By Dalton Ross
Updated February 09, 2014 at 12:00 PM EST

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

Well, I guess we now know why Michonne started freaking out and crying while holding Baby Judith back at the start of the season. In a flashback dream scene in tonight’s Walking Dead midseason premiere, we saw a pre-apocalypse Michonne clutching her young son while having a conversation with her “lover” Mike and some other guy who may or may not be Mike’s friend Terry (if the show is indeed following the story from the comics). Then, in the middle of the dream-turned-nightmare, Mike and the other guy’s arms suddenly appeared chopped off, implying that they ended up becoming the armless, jawless “Pets” that we saw Michonne dragging around in chains when we first met her back at the end of season 2. What does it all mean? We talked to the woman who plays Michonne, Danai Gurira, about that and the rest of the katana-wielding warrior’s emotional journey in tonight’s episode. (Also check out our midseason premiere Q&As with Andrew Lincoln and episode writer Robert Kirkman.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start with that surreal flashback dream you have about your son, your boyfriend Mike, and another guy who I am assuming is Mike’s friend Terry, if this follows the story from the comic. Is that who that other guy was?

DANIA GURIRA: Ummm…I’m not sure I can say.

EW: I see! Very cagey, Ms. Gurira! So there may be more with him coming up later. Well, at least tell me what it was like playing a pre-apocalypse Michonne.

GURIRA: I loved the concept of the flashback as a dream. It’s her subconscious forcing her to metabolize her pain and her loss and her grief. Her conscious mind won’t let her do that because she just shuts it down, which is deadening her and making her the shell that she was at the beginning when we met her. You couldn’t read her and she didn’t want you to. Her subconscious is really forcing her to face her pain and her loss. For the production, it was really fun. The makeup department had fun. We were trying to decide what nail color and what make up to use. And then we had great fun with the outfit. Everyone had their thoughts and we found the one we loved. With the hair I had the idea of crimping it up. We had so much fun putting together who Michonne was before. She had an alternative vibe to her but liked to be cute. She wasn’t trying to wear Gucci or Prada. She had her own hip energy.

EW: Who knew Michonne had such strong feelings about modern art?

GURIRA: She is from a middle class academic realm family. She was from a family where art and literature were observed. But that’s not something that she’s going to share.

EW: That’s a weird scene because it has elements of the past merging with more recent events and time jumping around all over the place. And it’s all, of course, a dream, so that’s a lot to process for you as you act that out.

GURIRA: I looked up the interpretation of dreams and I had already decided what the dream meant and I looked it up and I was right. Her subconscious is forcing her to metabolize her grief and if you won’t do it when you’re awake then your subconscious might force you to do it when you’re asleep. The idea of remembering holding her son or having a loving moment with her man is not something that she’s willing to revisit in her consciousness, and she’s shut it completely down. So that’s why she keeps away from Judith. But the idea is there is too much trauma going on, so you have to process it or you might just die.

EW: And then you have the scene later where you crumple in the corner and start talking to Mike and you say, “I know the answer. I know why.” What is she talking about there? What is the answer? What makes her carry on?

GURIRA: I think that it’s what she goes on to do. Find the people she cares about. As long as people you care about still exist then you carry on for others. And there will always be others. She thought there was going to be nobody after the loss of her son and her man, but she finds a group of people that she deeply cares about. She finds the Carls, the Ricks, the Daryls, the Hershels. She finds a group of people who she can devote herself to again, which she’s good at. She takes care of business. She protects people well. When the rubber hits the road, she goes and takes care of the Governor before he can cause any more destruction. She knows it’s part of her DNA, it’s part of her strength, to take care of Andrea. She knows she does that well. The answer is: you keep taking care of people. You keep being a part of people of a community because if you don’t do that, if you isolate, then you start to die.

EW: What about the scene where you’re walking with your new pets among all these other zombies, you look at another zombie that has a passing resemblance to you, and then you just go nuts and start slicing everything in sight? What’s that about?

GURIRA: Well, what do you think it’s about, Dalton?

EW: I think it’s about her being pissed off and choosing to be aggressive as opposed to passive.

GURIRA: For me, that’s her fighting for her soul. That’s not going to be me and that could’ve been me. If I hadn’t been a fighter from the beginning, I could’ve been this woman, walking out with the dead with blood on her face, wearing the same clothes that she was wearing when the apocalypse hit. That part of her, that is a fighter, that is fierce, that was starting to harden and deaden and die because she was so sick of the pain and the trauma, that woman triggers it. She’s like, why am I walking around with a bunch of zombies. This is not who I am. This is about her fighting for herself, her fighting for her will. There is a part where she’s killed all of them at the end and it’s really emotional for her. She’s cracking, she’s open, she’s having this catharsis. She knows she has to carry on and fight. She doesn’t lay down and die. She’s not that person and she doesn’t want to become that person.

EW: For me, the most disturbing part of this entire episode was seeing the decapitated zombie Hershel head. How hard was it filming that and finally putting poor Hershel out of his misery?

GURIRA: It was very hard. The head really looked like him. It was very dark and traumatic. It was painful. She was not going to leave him. She just finishes business. There’s no way she is going to let Hershel be a snapping, zombie head into eternity. She can’t do it. She has to find him and put him down, like she did with the Governor. So it was very dark and walking up to it, it really looked like him. There was a moment touching it where it was just a pain, a grief. It was really hard to look at a man who was so great and so wonderful and to see how he went down.

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The Walking Dead

AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.

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