SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details of tonight’s Season 6 midseason return of The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead‘s midseason return tonight had all the drama, spine-chillers and shockers that most series would save for a season finale. Back for the second part of its sixth season, AMC’s original zombie apocalypse blockbuster finally unleashed one of the most wrenching twists out of the Robert Kirkman comic series on which it is based – and we’re not talking about the arrival of Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan with his barb-wired baseball bat, yet.
With explosive results and at great cost, tonight’s Greg Nicotero-directed “No Way Out” picked right up from the post-credits scene of last fall’s winter finale as Negan’s gang make their armed and threatening presence known to Norman Reedus’ Daryl plus Abraham and Sasha, who barely escaped with their lives. As the core survivors remained scattered, Rick Grimes, some of his group and a few of the residents of Alexandria unsuccessfully tried to slip past a Walker hoard overrunning the already soiled sanctuary.
Amidst the death of characters like Jessie, her son Sam and the gun-wielding Ron, a plotline known to fans of the comics came to the small screen Sunday with the near fatal shooting of Carl Grimes in the face. At the same time, Glenn and the wayward Enid tried to save Maggie from the collapsing wall around the suburban stronghold and the seething Walkers underneath as Carol confronts Morgan about his choice to spare the captured Wolf gang member who has now gotten free. This being TWD, it all ended in some heartbreak, a lot of blood, multiple looming perils and a handgrip of hope as the disfigured Carl was saved by Doctor-in-progress Denise Cloyd, played by Nurse Jackie alum Merritt Wever.
In production on the 15-episode Season 2 of spinoff Fear The Walking Dead in the Baja California peninsula of Mexico, TWD executive producer Gale Anne Hurd spoke with me about tonight’s brutal episode. Looking at how the biggest drama on TV got where it is now, the often taciturn EP also shone a slim spotlight on where it is all going for the Grimes and the others in a season that clearly hasn’t come face-t0-face with its biggest horror yet.
DEADLINE: The shooting of Carl and the loss of his eye has long been such an iconic and critical turning point in the comics, why did it take so long to happen on the show?
HURD: I think that comic followers are always waiting for key iconic moments. Moments like Carl losing his eye, the introduction of Negan, you name it. But at the same time, we don’t like to move so quickly at the expense of character. I think that it’s building to those moments so that we’ve gotten an opportunity to get to know so many of the characters. I mean, we have an enormous cast and we want to make sure that all of them have stories that fully round out their characters.
DEADLINE: With having the volatile Ron as the shooter on the show as opposed to Alexandria leader Douglas like in the comic and having a protective Michonne seemingly accidently causing Ron to actually pull the trigger, what kind of reaction are you expecting from the fans?
HURD: They know and you know we often do things a little differently than the comic. I mean, we do get to similar things that happen like Carl being shot. But it really was one of those moments, because so much is happening in that moment. I mean it’s not just Carl getting shot in the eye, it’s Sam getting killed, not only Jessie getting bitten but Rick chopping her arm off because she’s holding onto Carl. You can’t get higher drama than all of that happening at once in the midst of a horde of walkers.
DEADLINE: And you made it seem very touch and go there, for a bit, like in the comic and having Denise attempt to save him …
HURD: It was important that Denise, being medically trained, was in Alexandria at the time and could certainly work on saving Carl. So, all of those elements needed to come together for it to really have the kind of impact that we wanted.
DEADLINE: That scene with blood and guts covered Andrew Lincoln as Rick over a seemingly dead Carl felt like you were pushing that character to places of loss he had never been before – and Rick’s seen wives, potential lovers, friends and mentors die in this world. Has he hardened beyond any hope?
HURD: I think what we also see in that moment is his love for Carl and that he will do anything for Carl. He is going to hang on to make sure that Carl survives, to make sure that he can fight to keep Carl alive and to try to create a society that he’d like Carl to grow up in.
He hasn’t always been at that point, but he is now. And he is now because he’s seen that there’s something in Alexandria, in the dream of Alexandria and the potential future of Alexandria that is a place where he’d like Carl to continue to grow up. And to have as much as possible a normal life. Obviously, we’ve seen that come not only under a threat, but to see Rick having to face the fact that you can’t keep anyone safe. But at the same time, you can keep him alive.
— The Walking Dead AMC (@WalkingDead_AMC) February 15, 2016
DEADLINE: So, I have to ask, with Negan obviously coming, where are things going now?
HURD: Well, we have encountered a group with The Saviors who are incredibly formidable. Luckily, as we’ve seen in the episode, we’ve still got some tricks up our sleeves. But at the same time, our group remains separated and they’re always at their greatest strength when they’re together. So, we’ll have to see what happens to our desperate band of survivors as they’re separated and hoping to reunite.
DEADLINE: With Alexandria overrun, Negan’s gang seeking revenge for Daryl incinerating a bunch of them and Luck alum Tom Payne joining as Paul Monroe AKA Jesus, this world is truly getting “larger” to quote the midseason return photos AMC released last month, isn’t it?
HURD: In the past it’s been a fairly, shall we say, limited world. It’s a world in which they would encounter one group of survivors, whether it was at the farm or at the hospital in Atlanta, or the cannibals at Terminus. One of the reasons that the midseason key art talks about a larger world is we’re going out into the larger world now. So, yes we’re expanding the horizons of the people and the societies that our group is going to encounter.
