'The Walking Dead': Showrunner Scott M. Gimple on that 'massive cliffhanger'
[SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched the season finale of The Walking Dead.]
The Walking Dead ended season 4 with a good news/bad news situation. The bad news: Most of our survivors had been captured and were being held in a train car by the folks at Terminus, who may have just exaggerated their hospitality by a weeeeeeee bit. The good news: They have their leader back. There will be no more shunning of violence by Rick Grimes, who got the party started by biting marauder Joe’s neck off and then gutting the thug who had Carl pinned down. Now he needs to get his group out their latest jam. We spoke with Walking Dead showrunner Scott M. Gimple to get his take on the finale, the return of Rick, whether the folks of Terminus may indeed be cannibals as speculated, the location of Carol, Tyreese, Judith, and Beth, and what may be in store in season 5. (Read though both pages for the entire interview. Also make sure to read our finale interviews with star Andrew Lincoln and creator Robert Kirkman.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start with the unique framing you gave this episode. You’ve done flashbacks before but never as much back-and-forth between present and past as you did here. How did you come upon the decision to go that route and really frame not just the episode but the entire season as this evolution of Rick Grimes?
SCOTT M. GIMPLE: Yeah, there you go. Actually, I think that’s it. It was really to show that evolution of Rick. If he had wound up in that train car at any earlier in the season or in his story he would not have been prepared for what he might need to do to get out. He would not be as confident as he is at the end. And this was all about that journey to that moment and really it was to show the contrast of where he was at the beginning of the season.
EW: You’ve had a lot of deep, profound, introspective dialogue this season, but then for the very last line, you just went pure badass with “They’re screwing with the wrong people.” Was that important to get that almost triumphant moment in the midst of this terrible situation, especially to show that Rick Grimes was back?
GIMPLE: You know what, man? You are speaking my language here. It’s a massive cliffhanger. It is. But from an emotional standpoint, that is the conclusion of Rick’s story this season. He has completed the journey to that moment. He has become the Rick Grimes that can face this impossible situation. And it’s weird. They’re locked away in a train car by a group of extremely organized and well armed people, and yet I believe it is a triumphant moment for Rick because he’s certain he can deal with it. And the guy he was at the beginning of the season probably wouldn’t have been so certain.
EW: You guys don’t really do cliffhangers on this show so this was a bit of a departure for you in that sense.
GIMPLE: I think it was a question of completing the emotional story being the most important thing. We knew about this very, very, very early in the process. We knew what that last line was. It is a cliffhanger. But we’re gonna launch right into season 5 sort of full-speed this way. I will say the end of season 1, though they weren’t hanging on by their fingernails or anything, it was cliffhangery. We did have that lovely Bob Dylan song but still they had no idea where they were going or what they were doing at the end of season 1. The end of season 1 is, like, what the hell are they going to do? And the end of this season is, like, what the hell are they going to do? But, I will say, again, Rick has never been more prepared to face something like this.
EW: Ever since you introduced the concept of Terminus everyone has been theorizing who those people might be. A lot of people, including myself, have guessed they might be a new version of the group of cannibals we met in the comics. There certainly seemed to be some hints in this finale that could be the case — at least the way I took them. What would you like to say about that speculation?
GIMPLE: I think the speculation is totally fair. I wouldn’t jump to that myself. The hard thing in my head that I try to sort of do is ask, if I hadn’t read the comic would I still be jumping to these people being cannibals? I can neither confirm nor deny. We have done stories that are different from the comic that lead to the comic stories, like the illness storyline in the prison is certainly an example of that. Though we are following the comic, and as far as where the story has turned in the comic it is right around the time of the cannibals and all, but there might be some stuff in the show before that.
EW: Is it safe to say that Gareth is the leader of Terminus?
GIMPLE: It really might not be entirely true, but he certainly was the leader in this situation. So getting into the power structures of Terminus beyond that probably isn’t very exciting anyway. But we know what we know, and he definitely was the guy in charge in this episode.
EW: Until the finale, the past month or so has featured the least amount of Rick Grimes that we’ve ever seen. With him being the protagonist that we started this journey with, were you guys concerned at all about being away from him so much?
