The Walking Dead season 5 premiere is just a few days away (on Sunday, Oct. 12), so what better way to get yourself ready than with a deep dive with the man who created the Walking Dead world, Robert Kirkman. Read what the comic book writer and TV show exec producer has to say about what we will see coming up, including multiple threats and multiple…couples? (Click through both pages to read the entire interview.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Before we get micro, let’s start big picture. I know sometimes you guys look at these as 8-episode chunks or arcs of what you’re going to do. I guess if that’s the case, why don’t you start by telling me the overall story or theme of how you see this next batch of episodes.
ROBERT KIRKMAN: The show is about characters evolving and growing and changing over time, so for our first batch of eight episodes, if you’ve seen the trailer you very much see that these characters are in this new state of mind — the state of mind that they’ve formed after living through this crucible in the last half of season 4. What you have on the surface could appear to be another Governor conflict with Gareth, who’s the guy who is in charge of Terminus and is definitely in conflict with Rick. But the thing that excites me most about this show is that because these characters are growing and evolving and changing, Gareth is coming against a very different Rick Grimes than the Governor did. So the outcome is going to be quite different. The only hint that I’ll really give you is that there’s a lot of ground covered in our first 8 episodes, so I would say without a doubt that Gareth is far from the only threat, quite possibly far from the biggest threat, and there’s quite a bit on the horizon. I would just say more than any other season, we hit the ground running, and there’s quite a bit going on with all of these characters. I think people are going to be pretty happy to be along for the ride.
Let’s talk about the Terminus folks. There seem to be more clues that they could indeed be cannibals with some of the footage we saw in the preview and obviously some of the other clues and parallels to the comic book. What do you want to say about that?
I’ll answer that with two statements: One, wouldn’t it be crazy if they didn’t turn out to be cannibals, since everything seems to be going that way? And two, all I’ll say is this season is following the comic book storyline pretty closely, possibly closer than we ever have before, and there’s a very popular, familiar storyline in the comic books that happened immediately following the exodus of the prison and it is entirely possible that we will be touching in some way on that very popular storyline.
I think it’s clear either way that we’re definitely about to get some more answers to what these people are doing at Terminus, correct?
Yeah, we left the season on a cliffhanger and it was a big cliffhanger. But by minute two or three of our season premiere, I think the vast majority of our questions have been answered and five or six more have been presented. People wanting to know who the people of Terminus are, what they eat, whether or not our group gets out of the train car, where certain characters are that weren’t in the train car — you’re going to have a pretty tight five minutes of adventure to watch there that is going to reveal quite a bit. We haven’t ended the season on a cliffhanger before. This is really our first season ending in a cliffhanger. As a viewer, one thing that I really hate is when you leave something on a big moment and have this big cliffhanger moment and then you take your time paying that off. Shows where there’s this big cliffhanger and then it’s the end of episode 2 or 3 before you get any real answers as to what we left you hanging on — we’re definitely not doing that. From minute one, it’s like, oh, this is what this was, this is what that was, here’s where these people are, here’s where this person is — so you’re very much going to be invested, well informed, and ready for the ride that we’re going to take you on.
Obviously people have a lot of questions about Gareth, just because he was introduced at the end of last season and we haven’t seen a lot of him yet. What can you say about what type of adversary he is going to be? What is it about him that makes him dangerous?
I think the main thing about him is probably his intelligence. More than anything, he certainly has this element of calm to him that the Governor especially lacked. He seems to be very pragmatic and that serves him well in terms of keeping the community going. And definitely, the way we’re going to see him interacting with Rick, it’s a very different interaction — it’s much more conversational. And we’ll be seeing two people who are pretty much on equal playing fields leadership-wise. I think that the Governor proved himself to be not a very good leader time after time, and that’s certainly not what we’re going to see with Gareth.
I want to talk about this mission to Washington to stop the zombie plague. This is something we haven’t really seen since season 1 when they were going to the CDC, meaning having this destination, this mission to get somewhere and do something. What does this mission represent for the group? Is it hope? Is it a sense of purpose? Or is it different things to different people?
