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'The Walking Dead' star Michael Cudlitz explains Abraham's shocking flashbacks

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Michael Cudlitz
Gene Page/AMC

[SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have watched Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead.]

We were treated to shocking revelations from both the past and present in Sunday’s “Self Help” episode of The Walking Dead. Through flashbacks, we saw Abraham seconds away from blowing his brains out after finding his dead family (who had fled from his protection after seeing a brutal side of him that frightened them away). The only thing that saved Abraham was the introduction of Eugene, whose pleas for help on a mission gave Sgt. Ford a new purpose. But back in the present, Eugene revealed that entire mission to be a lie, admitting that he was not actually a scientist and had no information that could end the zombie plague (leading Abraham to almost end Eugene right then and then, before Rosita stepped in). It was a powerful and emotional episode ripped straight from the pages of The Walking Dead comic book, and we spoke to the man who plays Abraham, Michael Cudlitz, in his trailer on set to get the inside scoop on what went down.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Not to make you sound like a debutante, but even though you’ve been on the show for a little while now, this episode really was Abraham’s moment and coming out party in a way, wasn’t it?

MICHAEL CUDLITZ: Oh, absolutely. The audience has been hearing about Washington long enough. It’s sort of like the only tune he’s been able to sing for the last nine episodes, from the four prior in last season and then these five. Now we get to to see why D.C. is so important and what makes Abraham tick and what is driving him and what is at his core, and why he will stop at nothing to fulfill the mission.

And we see that through these flashbacks. Let’s talk about those: We see the flashbacks with Abraham’s family. He has to do terrible things to protect them, so terrible that his own family is too scared to be with him.

He has basically become what he is protecting them from. That horrifies his family. They don’t know who to be more afraid of, and because of that they wind up leaving. And all he’s trying to do is protect his family from, unfortunately, the group. The way it plays out in the comic is that this is actually the group that he has been traveling with. He goes out on a scavenger mission, comes back, and finds out that members of the group have raped his wife and his daughter, and made his son watch. And then he basically has a dismantling party on those members of the group. What happens is his wife basically says, “You have become worse than them.” And she leaves. And he can’t find them. He finally does find them, comes across them, and they’ve all been killed by walkers. In the comics — which I don’t think was necessary to do and I’m glad we chose to tell it the way we did, because I think there’s more of an emotional punch when you see something visually and there is a line that can be crossed — in the comics, actually, his wife and his son had been eaten so badly that there is nothing left to come back, and his daughter did come back and he winds up having to shoot her in the face. And that’s in the Robert Kirkman graphic novel. I think we’ve successfully captured the emotion of what went down with his family, and then also what has spurred him into action from taking his own life, when he has nothing left to live for, which was a mission that was outside of himself, bigger than himself, bigger than his family, and this is sort of his way to redeem himself for something that he thinks he’s caused, which was the death of his family.

Lets talk about that, where he gets to this lowest point where he finds his dead family and is about to turn the gun on himself. At that point, before he meets Eugene, we see him put the gun in his mouth — has he just lost all purpose?

There’s nothing left. There’s nothing left to his group, there’s nothing left to his family, there’s nothing left to live for.

It’s done.

Yep, it’s completely finished. At the moment he is pulling the trigger, someone needs help, and it is in his core to help. He is a soldier. He is a service-giver at this core. And he can’t even stop himself from helping him. But then he’s going to go right back to finishing himself after he’s helped this person — until something is given to him which is beyond him and beyond his family. It is a mission, and he responds in his DNA and on a genetic level to that word “mission,” because that is who he is.

What I love about that scene that we end on is after Eugene says “I have a very important mission” — your entire body language immediately changes. Your back straightens up immediately, almost like a machine rebooting or something where you were like, I had no purpose, Now at least I have something.

Exactly. Purpose is the right word. He has purpose again in a time where he had absolutely nothing, he now has something to hold onto.

