SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details of last night’s Season 4 finale of The Walking Dead.
Don’t let anyone tell you that AMC’s The Walking Dead doesn’t pack a hell of a lot more than zombies into the series — as last night’s bloody and emotionally charged Season 4 finale proved. Besides the ever-present undead, the fourth season saw a big change in leadership among Sheriff Rick Grimes and the survivors, the outbreak of a raging influenza virus in their converted prison home, the exile of one major character, the graphic decapitation of another, the death of a major foe, some revealing backstories, and the scattering of the remaining members of the series in search of a new home and new hope. It also saw Walking Dead shattering cable ratings records again, and a couple of times it beat the usually unbeatable Sunday Night Football on NBC and topped that network’s Winter Olympics coverage three weeks in a row in the key adults 18-49 demo. There’s a good chance that when last night’s ratings come in later today, we’ll see another record. Walking Dead executive producer Scott Gimple, who just completed his first full season as showrunner, talked with me about last night’s finale as well as what fans can expect in Season 5 this fall and some changes behind the scenes.
In many ways, the Season 4 finale was a bit of a back to the future for Walking Dead, with Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes taking charge again and the majority of the series’ main characters reunited. Of course, by the end of the episode, that reunion found them locked in a train car and held captive by the deceptively welcoming rulers of the supposed Terminus sanctuary they’d all converged on in the finale. Which means the opening of Season 5 will be very different than the soulful final episodes of Season 4 that saw the core survivors separated. “I would say that these next eight episodes are going to be a little more action-heavy, with a lot of big twists,” said Gimple of Season 5, which is planned out and already well into the writing stage. “Really 85% of them are together again, so it’s a pretty good guess that they’re going to remain together and that’s going to give us a whole new emotional dynamic as well,” he said. “So I guess the biggest thing is prepare for a very different Walking Dead. Yet again.”
Part of that new season will see former Medium producer Corey Reed, who Gimple met while working briefly on pal David S. Goyer’s Da Vinci’s Demons, joining the writing staff. Another Starz alum, Heather Bellson, who wrote an episode for the first season of Black Sails, will also come onboard.
Despite the appearance last night of the slaughtered Hershel Greene character in flashbacks, don’t expect to see more of actors Scott Wilson or David Morrissey, who played the also-now-dead villain the Governor — at least not for a while. “I don’t really see it in the immediate future,” Gimple said of a return of either of those characters for Season 5. “We would love to work with Scott and David again and it certainly is possible in the future, but right now that isn’t planned. It was very much about, in that episode, you know, telling Rick’s entire story in that episode, in that one episode,” Gimple added.
With every finale so far bringing the death of a major character, it was no surprise that AMC hyped the Season 4 ender with “Who Will Arrive?” and “Who Will Survive?” campaigns. What ended up being the big surprise last night was that it marked the first season ender where no major character died. “It was certainly nice to break the pattern. If we had a character dead every Episode 8, 15 and 16 every year, that gets a bit predictable,” Gimple said. “The big story in this episode isn’t the people that Rick loses or has taken away from him but rather the people that Rick kills — hat’s different for the show. Rick is the one that’s doing the killing in this season finale. Not the walkers, and not the other people,” said Gimple, who co-wrote the episode with Angela Kang. “He’s the one with the power and that’s the story that we were looking to tell.”
“Hershel dying when he did was fulfilling that character’s story and also serving the overall story for a number of characters,” Gimple said of the shocking midseason finale that saw the survivors’ patriarch beheaded in an attack on the prison by the revenge-obsessed Governor and his followers. “Characters being able to die at any moment means that they don’t die at regularly scheduled intervals,” Gimple added. “I’m very impressed by our audience, and they give us the confidence to experiment, and to play around with the narrative. “To me that’s in general where TV’s going, where the audience doesn’t want the exact same thing every week.”
That story, as viewers of last night’s episode saw, involved Rick going full Mike Tyson and ripping out an enemy’s throat with his teeth to save his son Carl, as well as the Michonne and Daryl Dixon characters, from a vengeance-seeking gang. “This ending for the season was planned from the start of the season because we did need to know where we were going, and what Rick’s journey would be,” Gimple said of the sheriff’s return to his leadership role with the group of survivors, a position he had abdicated when the season opened. “I talk about living through the moments that lead to the moment,” the showrunner added. “And for Rick, him saying ‘you’re screwing with the wrong people,’ that was ‘the moment.’ ”
Keeping that moment and the narrative a secret is a constant worry, especially with the huge success of the show and the fact that it’s based on a comic series fans scour for clues. The line uttered by Rick at the very end is very similar to one from the comic where the characters find themselves hunted by a group of cannibals. The pile of what seemed to be human bones Rick and the others ran past in Terminus in the season finale could point in a similar direction too. Not that the showrunner is giving anything away on that front. “In reading the comic no one’s going to get exactly what happens, but they will be able to see points of inspiration from it,” Gimple said of executive producer Robert Kirkman‘s co-creation.
In terms of keeping secret what’s going to happen, the showrunner says he knows some stuff will inevitably leak, but that the production and AMC do all they can to play their scripts close to their chests. “In the production, we have a lot of NDAs, but beyond that we just try to be very careful with our materials, we try to run a tight ship. I will say everybody — the cast, the crew, AMC, Fox — everybody, we’re very invested in having people surprised by the show and see the things happen on the show as they happen on the show and not just hear about them,” Gimple said. “It’s a global show and is a little scary that there’s so much of our episodes floating around, but for the most part we just do our best, at least for the stuff we can actually control.”