Well, first, I’ll say you have to recognize our season is going to start with people trapped in a train car being held captive by people. We already know that one of our major scenes from the season is this massive trip to Washington. You can already get a sense of just how jam packed things are going to be. There’s quite a bit of material to deal with before we bridge those two storylines. But I’ll say that this trip to Washington, like the first time, it’s certainly about hope, and it’s definitely about a sense of purpose. Since the first season, these characters have been surviving, going from event to event just trying to keep their heads above water. I think that this season finally finds them in a position to start to think about things more long term, and they actually have a clear goal that seems achievable. So it’s a new vested interest in life that all these characters are going to have because there’s actually a goal now beyond surviving, something that they think they can achieve, something that they can all work toward. It could very much bring them all together. It certainly has the potential to tear them apart. It’s kind of a mixed bag.
It’s a little bit of different show too when you have the group on the move a little bit, isn’t it? We had them on the move to begin with, and they were a little more settled down at the farm and at the prison. It looks like we’re now going to see them on the move again. It gives it sort of a different feel, doesn’t it?
Well, I like the realism of it. If this were a show that were done 20 years ago they would have sat on that farm and been like, “Well, we live on the farm now,” and they wouldn’t have moved locations. I think the way modern storytelling and television is, you can evolve these characters and change settings and do these things. I think as an evolving show about characters evolving, having the locations evolve along with it is really just kind of an attempt to have as much realism as possible. This is not a very safe world. Finding a place that’s going to be completely safe for a long duration of time is going to be almost completely impossible, but I’m really proud of the fact that our show is different from season to season. If you look at season 1 and compare it to season 5, it’s going to be two vastly different shows. I think that’s a very exciting. It keeps our show unique. We’re really excited to have them back on the road. There are a lot of cool storylines that’ll come from that. We’ll see where we go from there.
We got a lot of downtown Atlanta in season 1, yet we really haven’t seen it since then. We’re going to be getting a taste of that again this year. What is that city like now?
I’ll definitely say that the show just looks different. We’ve spent a lot of time in the woods, as they say. Going back into the city — it is coming home again. We saw a little bit of that in the first season, but it is going to be vastly different. More than the location though, more than the visuals, the world itself has changed, so the things that you would have encountered in the city in the first season are very different from what you’re going to encounter in the city in the fifth season. You can’t really look back at the first season and kind of expect what’s coming or get any inclination of what we’re going to see. This is a very different urban environment from what we’ve seen before.
How is the show different when you have this big group back together?
All of our actors, it becomes one big happy family. People spending time on set and having everyone together, it’s a much different atmosphere on set. Everyone seems to be having more fun to a certain extent. No one is feeling left out, and that’s pretty exciting. More than anything, I think it’s just watching these characters play off of each other when you have this big group. Abraham is a character who interacts with Eugene and Rosita a lot, and Glenn and Maggie interact a lot. You kind of have these little pods that form as you’re writing episodes. Daryl and Carol spend a lot of time together, and so on and so forth, and when you have them all in this big group mashed together, it opens up so many more possibilities for the characters, so many more interactions that we can explore. You learn more about Abraham when you see how he reacts to things that Rick does or that Carl does or that Sasha does. Being able to play these characters off of such a wide ranging group of people really just lends to more interesting stories. I think that’s something that will be coming out this season. That is definitely the result of having the bigger group together for a longer period of time.
You mentioned Rick and Abraham, and obviously in the comics they have a very bumpy ride at first. Are we going to be seeing a little bit of that between those two headstrong characters?
That’s something we can expect. You’ve seen from last season in Abraham’s introduction that this is a guy who’s not only very much in charge and very much a leader, but he has this mission that he will not waiver from. So he’s that much more immovable when it comes to making decisions and leading. That’s something that is going to certainly put him at odds with Rick, at least at first. A good portion of the season is definitely going to focus on how these two very headstrong people figure out a way to interact in a way that’s actually productive to the group.
And what about some of the others? We have the Tara situation, where Rick saw her on the other side of that fence and he’s there now and she’s there now and Maggie’s there now. Is that something where the dots are going to get connected at some point?
That is certainly a lingering plot thread that will be dealt with. We did not forget that. That was something that was done on purpose, making sure that the audience knew Rick saw Tara on the other side of that wall so that that would have to come into play once she was brought in to be part of the group. We will be dealing with that. It’s a question: Will Rick be able to forgive her the same way Tyreese seems to have forgiven Carol? It’s a toss up. We certainly have left Rick in a place where he is sort of a take no prisoners, you’re f—ing with the wrong guy kind of person. That conflict could be a bit of a powder keg.
