SPOILER ALERT: This story includes details about the ninth season of The Walking Dead
“It feels like a new show,” Norman Reedus says of Season 9 of The Walking Dead, with Andrew Lincoln leaving, Lauren Cohan shifting over to ABC’s Whiskey Cavalier and a new showrunner in Angela Kang. “Like a really honest, heartfelt Western that’s scary, and the threats are different,” the man who portrays Daryl Dixon adds.
“I will say that hopefully it’s a storyline that gives a sense of completion for the show,” Kang added of the exit for Lincoln’s Rick Grimes character.
With the new season of the blockbuster AMC zombie apocalypse series based on Robert Kirkman’s comics set to debut tomorrow, Reedus, Kang and the rest of the TWD gang are deep into New York Comic Con. EP Kang, Reedus, Melissa McBride and Jeffrey Dean Morgan were at the Paley Center in the Big Apple earlier today screening the opening episode of Season 9. For the two-hour NYCC panel at the Theater at Madison Square garden, they will be joined by Lincoln, Danai Gurira, executive producers Kirkman, Gale Anne Hurd, Dave Alpert, and Greg Nicotero, who directed the Kang penned Season 9 opener “A New Beginning.” Cohan is overseas filming, but rormer TWD showrunner, still EP and now overall Chief Content Officer Scott M. Gimple is also set to be in attendance onstage at MSG.
Before NYCC, Kang and Reedus chatted with me about the changes coming to TWD in this new season both in tone and cast. While both the EP and the actor were circumspect about exactly how Lincoln’s Grimes and Cohan’s Maggie Rhee character will be moving stage left, they were very open about what it meant to them personally. The duo also examined how this TWD reset of sorts has played out on both sides of the camera and what kind of world the Survivors find themselves trying to rebuild.
DEADLINE: Where is the Walking Dead at in a change filled Season 9?
KANG: You know, in terms of the story in the comic book there is this time jump that we’re paying homage to in the beginning of the season. In the style of the way that everybody’s trying to rebuild civilization and the world. It feels a little Medieval, it feels a little Western and so those are some of the visual inspirations that we took, it’s like it’s as if the Industrial Age is gone.
Our Survivors go to get this plow at the museum because plows nowadays are pulled by tractors. They’re run by gas. In the zombie apocalypse, you can’t just go to Home Depot and buy an efficient good plow that is pulled by mules or horses. So they’re really looking to things that people, many, many generations ago used. There’s definitely more touches of horror this season. I think action is also part of the world, but I definitely love those kind of classic horror touches that again that we saw starting from the pilot.
DEADLINE: Not in the opening episode, but among the other changes coming to TWD is Andrew Lincoln leaving the show after having been there since the very beginning as Rick Grimes, but is there room in that exit for him to return on-screen?
KANG: You know, what form that takes I kind of don’t want to spoil that for the audience. I will say that hopefully it’s a storyline that gives a sense of completion for the show. I will also say that the work that Danai does this year, that Melissa does this year, that Lauren Cohan does this year, I think is really stunning as well I really think we were able to do some combinations of the women that we haven’t played as much you know like Michonne and Carol have some incredible scenes. Michonne and Maggie have some incredible scenes and the women have really had a great time playing with each other as well as the incredible men that we have in the ensemble too.
DEADLINE: Norman, with Andrew leaving, how does that change things for you and for Daryl Dixon?
REEDUS: Well, all the actors are taking bigger roles, and filling holes, and doing what they need to do to elevate the story But you know, Daryl’s not the type of character who’s going to build a podium and talk to a group of people and go, we can do this, guys.
DEADLINE: True …
REEDUS: As soon as the news was out that Andy was leaving, the Internet was like, oh, he’s going to be the new Andy, but that’s not the case. Andy was number one on the call sheet. I was number 20. I’m still number 20. I want to stay number 20. The Internet says whatever the Internet says, and that’s been a thing forever for this show, but I have to still play the character like I’ve played it. For Daryl, for the Survivors, there are communities, which you can see from the first episode we’re trying to form alliances with and work together with.
You know, one of the good things that Gimple did was it was always story first, and even sidelining me kind of like he did, it was for the good of the story. It was the story we’re telling. That story’s changed now, and especially with having Angela on board.
DEADLINE: How was it for you to lose your mainman, Andrew and Rick, so to speak?
REEDUS: Having Andy leave, it’s a big blow to the show but his energy is still there. So he’s very much still present on set, as is Lauren, but you know, it’s a different show now. People are rising to the challenge in different ways and in unexpected ways that you don’t see. It feels like a new show. Like a really honest, heartfelt Western that’s scary, and the threats are different. It’s more Hannibal Lecter and less Batman, no pun intended.