GIMPLE: That’s a great question. I would say it’s not going to be the usual thing. This half-season, I feel so lucky to have been able to do this incredibly unusual season for a show. A lot of shows would never do this sort of thing. It’s a tribute to AMC and the support of the executive producers and the ingenuity of the writers and an incredible cast and the most incredibly generous actor I have ever met in my entire life, Mr. Andy Lincoln, that we were able to do this. This show reinvents itself every eight episodes. And I love that about it. It is an incredible challenge as we are doing a new television program every eight episodes. But that was an awesome TV show and I loved that TV show and now that TV show is going to be very different.
And there will be some times where you don’t see Rick Grimes. It is a big ensemble. But I told Andy for this half-season, chill out, play some golf, hang out with your family, because season 5 there is going to be a whole lot of Rick Grimes and you are not going to be lying unconscious on a couch for any of those episodes. So that was an unusual thing, but we all had a pretty good idea for our structure of season 5 back when we were starting season 4. I’m not saying I had everything completely locked down. But I knew generally what the structure for season 5 was going to be. And I knew that we could do a chapter of this story where we didn’t see quite as much Rick, to feature the other characters, focus on the other characters, build a relationship with those other characters. So when we see all these people together, we know who those people are even if they don’t get a whole lot of screen time in an episode.
EW: Now you mentioned this to me just a minute ago but I didn’t catch it. Where again did you say Carol, Tyreese, Judith, and Beth were? If you cold just repeat that for me, that would be great.
GIMPLE: Yes. They are on the road. They are in one of the storage containers. They are hanging out in quarters in Terminus. They were the ones firing on Rick and the group the whole time. Or that’s just a multi-level train car, and they’re just upstairs. I will say that episode 14 was the end of the character story for Tyreese and for Carol and it was important for me and the writers. We thought it was better to end with their emotional story rather than their geographic story, knowing that the finale would be mostly Rick’s story.
EW: So many main characters died in season 3. Was there a conscious decision on your guys’ part as you mapped out season 4 that you wanted to lessen the kill count a bit?
GIMPLE: The kill count is a weird thing because we don’t necessarily want the show to be like Survivor. I like Survivor. I think it’s a cool show. But you don’t want it to be like that. And you don’t place that as the first story victim. So it’s just in telling the stories and seeing where the stories go. You can do that in any episode and even in its least incarnation it has a great deal of power, but you shouldn’t lean on that power. And just in the stories we were telling this season, it really didn’t seem like our stories with these characters were leaning that way. They often do and there are plenty coming up. And I don’t even mean season 5, I mean season 6 and season 7.
But this story in and of itself just didn’t seem to bend that way. I will say though that if it can happen at any time, and it can, I don’t know if it’s great if it always happens in the penultimate episode and then the finale, like every year. Then that’s just sort of a weird type of storytelling. And even in the comic, you don’t see it coming and I think that’s a tribute to Robert not putting it in a regular rhythm. And it was kind of falling into a regular sort of rhythm with the show. Hershel’s death had to happen where it happened because it was about those two stories crashing together. With this, it just didn’t seem to be the story we were telling for this part of the season. We’re so lucky that there are so many fans of the show and it’s doing well that we can look forward to not having to do that every 15th and 16th episode of a season. But that could mean it happens in episode 1 of the firth season, and episode 4. We’re trying to tell the stories and have those moments fall where they may.
That isn’t to say that those things happening aren’t big things and they are very operatic and them happening at half season and season finales does make sense because that is the emotional apex of the story, but it just happened in this go round that it really was about transforming Rick into being the person he needed to be to face the world without angst while still retaining his humanity. Hershel’s death was a huge part of that. But really the biggest part of it in this one was the people that Rick killed rather than the people that Rick lost.
EW: The past two seasons have picked up about 7 or 8 months after the previous one ended. With this cliffhanger, can we assume that we’ll get back to these guys quicker than that?
GIMPLE: I have to say — though I would never want to say anything definitely — if I were a viewer I think it would be a hard thing to skip over whatever happened. I think it would be hard to skip over what the hell is going to happen and how the hell are they going to get out of that? Maybe we start 2 years later and we’re doing Lost style flashbacks every episode. And what’s weird is, everything is cool! The zombie apocalypse has been cleaned up. Everybody is just leading their regular lives. And nobody wants to talk about how they cured the zombie apocalypse and that’s the show. They don’t want to talk about what happened.
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AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.