Then there’s the Rick-Carol situation where Tyreese forgave Carol, but how does Carol feel about Rick leaving her out there? If they were to come together at some point, how is that going to play out?
I’ll say that that we don’t waste any time getting around to that conflict. I’ll say that.
I do know that we’re going to have a little more romance this season. Abraham and Rosita in the comics have a relationship that we haven’t really seen much of yet on screen. You have some other characters where there may be something there, like Bob and Sasha. Do you have anything to say about romance beyond Glenn and Maggie in season 5?
There’s certainly more couples. I wouldn’t say that the entire group is starting to pair off, but there’s been some hints. I think if you go back and watch season 4, you’ll see some indication as to relationships that are forming here and there. Sadly, I would say that Daryl’s situation remains somewhat ambiguous, or should I not say that?
You’re just crushing the dreams of a lot of people.
That’s a powder keg for my Twitter feed, I tell you. But yeah, a lot of romance this season. I’m going to regret answering that question.
So what about Father Gabriel? Seth Gilliam has taken on this very prominent role from the comics. How is the Father Gabriel we see on screen here going to match up what we know from the comics and his connection to this world?
I would say it’s very close. Seth is bringing a lot to the role, but we are keeping it pretty close to the comic to a certain extent. But I will say Father Gabriel’s introduction in the comic book was very closely tied to that cannibal storyline with the hunters in the comic book, so I think that his inclusion is possibly another clue as to whether we’ll be dealing with that material.
What can you say about the Beth storyline in terms of what’s going on with her or when we might find out what’s going on with her?
There’s quite a lot to get to in the first half of season 5. The Beth storyline is definitely one of them. I wouldn’t expect it too terribly soon. But I think it’s pretty clear from what we’ve shown in the trailer that Beth has had a pretty difficult, pretty involved storyline that we haven’t really witnessed. There’s been a lot going on with her while she was missing and we’re definitely going to see a lot of that, so all things will be revealed Beth-wise. It’s going to have some pretty far-reaching ramifications for all the characters.
You talked earlier about the comic books and sort of where we’re at in the show and where we’re at in the books. I know you guys jump around a fair amount, but that famous Rick line at the end of issue 64 that closed last season: Are you staying in that general vicinity in terms of what you may cover here on the show? Obviously, I know you bounce around a little bit, but is that sort of a road map for what you might be covering or the area we should be looking at?
You know I can’t answer that. We have for the most part followed the comic books chronologically and those issues are the ones that come after the events of season 4 chronologically. It’s entirely reasonable to assume that, but, that said, we have jumped around a lot. We might be doing something very big before that just to throw people off. I’ve already said too much.
Does that sort of remix philosophy hold true in season 5? We saw a lot of stuff in season 4 where you saw events from the comic books but happening in different places or to different people — like Hershel being beheaded instead of someone else who remains among the living. Fair to expect more of that?
We’ll always be doing that. There’s certain things that are going to happen to different characters than the way they happen in the comics. There will be certain characters that live longer than they did in the comics and characters that don’t live as long as they did in the comics The remixing nature of the way we adapt the comic book series is always going to remain in tact. I don’t think we’ll be remixing any less this season, but it’s possible that we could be pulling in more material from the comics than we have in past seasons.
Is the Alexandria Safe Zone a place the group may end up in season 5?
It’s certainly a possibility, but it seems like that’s a ways off to me.
Finally, we talked about how you planned the comic as a zombie movie that doesn’t end. However, as far as TV, you’re in season 5 and not to say that shows necessarily shut down then, but some shows start to map out their long term strategy around then. Obviously you have the spinoff coming, but tell me how you feel about the long-term future of the TV version?
I’m optimistic to a naive degree, I guess. I’m starting to think, it’s the zombie movie that never ends, but the comic book series, when it’s all said and done, it will have an ending, it just won’t happen for a very long time. Sometimes I think maybe we will get to tell this entire story in television form because I will be telling the entire story in comic book form, but if the comic ends up going longer than the show, then we’ll have to alter our plans and do something a little different. But I don’t know. We haven’t really started thinking about that yet. Scott Gimple and I, we have many, many seasons mapped out— how they would adapt the comics, what portion of the comics they would focus on, and where certain events would fall in our television structure. I think we’ve got at least another year or so before we have to start talking about what the end game is and where the end game is.
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