He’s on auto-pilot almost with this mission that he is on. He will not waver. He will not turn back. So what’s the reaction then — we see it physically, obviously — but what is his reaction internally when Eugene finally fesses up that he’s not a scientist?

Well, I think you touch on two things. One is that this relentless drive is something that is new, and it is born out of what has happened when the group has slowed down, when the group has detoured. They had slow downs and detours before they got to Terminus. Terminus he didn’t feel was a good idea, but he had no choice because he didn’t have a vehicle and he is trying to expand the group. Stopping at Terminus turned out to be horrible. They got to the church, he doesn’t want to slow. When you slow, you stop, bad things happen. He does slow, bad things happen. He gets out of there, they finally feel like they’re on the road, he’s not going to let anything stop him now. There’s hope. He has a group. He has a capable group this time — a capable group of what he views as soldiers, because he’s seen them in action. And there’s hope. The scene opens up with them joking about how he’s going to relax the grooming standards, because that means he’s coming to the end of this mission. He does see the end of this mission and he sees life beyond this mission, which he has not seen or felt before and you sense that when he is joking around with Rosita.

The calm before the storm, if you will.

Then everything hits the fan — again. Because once again we break down, we stop. But he’s not going to let that stopping affect what they’re doing. He’s going to keep driving through and he’s going to push the group. He’s not going to let them go back. We’re going to keep moving forward because moving forward is where the answer is, and stopping and pausing makes things go bad. So at this point he is completely driven by this mission and it’s sort of unspooling him, because this is a very bad day for Abraham. Nothing seems to be going right — especially with the vehicles and with the moving forward with the mission. At his lowest point, that is the point he’s almost going to break because they are telling him this is a bad idea and he knows it’s a bad idea. Nobody is saying we’re going to stop, nobody is saying we shouldn’t go on this mission — they’re just saying we need to do it differently, but he really feels that because of past circumstances, because of what has happened before, they have to keep moving forward in basically a straight line. Because right now the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, whereas Terminus wasn’t. That was like, “Well, I need to get to Washington, but it’s more important that I get this group.” Now we have the group, now it’s straight line time. And all of the things that Glenn and everybody are saying to him all makes sense — that’s why he’s more frustrated than he is mad at them, because he knows they’re right. But he doesn’t care.

So that’s all building up inside of him?

And that’s where everything falls apart. Because Eugene not being a scientist aside, is still very smart, he knows human nature, he knows Abraham. He knows they’re going to drive straight through that and he knows they’re probably going to all get killed. He can’t let that happen. He’s tired of the lie, people are getting hurt, I’m physically pushing people away — it’s his fault. It’s one more thing that’s his fault, aside from the bus flipping over. And then you start putting things together and you’re like, oh my God, that bastard shot the truck up on purpose — all of the little things are falling into place where you realize he has been doing all of these little things by design to slow them down. Every problem that they’ve had has been caused by him.

In that moment when he basically says, “I’ve been lying,” everything falls apart for Abraham. He is right back to where he was a year-and-a-half, two years ago, with losing his family. He is at his lowest point. The reason for him living at all has been a complete and utter lie. Eugene talks about the people that died. Abraham can’t think about anything but the people that he’s killed doing this. It’s not just the people that died trying to do it, it’s how many people have I killed because they were potentially in the way of this mission as a soldier, who maybe didn’t deserve to die now? It completely unravels his world and he will kill him. If he was not stopped, he would have killed him. He would have had zero problem with killing him. And I think at that point a lot of the audience wants him dead. As much as we sympathize and empathize with him — and in the moments after you sort of warm back up to him and his plight — but it’s sort of one of those moments where you’re like, “Okay, he deserved it. The world that we’re living in now? Yeah, he deserved it. He deserved that and more.” As crappy as it might seem to beat the hell out of somebody who is, in a sense, defenseless, Abraham would argue in that moment that he deserved to die.

NEXT: Cudlitz on filming that sex scene and where Abraham goes from here

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