This article contains spoilers for The Walking Dead season 10 episode 18.
Grief is all the rage on television right now. Though series like WandaVision and Snowpiercer went into production before the coronavirus pandemic gripped the globe, they arrived during a time in which we all had a lot of trauma to process.
Over on The Walking Dead, however, grappling with such concepts has been the norm all along. The show’s first episode dealt with an apocalyptic event that wiped out the majority of the population and since then its characters have known the names of the dead better than the names of the living. Every now and then though, The Walking Dead will introduce a new character to remind us of just how deep the well of grief can go in this universe.
The Walking Dead season 10 episode 18 introduces one such character in the form of Leah, played by television vet Lynn Collins (True Blood, Bosch). Leah is just the latest in a long line of characters who has lost…well, everything. The episode “Find Me” flashes back to five years earlier when Daryl Dixon was not yet ready to take up the leadership of his group. Instead he ventures off into the woods of the Mid-Atlantic in search of his lost “brother” Rick Grimes.
While he doesn’t find Rick, he does find the extremely isolated Leah. Initially she gives Daryl the ol’ Walking Dead “hello” (a shotgun pointed at his face) but eventually the two begin to trust each other and engage in a relationship. As the two bond, Leah reveals that she used to have a group of her own, which included a woman she came to think of as a sister and her son, Matthew, who became Leah’s son. Unfortunately Leah lost everyone amid a horde of walkers. And since that moment she has lived a life of total isolation, with only her dog named Dog and some photos under the floorboards for company.
That Leah lost everyone she cared about doesn’t make her unique on The Walking Dead. Family and group annihilation is pretty much par for the course on this show. But what makes her an interesting case is just how adeptly she’s able to move past that trauma through only the presence of the soft-spoken Daryl Dixon. And that quick ability to open up what drew Leah’s actress to the role in the first place.
Lynn Collins calls herself a one-time rabid fan of The Walking Dead. She religiously watched the first five seasons of the show until she got pregnant and found herself developing an aversion to violence on television. Still, she was delighted to get the call to join the series, particularly for a character processing loss, just as many of us are nowadays.
“I have to say. I’ve lost many people in my life and I think I’ve overcome an extraordinarily large amount of trauma,” she says. “I think one of the things that is so important about emotional healing is to have a witness. Because when your pain is witnessed, it doesn’t stay stuck. It can leave and translate into something different.”
The idea of Daryl Dixon as a sort of thoughtful therapist sounds unlikely at first. But when Daryl is recontextualized as a “witness” by Collins, much of the episode’s arc comes into clearer focus. Daryl is indeed an ideal witness. As a survivalist, he’s built to witness his environment – take it in, observe it, and process it quickly. And it turns out that operating as a witness is exactly what Leah needs.
“The first time he enters her cabin, within hours, she’s telling him what happened. And it’s the first time she told anyone because he’s the only person she’s seen since it all happened. Once her story is told, she begins to heal and open up and you realize, ‘Oh wow, she’s actually a pretty fun human being.’”
Leah is indeed pretty fun as it turns out. Daryl and Leah have a blast spending their days catching fish and running away from zombie hordes. Their relationship even eventually blossoms into something physical, which is a rarity on a show whose characters are usually concerned with survival first and foremost. Daryl has had sparkling chemistry with many would-be suitors on The Walking Dead, from Carol (who spends platonic time with Daryl in the episode’s present portion) to Connie (still M.I.A.). But this is the first time we’ve seen him this romantically vulnerable. And it’s arguably the most overtly romantic the show has gotten since the early days of Rick and Michonne’s relationship.
“There’s something so beautifully romantic about the visuals on this show, but romantic for the world of The Walking Dead. Do you know what I mean?” Collins says. “It’s this juxtaposition of ‘Wait, we’re still in this apocalyptic zombie world and yet this is what romance looks like. This is what ‘sexy’ looks like here.”
But of course, since Leah is not around during the show’s present, viewers know this particular romance isn’t destined to last. Sure enough, Leah grows frustrated with Daryl’s ties to his other world and senses that he really belongs elsewhere. After Daryl returns from another check-in with Carol, he discovers that Leah has abandoned the cottage. He writes “I belong with you. Find me.” on a piece of paper and hides it under the floorboards.
The fact that that message is still there to be found by Carol potentially bodes ill for Leah’s fate. Is it possible that this is the last we’ve seen of Leah? Collins certainly hopes not.
“Of course, I would love to keep going. I think it would be a phenomenal opportunity on all sorts of levels. But as fans we just have to watch, wait, and see.”