[SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched the season finale of The Walking Dead.]
The Walking Dead took its first trip to Cliffhanger City with its season 4 finale, leaving Rick Grimes and most of the group reunited in the worst of all places — locked in a train car by the baddies of Terminus. But there is hope because at least the group has Rick back at his badass best. The finale used a flashback framework to show Rick’s transformation from a leader into a farmer after the fall of Woodbury, at the urging of Scott Wilson’s Hershel. That was juxtaposed against the things Rick had to do now to keep his family and friends safe — things like biting one marauder’s neck off and gutting another. Translation: the old Rick is finally back. And it is the Rick the group will need if they are to survive this encounter with their latest foes. We caught up with Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman to get his thoughts on the finale, the evolution of Rick Grimes, and the fact that nobody major died, as well as get some insight into Terminus leader Gareth (that dude in the photo above) and what will happen when things pick back up in season 5. (Click through both pages to read the entire interview. Also make sure to read our finale interviews with showrunner Scott M. Gimple and star Andrew Lincoln.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why are you doing this, Robert? Making the poor fans suffer for 6 months worrying about these guys stuck in a train car? How dare you, sir?
ROBERT KIRKMAN: [Laughs] If we could do the show year round and produce an episode every week, we totally would, but every now and then you gotta stop and make the show great and stuff.
EW: It’s your first real cliffhanger and a different finale for you guys in that sense.
KIRKMAN: Yeah, well, it all came naturally from the story. We knew that Terminus was going to be a great place to leave things. We kind of wanted to leave this season with a little more punch than we’ve left it in past years. I think the no cliffhanger thing has worked for us so far but I personally as a viewer have always been a big fan of season-ender cliffhangers and I enjoy that anticipation when that last minute rolls by and you’re going “WHAT THE HECK? OH, COME ON!” Like, that’s something that I thoroughly enjoy and I think Scott Gimple is into it too. So we’re very excited about the idea of ending this season on a cliffhanger and hopefully the viewers will like it too and it will make it that much harder to wait for season 5 and will make the anticipation that much higher.
EW: With all those flashbacks this episode really felt like the evolution of Rick Grimes back into a do-whatever-it-takes leadership position, which ultimately I guess is the arc of the whole season, right?
KIRKMAN: I’m really proud of what Scott Gimple, our showrunner, was able to do with this season and the way that it kind of does dovetail back into itself and by the end of the finale you kind of see how there was this grand plan from day 1 of the beginning of season 4 and everything does kind of interconnect and drive this forward into this Rick Grimes story which is an exploration into who this guy is and how he is uniquely suited to be the leader in this new form of civilization and how he is evolving into the guy that is going to be able to keep people safe and keep people alive and how he is finally accepting that role.
EW: What about that breaking point scene for Rick where he bites off Joe’s neck and then guts that other dude who had Carl pinned down?
KIRKMAN: In that scene Rick realizes he is a guy who will do absolutely anything to survive. There has been all of this discussion about retaining your humanity and not losing who it is that you are. We started this season with Rick putting his gun away and trying to live a peaceful life and trying to be there for his son in a way that he hadn’t been in the seasons previous and to try to show his son how to live and be a human being. And in this episode he kind of has to become a monster, otherwise something terrible is going to happen to Carl, possibly all of them are going to die. It’s him being pushed to his breaking point and him realizing no, this is the world we’re in and I have to be in this world so now I’m going to do whatever I have to do. And in a sense he almost becomes a walker when he’s biting that guy’s neck out and savagely murdering this other guy. He really loses his humanity in a very big way. Which is something we’ll be exploring moving forward.
EW: Even though the season ends with the group in this terrible situation, in a weird way it’s almost an upbeat note with that proclamation by Rick of “They’re screwing with the wrong people.”
KIRKMAN: Rick Grimes’ evolution has come at the exact right point. This is the Rick Grimes that they need in that train car. And this is the Rick Grimes that the people of Terminus should not have encountered. It is the exact wrong time for them to encounter this guy. So it is supposed to be a somewhat uplifting kind of cliffhanger because you should get a sense that this guy is now ready for anything. He can handle absolutely whatever the word is going to throw at him and that is something we’re going to be exploring in season 5.
EW: When you guys mapped out season 4 and especially the back half of the season, were you worried about having Rick MIA so much since he really is the face of the franchise?