DEADLINE: Angela, you mentioned Lauren, she is cycling out of TWD too to go to ABC’s Whiskey Cavalier. Is that a final exit like Andrew’s Rick?
KANG: You know, she has an out in the first half of the season but we all hope and plan to tell more stories with her as her schedule allows in the future.
DEADLINE: So the door is still open, I see. On the exit for Andrew, how do you, who penned the Season 9 opener, end the story for this character that is still very alive as of right now in Kirkman’s comics?
KANG: In some ways I just had to think of okay, what would I do if I had to write the series finale for this character or a finale for this character, Because in the comic book there are also some major exits and so the closest analog we can think of in terms of impact of the characters that lived in the comic was when Andrea died in the comic, that was sort of like this huge momentous death of a very, very long-running character arc.
So we were looking for inspiration in that, how do you create a story that feels like it has it’s own arc while also at the same time creating the seeds for the episodes that follow? Obviously it’s not to the end of the series and you know there is so much more story to tell.
We were looking at it as a challenge of the structural ways that we can play with the season to facilitate that, what are the themes that we’ve been following since the beginning. That’s partly why we were looking back to the pilot so much for what are some of the things that we’re in Rick’s mind starting from that first episode. So, it’s not just like you already know his little arc within this season but you know what are the things that have been plaguing him since the beginning as well as currently that we were trying to tell.
REEDUS: This show doesn’t really let anyone have a happy ending ever, you know. I mean, you’re in an apocalypse, and people are animals sometimes, and you get it. You become an animal, and you try to figure out what part of you is not an animal, It’s brutal, but it’s life.
If you start to read scripts, and things are going your way, like, watch your ass. You’ll probably die soon.
DEADLINE: Angela, did you write Andrew’s exit episode?
KANG: I did not. I’m writing the beginning and the end episodes.
DEADLINE: You and others have mentioned how Lauren leaves at the first half of the season, does Andrew leave at the first half of the season or the second half?
KANG: Out of respect for Andrew’s wishes, I can’t say. He wanted the audience to not know exactly which episode, despite leak out there.
DEADLINE: That’s what I wanted to ask you directly, so their departures happen around the same time?
DEADLINE: How does that affect Daryl?
REEDUS: Part of this season, especially the first half with Daryl and Rick, is Daryl needs Rick to hear him. You’re not listening to me, he says. Like, I said it, and you’re not listening. I’m going to say it again. You’re not listening. You’re not listening. Look, I love you, and you’re doing this. You need to stop doing this, and you know, he’s flipping out. A lot of the Rick / Daryl story is that, and same with Maggie and Rick. Maggie’s like, you know what? You’ve given me this position. I’m going to become that person now. Rick’s gotten to a point where he’s making decisions based on fear, and he’s got other things clouding his judgment.
DEADLINE: Walking Dead has always tried hard to keep its deaths and plots a near state secret, even when some use the comics as a guide. So let’s flip that script for a sec, do you think there is possibly a benefit to actually letting the fans know what’s coming?
KANG: I guess if they want to like Google it, they can. For me, it’s about giving the fans the choice of how much they want spoiled or not. Obviously, I have my own opinions about this, I do think that in general knowing what’s going to happen somewhat doesn’t destroy your enjoyment of the path that you used to get there. Then again, there’s a pretty vocal part of our fan base that really doesn’t want things to be spoiled and I try to balance like for the comic book stuff a lot of information is out there.
REEDUS: Not only is Angela now in charge and killing it but we have a bunch of new writers, a bunch of new actors, a bunch of new directors, and they’re all women. You know, I’ve said it before, but we did a couple seasons where it was sort of male driven, and you end up with two main characters sort of chest bumping saying I’m going to kill you. I’m going to kill you. I’m going to kill you. I’m going to kill you. Women don’t really chest-bump, what I found out, and if they say they’re going to kill you, you should probably fucking hide,
DEADLINE: Clearly with Scott Gimple’s new Chief Content Officer gig and remarks that AMC execs have made, there is a brand expansion plan at work with TWD, and of course there is the comic still coming out too. But, for you, do you think, yeah, here’s where I think this story, this series needs to end?
KANG: Almost at every stage of the big storylines that have been in the comic because it was being written as I was on the show, I was like okay, well, this is clearly where the show has to end because Robert’s never going to top that. Then he comes up with the next arc and I’m like okay, well, that’s actually pretty great. Then he comes up with something like the Whisperers and I’m thinking well, shit, there’s still like more stories.
So, for me it’s an evolving thing because it’s like he has so much great grist in it that it’s like we don’t know where the next arc ends.
So, I guess we’ll see where it goes.