryl is one of The Chosen Ones, the God-given name of the tight-knit unit who swear by the Latin phrase "Fortitudo Saludis."
Pope sermonizes about The Chosen Ones, formed in the "Valley of Death": the hills of Afghanistan.
"We fought for our country, carried our fallen brothers off the field. Carried so many, we lost count after a while," recalls Pope, mourning the lives lost to projectiles and politicians. "They talked about God. They didn't know God. They never saw His face. It's not like we did. We saw God everywhere. He was in the blood and the horror and death. He was there, telling us where to go. Didn't have much else to hold on to in those days but Him. And each other. That war damn near ruined all of us for good."
Pope's unit was paid handsomely to do "the ugly, dirty work nobody wanted to do," mercenaries who would survive one last war. Most of them would survive bombs of hellfire, running through fire to save their own before holing up in a church at the edge of town.
Everything burned around them except them, Pope recalls of the miracle that spared his people without a scratch, or a burn, or a speck of blood.
"That's when I knew. We were the Chosen Ones," says Pope, "men upon whose bodies the fire had no power." Chosen by God, Pope's people "run into the battle. We run into the fire. Always."
"When we see the Reapers, they're in these crazy, scary masks. Our inspiration for these was a mish-mash of different influences," said showrunner Angela Kang on The Walking Dead: Episode Insider. "Military can sometimes have tactical masks, and sometimes they do have things like skulls or interesting things on them. And then we were also looking at different kinds of post-apocalyptic concept art, video games, things that are written about people with gas masks and stuff. When we were thinking about, 'what is the look of this crew?' They're almost like these faceless people that come in like the Grim Reaper."
On choosing an actor to lead The Chosen Ones, Kang said, "We got really fortunate in casting Ritchie Coster in this role as Pope. He just had a take on it right away."
"When we were developing this character, one of the things that we talked about is just this idea of being chosen, and what that can, in the most extreme versions, cause people to do," explained Kang. "For Pope, we just felt that it'd be interesting to kind of illustrate somebody who probably was a brilliant tactical mind, was probably a really great commander, and yet, became kind of disgruntled by the system and felt left behind in some ways. And saw people that he felt were left behind."
Kang continued: "There was this story, this thing that felt miraculous that happened, which is actually not that uncommon. Which is sometimes you're in a building in a raging fire, and the fire jumps your building. God had spared them all for something important, and that made him feel like he needed to go throughout this after time and grab what they needed on behalf of his people."
The Chosen Ones return in Season 11 Episode 6, "On the Inside," premiering September 19 on AMC+ and September 26 on AMC. Follow the author @CameronBonomolo on Twitter for all things TWD.