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'Walking Dead' showrunner Scott M. Gimple explains that trippy, tragic midseason premiere

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

It was a midseason premiere that was equal parts WHOOOOOOA! And NOOOOOOOOO! There were flashbacks, flash-forwards, and more hallucinations than a Timothy Leary convention. Put it all together and “What Happened and What’s Going On” represented an hour that often felt more like a poem like an episode of television—and that hour showed us the internal struggle of Tyreese (Chad Coleman) played out through various visions and images that represented the gentle giant’s final moments after being bit by a walker.

We spoke with the man who wrote the episode, Walking Dead showrunner Scott M. Gimple, to find out his inspirations for the installment, why he killed off Tyreese, and what’s coming up next. (Also make sure to read our interview with episode director Greg Nicotero, and check back Monday morning for our Q&A with Chad Coleman. And to have all ‘The Walking Dead’ scoop sent right to you, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.)

EW: So, why was it Tyreese’s time to go?

SCOTT M. GIMPLE: That question for any character is very difficult. You know, like, why was it Hershel’s time to go? Why was it Bob’s time to go? I mean, because there are no right or wrong answers when it comes to this stuff. I’ll say that it was his time to go in as much as that’s what the story dictates—not just in that moment, but for the future too, and the way the story turns off of these events. But it’s very difficult, you know? There are no right or wrong answers—it’s only what the story seems to tell us as we go. It certainly wasn’t because he hadn’t shown humanity along the way because he had shown humanity along the way and it wasn’t necessarily resultant of that. But how it plays out in the story moving forward has a great deal to do with why it happened when it happened.

Tell me about breaking the news to Chad Coleman because I know that’s no fun at all.

I’m always weary of talking about that just because it’s so personal and I worry about this feeling somewhat like a reality show—like being voted off the island or something like that. I mean, it’s not. We take it very, very seriously. Chad, throughout all of his time on the show, has been wonderful. We have a wonderful cast of very talented, very professional, and very warm people—and these characters that they portray live in this incredibly dangerous world in which people die. There isn’t anybody on this show I want to see go, and that’s such a strange thing. You know, behind the scenes of TV shows can be very dramatic and people cannot get along and stuff. That isn’t the case on this show. But this is a show where people regularly die. It’s a very difficult thing. 

Let’s talk about the episode itself. You guys have had characters like Daryl and Rick see hallucinations in the past, but never anything close to this extent with the scope and size you went with here. Talk about the decision to have Tyreese’s internal struggle sort of play out through these visions. Not even just the visions, but the radio broadcast as well.

Approaching this episode, I just really wanted to do right by the character, I really wanted to do right by Chad, and I really wanted to give Greg [Nicotero] something to sink his directorial teeth into. It was important to me that in many ways this episode showed that Tyreese didn’t regret the approach he was taking to the world and that has always remained strong. There’s this book Visions, Trips, and Crowded Rooms by this author David Kessler, who spoke with all these doctors, nurses, and these end of life professionals that reported where people see people from their lives before they die—it was a story that medical professionals have heard over and over again. I guess in the very nascent stages of working on this episode I heard this guy talking about this and it just seemed to be one of those moments where like, “Oh, that’s the story.” When things fall together like that, and the universe is telling you something, I listen. 

You also use a lot of flashback and flash-forward imagery. Starting at the very beginning we see shots of places like the prison and Woodbury, the railroad tracks—places from Tyreese’s past mixed with images then that we don’t quite understand at certain points yet, like the ones from Noah’s house. I assume these also act as a window into what Tyresse is seeing and feeling in these last moments?

Yeah, very much so, and that was another aspect of it where I just wanted to feel the whole of Tyreese’s experience in this episode. I wanted the audience to feel Tyreese’s experience as deeply through his eyes as we could make it, and I wanted to explore that myself. I just chose to go at it as hard as I could in that way. I was taking inspiration a lot from comics I had read as a young man— in a way that Alan Moore would play with time and Neil Gaiman and Frank Miller. It was after it was done I was like: Oh, this feels very much like those comics that just blew my mind growing up. I think I was trying just to emulate that sort of thing. 