DEADLINE: So, with his name on everyone’s lips, when are we actually going to see Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan show up?
HURD: Now, we can’t say that exactly. Let me put it this way. He’s worth waiting for.
DEADLINE: No doubt but will we see him by the end of the season?
HURD: We can’t answer exactly when we see him. Let’s say he’s worked on set, okay.
DEADLINE: From the death of Sam, to the chopping of Jessie’s arm to the wound to Carl’s face, it was all very very graphic in the midseason return. Do you worry it can be too graphic for even the cable crowd?
HURD: Our inspiration is the comic book and there will be an entire range of things that will be graphic and things that we don’t feel we need to show on screen. And it seems like sometimes the show is too graphic for some and at other times it’s not graphic enough. It’s all about choices in this world.
I mean, look at all of those choices that had to be made in that moment in the episode. With Jessie refusing to let Carl go and Rick who’s clearly got very strong feelings for Jessie realizing that the only way to save his son is to chop off her arm now that she’s been bitten In that that light you see who the characters are in a large way. You see who Rick is, you see who Jessie is, you see who Sam is and obviously you see who Ron is. And the fact is that Carl essentially took a bullet for his father, the man who killed Ron’s father and Jessie’s husband. So, I think it’s just very important to maintain that internal integrity where we make those choices as to what we just have to see and other things we simply don’t.
DEADLINE: Not that you don’t have a huge audience but I know for some that the blood and gore and the zombies is something that hinders would-be fans from dipping their TV toes in the Walking Dead world.
HURD: I think the thing is that if you talk to anyone who’s trying to convince their friends or family to watch the show what they say is, “Yes, there are zombies in it, but it’s not about the zombies.” It’s because the fans, I think, appreciate the show and are so committed to it because they identify with the characters and the situation that has been created.
DEADLINE: With that, Season 6 so far has seen some ratings dips from the incredible upward trajectory that Walking Dead has had in previous seasons, how much does that concern you?
HURD: Well, it’s still the biggest show on television and I don’t think that if you talk to any pundit during our first season, they would’ve predicted the show would become the most popular show on television. And certainly our sixth season maintains that. So, we continue to defy all pundits and it’s a real tribute to the fanbase that we have new viewers who have joined.
You know, it’s a big commitment to start watching this show. I mean, it’s not like you have to watch six episodes. You have to watch over 60 episodes to get up to speed. In terms of the recent ratings, we end getting those viewers back with delayed viewing results. And Walking Dead is one of the few shows today that continues to maintain such high live viewership.
DEADLINE: Speaking of high live viewership, that other zombie apocalypse show of yours shattered some serious records when it debuted last August. What’s going on with Fear The Walking Dead heading towards its Season 2 premiere on April 10?
HURD: Well, I’m on set here in Rosarito Beach at Baja Studios and I think the great thing to look back on, on the first six episodes is to realize that the world of entertainment can accommodate two different series set within the zombie apocalypse. And I think it’s important to keep them different, but at the same time to make sure that both shows are grounded in character, and that’ll illuminate something different. As you’ve probably heard this season and one of the reasons why were shooting here is that we’re on Strand’s boat Abigail.
DEADLINE: Which is basically where the Season 1 finale indicated things were going …
HURD: And so many people in social media basically said, “I know what I’d do if there a zombie apocalypse. I’d get on a boat and I would leave.” Well, we finally get to see if that is indeed the solution.
DEADLINE: So, Fear Season 2 is going to be boat-based and on the sea?
HURD: (Laughs) I guarantee you will see a boat.
DEADLINE: One thing I felt was almost a guarantee unto itself was when coverage of Zika virus exploded recently, there would be Walking Dead references. How does that wide and deep touchstone the series has become in the real world of science and disease impact upon you guys behind the camera?
HURD: I think it really goes back to the zombies as a subgenre to begin with and that we’re on in 120 countries worldwide now, so I think The Walking Dead does become a reference point, a touch point, for any kind of threat. Especially when the threat is an illness that seems to have such devastating impacts on pregnant women and their babies. And it’s something that no one could’ve predicted and in that case the Zika virus has been around for years. Maybe it mutated who knows what happened.
I think it’s that fear of the unknown. It’s that fear of coming down with something that’s going to change your life and your family’s life forever that I think reverberates with people who watch The Walking Dead.
DEADLINE: You’re on set for Season 2 of Fear now, you’ve got Falling Water picked up for a full season by USA, Hunters premiering on Syfy in April, more Walking Dead in Georgia later this year – seriously, how do you juggle all that?
HURD: Luckily the timing has worked out perfectly. I was in Georgia in late April and May of last year for The Walking Dead, then I headed to Australia to kick off Hunters in July/August, New York for the Falling Water pilot in August/September, back to Georgia after that, then to Australia to wrap up Hunters. We started prep on Fear The Walking Dead here in Baja, Mexico in November. Other than jet lag, and racking up Frequent Flyer miles, it’s possible, but I have to admit that I have no free time!
DEADLINE: I bet, but is Walking Dead still first among equals in your TV heart?
HURD: I love all my ‘children’ equally, but after 6 years with such fantastic people on The Walking Dead, I have to say that we really are family at this point.