KIRKMAN: Well, you know, being apart makes the heart grow fonder and all that stuff. That was all by design. We knew this was going to be a very Rick centric end of the season and we really wanted to come back with Rick Grimes in a big way in this last episode and it was kind of important to the overall arc of the show to build up some of these other side characters and bring them to the forefront and help us get to know them a little bit more and also keep Rick in our back pocket so that the last episode seemed a little bit more unexpected than it would have otherwise.
EW: A lot of people, including myself, have theorized that the people of Terminus may actually be a new version of the group of Cannibals we met in the comics, and the clues seemed to be there in this finale. What would you like to say about that speculation?
KIRKMAN: Stay tuned for season 5! But I do enjoy looking at the speculation and I will say that some people are right and some people are wrong, which is always the case. And I think that people are going to be pretty excited when we come back in season 5. We’ll be revealing very quickly what it is that is going on and what it is that Rick Grimes and everybody else are up against. We’re not going to be keeping that close to the vest for too very long. So in our big season 5 premiere we’ll get some answers.
EW: What can you tell us about this guy Gareth that we were just introduced to who seems to be leading the Terminus group?
KIRKMAN: He is a very interesting character and he is based on someone in the comics. So there are some pieces of him in the comic book series that you could dig out if you were a bit of a detective, and we’ll definitely reveal more next season. He’s a big character.
EW: I know you all run this fine line because you want the stakes to feel real and to do that, people need to die. But you killed so many main original characters in season 3. Obviously the Hershel death this season was brutal, but did you guys make a conscious effort to not kill too many big characters this time around because when you do that you run the risk of altering the DNA of the show?
KIRKMAN: As far as altering our show DNA too much, I think our DNA is ever changing and ever evolving and that’s kind of our thing, so that hasn’t really brought any hesitation as far as killing characters. But I know that early on back in season 3 I was talking to Scott and I was saying, you know we’ve sort of worked ourselves into a unique position where the shocking thing for us to do is not to kill a character. It’s gotten to a point where we have killed so many characters that people kind of expect it and we can get to a point where we not do that, then that kind of pulls the rug out from under the viewers in a different way. And I like the idea of us not really relying on that too much here and there. There’s always going to be big deaths in this show. But we never want to get to point where we’re like, “Oh, it’s been five episodes without a big death. There’s totally going to be a big death this episode. Oh, there it is!” We don’t want it to ever be predictable. So you’ve got to change that up and keep the viewers guessing so no one can really get a handle on exactly what it is that this show is doing. We definitely wanted to do something a little different. And I think our finale is just as impactful and just as much of a gut punch as we wanted to do. I think there is some really heavy material and shocking stuff. But I’m really proud of the fact that we didn’t need a death to give that impact.
EW: I feel like there are a lot of shows that really don’t kill characters a lot so then they do in the finale, and I sort of like it when you all do it off-pace episodes like Lori and T-Dog in episode 4 of season 3. When you do it in places like that I think it ends up having even more impact.
KIRKMAN: Yeah, we don’t ever want the show to become formulaic in any way.
EW: Okay, so let’s barter now. What do I have to give you to make you tell me where Carol, Tyreese, Judith, and Beth are?
KIRKMAN: [Laughs] That’s not for sale, man.
EW: C’mon, I got some old, dirty Star Wars t-shirts I can throw your way.
KIRKMAN: Can we get 12 more Entertainment Weekly covers?
EW: Let me talk to main man Matt Bean and I’ll get back to you on that. At least you can tell me that things will pick up in season 5 quicker than the 7 to 8 month time jump you’ve started the last two seasons with, right?
KIRKMAN: It would be a safe bet to think that is not the case. But you never know. We like to keep people guessing, so we’ll just have to see.
EW: Finally, you guys made the announcement that Dave Erickson from Sons of Anarchy and Low Winter Sun is going to be working on the Walking Dead spin-off show with you. What can you say about that?
KIRKMAN: I can just say that I have been a huge fan of Dave Erickson for many, many years. We actually developed a project together before The Walking Dead show ever happened. So to me he was the best possible guy for the job and I’m very excited about this idea of doing this companion show for The Walking Dead because people aren’t quite aware of all the different new angles we can go in and the new kind of stories we can tell and just how unique and exciting and how much this show can stand alone. I think people are going to be pretty taken aback by how cool this companion show can be. And being able to work with Dave on it will be pretty exciting for me.
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