I really like it when you have a big death at a very unexpected time or moment and that played out in a few ways here. First off, it comes right off an episode where we already lost a major character in Beth, so nobody is expecting that to happen again so quickly. And then also the way it went down where it’s so sudden. It’s just that one second where Tyreese sort of falls into a gaze on that photo and he’s figuring it out and then all of a sudden—BOOM! I actually jumped and was not prepared for it at all in multiple respects. 

You’re right, this was absolutely a simple moment of letting your guard down for one second too long. If he had realized that just a second sooner everything would have been cool. And we’ve seen characters lose limbs before. Was it out of the realm of possibility of him getting through that? I do think a good portion of the emotional story reflects how he may have died as well—that it’s sort of the chicken and the egg. Was his psyche letting go because he was going, or was he just ready to let go? He says in the car, “Turn it off.” And in my mind when he says, “Turn it off,” he’s all but deciding that he’s done. He passes away pretty much immediately after that. 

Let me ask you a few other questions about the episode. We saw some shots of body parts strewn about and a bunch of heads falling out of a pickup truck. Could this tie into some stuff we may be seeing down the road at all? Is this something that’s going to tie into a bigger picture situation?

Yeah, there are things going on in this episode that do fit into the bigger picture. There are many things in this episode that are the start of things. 

Nice little nod to the Wiltshire Estates from the comic with the Shirewilt community here.

I went on the internet to see if Shirewilt actually exists, just as a place or a word. I did find some Shirewilts. It wasn’t completely bananas. 

How much time has passed since the hospital? Because I can’t imagine you could make great time going 500 miles in the zombie apocalypse.

I do know the general amount of time it was. I’m wary of actually saying it definitively, but yeah, they went from Georgia up to Virginia so it took them a good while but it hasn’t been a year’s journey. More in the two-week range.

You and I spoke recently about how supplies and food were going to be an issue this year. What about the gas issue? There can’t be a lot of full tanks of gas left at this point. That’s what I was wondering when they’re talking about going 500 miles. I was like, “How are they finding enough gas?” 

Actually, gas-wise, there are a great many dead people. And there are a great many cars about so the world is full of gas. Now, we could get into sort of hardcore kind of “How long gas lasts in the world,” you know? The expiration date, evaporation issues…but I’m not going to go that far into it because I don’t want to pull that string just yet. I will say most people in the world—most people are dead and all those people left a lot of stuff behind.

Robert Kirkman told me he thought that this episode could be both a fan-loved and fan-hated episode. What do you think the reaction is going to be?

I just hope people feel very deeply watching it. At least that’s what we’re trying to go for. I mean, I don’t want anybody to be psyched about what transpires in the episode. This show is a long story and it is building toward something, and I do not believe that it’s a nihilistic story in the least. Even the things that Tyreese was saying in this episode are very affirmative and positive and humanistic, and it’s challenging the characters to go on after losing somebody like that—and to believe the world isn’t all death and weakness and darkness. That’s a test for the characters and I suppose that’s a test for the audience, which is—it’s no joke. This world that these characters inhabit is dangerous physically and dangerous to the soul and dangerous to your outlook, but you need to fight to stay alive, to stay yourself, to stay someone who can look towards the future. And things are hard on these characters. But the fact that they keep going and keep fighting and keep trying to remain people is an incredibly positive thing. But it’s not going to be easy for them and that’s what makes it heroic in my mind.

Of course we always have to look ahead, so what can you tell us about next week’s episode?

They just lost Beth and that was devastating and destructive and painful, and then to lose Tyreese—it’s just these people are being beaten down and at what point do you just give up? Whether it’s giving up completely in a physical way, or giving up in an emotional way as far as how you’re seeing the world or just being a person. This is what they’re facing in the immediate turn in episode 10.  And beyond that, they’re in a very difficult situation. They’re on the road now. They’ve made the decision to go somewhere, but like we have seen, nothing is just simple and easy so they have a fight in a real, practical, physical way and they have a fight in an emotional way. We’ll see who wins. 

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