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'The Walking Dead': Robert Kirkman breaks down the midseason premiere

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Carl Grimes
Gene Page/AMC

[SPOILER ALERT! Read on only if you have already watched Sunday night’s midseason premiere of The Walking Dead.]

It was an episode that featured a father and son’s relationship at perhaps its lowest point, followed by a reconciliation. For most of The Walking Dead’s midseason premiere tonight, teenage Carl sought to establish independence from a clearly weakened Papa Rick, only to realize that when the moment of truth arrived, he himself was not as strong and independent as he thought. But that was only half of the story this week. We also got a glimpse into Michonne’s past as a freaky flashback dream showed a pre-apocalypse version of the woman holding her son and watching in horror as her boyfriend and companion morphed from cheery buddies into armless victims, seemingly on their way to assuming their identities as Michonne’s first Pets.

And as if that was not disturbing enough, we also were treated — if that is the right word, and it most certainly is not — to the image of Hershel’s decapitated zombie head, cementing his horrible fate. We chatted with exec-producer Robert Kirkman, who also wrote the episode, to get his take on everything that went down. (Also check out our midseason premiere Q&As with Andrew Lincoln and Danai Gurira.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, let’s talk about Rick and Carl. Are we watching a fundamental shift in their relationship?

ROBERT KIRKMAN: I feel like this episode is the episode where we’ve seen the most growth in Carl. This is Carl becoming a man. At the beginning of the episode, he’s the biggest brat, he thinks he’s smarter than his dad, he thinks his dad screwed up, he thinks he knows everything, and we see he’s very capable, but at the end of that episode he crumbles. And I think that while this episode is kind of the Rick and Carl relationship at its absolute lowest point, I think by the end of it you may have seen a strengthening of this relationship. It may now be at its highest point. And I think seeing these two work in tandem or working in a team in a way they’ve never really done before is going to lead to interesting things coming up in the back half of this season.

EW: I love how you show Carl taking the reins of leadership here, yet you also show him as a typical teenager in that for the majority of the episode he feels completely bulletproof, as all teens feel, and how that almost gets him.

KIRKMAN: Yeah, it’s interesting because he seems at his most mature and his most immature at the same time. He seems to be handling things really well, but he’s actually oblivious to the actual situation that he’s in. And it’s coming to that realization at the end of the episode when he thinks he’s lost his father, and he knows that he can’t go on without him, and he’s completely incapable of surviving on his own, and that’s actually him maturing and recognizing facts for the first time. I’ve often said one of the most interesting aspects of The Walking Dead for me is analyzing how children would grow up in this world and how accelerated their growth would be, and this episode to a certain extent could be seen as the entirety of Carl’s teen years crammed into one episode.

EW: As horrible as it was to see Hershel executed, I think it was even more horrible to see his decapitated zombie head this week. That was just plain mean, Robert. You’re a big meanie.

KIRKMAN: We recognize how hard it is to see this stuff and we certainly go through it ourselves. We’re not gleefully playing with people’s emotions as much as people think sometimes. We feel this stuff too. And that helps us in knowing how these episodes pack an emotional punch. We’re always very emotional about this stuff. Having Michonne fight her way into that prison in order to give Hershel true peace and allow his soul to rest, that was a big, emotional journey as well and a very important part of the episode. But none of us like looking at that severed head either, so we understand.

EW: And then there was Michonne’s nightmare flashback. This is a weird one because it is jumping around timewise. Tell me about the decision to show that and fill in the blanks a little bit with her past and the origin of the Pets, because you all don’t do that a lot.

KIRKMAN: Michonne’s back story is an extremely important part of who she is, and the fact that we kept that very close to the vest was very important to us. But now that we’re at this position in the show, it’s important for people to know the things that we’ve always known. You start to get a glimpse of who those Pets were, and it’s true that it’s a dream, so there are certainly elements there: Are they real? Are they not real? But this also ties in to the scene in the prison to Michonne and baby Judith in episode 2 of this season. There’s a lot of layers to this and a lot more that’s going to be revealed coming up this season. People are going to know Michonne very soon.

EW: The closing line where Michonne knocks on the door and Rick tells Carl, “It’s for you.” That was a really nice lighter touch at the end of a very heavy episode.

KIRKMAN: That’s a key element to The Walking Dead. If hope’s not there at the end of the episode, it’s always just around the corner. This was a very bleak episode, seeing Carl kind of lose his father, we go to some pretty dark places, and to have that spark at the end, to have that that moment you can see where maybe these people are going to find each other or maybe these people are going to come together is important to us. And I love how Rick is almost unaware of all the things Carl has said to him and how he’s just so hopeful and friendly and is just so accepting of Carl in that moment. I love the way Andrew Lincoln handled that.

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