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The Walking Dead director explains why Rick is smiling

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Gene Page/AMC

SPOILER ALERT: Read only if you have already watched The Walking Dead’s midseason premiere, “Rock in the Road.”

Smiles, everyone, smiles! No, we have not just landed a seaplane on Fantasy Island, but you are forgiven for feeling that way at the end of The Walking Dead’s midseason premiere, “Rock in the Road.” Surrounded by a scary-looking, weapon-toting group, Rick retaliated with… a huge grin?

Rick smiling under any circumstances is a momentous occasion, but this one seemed extra curious. What was behind the beam on Rick’s face? We went to executive producer Greg Nicotero — who also directed the episode — for answers. Nicotero also discusses that epic highway action sequence, Gregory and Ezekiel’s refusal to join the fight, and what’s coming up next. (Click through both pages to read the entire interview, and also make sure to check out our exclusive storyboards for the insane zombie-slicing extravaganza.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start with the very end. Rick is surrounded by this new group carrying shovels and guns, and he is all smiles. What is that smile all about?
GREG NICOTERO: Of course he is. It’s the perfect ending for the episode. You know, we see him at the beginning, he’s pretty dedicated to putting an army together. He needs people to fight, so he goes to the Hilltop. He has a loss with Gregory, but then he has a win with Maggie. Then he goes to see King Ezekiel, and the king was not necessarily willing to fight, but Rick knows they’re there. Then they find all the explosives on the freeway. So the whole episode is really based on that series of wins and losses for Rick, but Rick’s not giving up.

When they get back to Alexandria and they realize that Gabriel’s gone and strange things are afoot at the Circle K — when they are surrounded by that new and mysterious group that we’ve only caught a quick glimmer of, Rick sees soldiers. That’s why he smiles. I don’t think he’s worried for a second. I think he looks, and he’s like, okay, I need a win here, and there are a lot of people here, and they have weapons, and this is what I need. So the gears are clicking. The gears start turning, and then, boom, we’re out.

This could all be connected to the beginning of the episode when Father Gabriel takes all these supplies out of Alexandria. What is that all about?
There will be more information as you view it more than one time, because, if you notice, there is a moment when he gets in the car, and the car’s driving away, and somebody sits up in the seat next to him. Not alone. So what we like is playing with the idea that it was always intended to be sort of uncertain. Has Gabriel gone a little crazy? What’s going on? Did he come up with or brainstorm some plan and he’s going to take all the supplies? But then, as soon as he drives away, you see somebody sit up in the car next to him.

There’s even a little subtle thing when he’s putting gas in the car. You might see the reflection of somebody in the car. So I think after a couple viewings, it’s sort of apparent — especially even after Rick says Gabriel wouldn’t do that and Gabriel would never leave — that something must have happened. So then they go back to where the boat was, and they find tracks, they realize that they’re following the scent backwards and that Gabriel’s clue sort of leads them to believe that whoever was essentially watching them may have made a move.

It’s interesting when you have life imitating art or art imitating life. We have a president now that has advocated closing our borders, keeping refugees out, and taking care of ourselves first even if that means ignoring problems elsewhere. And then you have Gregory at the Hilltop, who seems to be working off that same script. It’s a bit of a separated at birth type situation.
Yeah, I would agree with that. Clearly, this script… maybe [showrunner Scott M. Gimple] has a crystal ball, but the script was written last August, and I don’t really think anybody believed we would be where we are now. I think the deal with Gregory is that he’s figuring out a way to keep this place alive, but the truth of the matter is — and I find Gregory a really fascinating character because he has to have done something right at some point; otherwise, they would all have been dead a long time ago — but once Rick and his group show their faces, I think all bets are off for Gregory. It’s just a matter of time, and we see Maggie there, and Maggie’s kind of ready to step up.

We’ve already established in the first half of the season that she has what it takes to protect this community, and he doesn’t. I just don’t really quite understand how he can’t see it, but he’s proven himself to be a coward. When the place was overrun in episode 5, he backed away into the darkness, and in this scene, he’s talking to all them like they’re 2-year-olds, and then he’s like, “Yeah, goodbye.” So they walk out, and they’re all ready to beat the hell out of him, and then Enid comes in, and then they walk outside, and a lot of the people that are there are like, “Listen, we know where our loyalties lie. We want to live. We want to survive. We feel that doing that is to follow Maggie.”

Xander Berkeley’s so good at being a weasel.
He’s so good. That was the first scene I’d ever directed with him, and we had a great time. There are a lot of light moments in this episode. You know, the first half of the season, it was heavy, man. There was just loss, and guilt, and just watching our hero have his face crushed into the ground under Negan’s rule. And now, in this episode, there’s a certain aspect of Gregory just being so outrageous, that you almost wonder if he’s doing it to provoke them because he’s just such a d—. And then we have the stuff with Ezekiel and Jerry. They all walked into the theater, and Ezekiel’s like, “Jesus, it pleases me to see you.” And Jerry goes, “It pleases him.” He’s like, “Jerry!” I love that. It’s George Costanza, you know? There’s a lot of humor in this episode, and there’s a lot of fun in there, and I think a lot of it plays out because the actors all got a chance to play again and not sit there and worry about who was going to get killed.

I know Andy’s talked to you, and Norman’s talked to you about the band being back together again. The chemistry that we have when these guys play scenes together, it’s unparalleled, and I really believe you can see it on screen. I think you can see it when Morgan is in there, or Maggie’s in there, or Rick is in there, or any of them. I mean, they’re all amazing, but I think the strength of The Walking Dead has always been the ensemble from season 1 onward. You know, Shane, and Lori, and Dale, and Andrea, and the strength of the ensemble.

And what’s great about this episode is everybody gets to shine. Everybody has a bone to pick with Negan. So how they’re going to express it, how they’re going to carry out their anger, whether it’s guilt or whether it’s they’re the ones left behind. You look at what Rosita did in episode 8, you look at what Maggie’s lost, what Sasha’s lost, what Daryl sort of partially was responsible for, there are so many great nuances. All of the blocks were lined up in the first half of the season for all of this to come to fruition in the next couple episodes.

NEXT: How they did that crazy highway scene and what’s coming up next