'The Walking Dead' showrunner Scott M. Gimple answers premiere burning questions (like that secret scene)
[SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s season premiere of The Walking Dead.]
The Walking Dead just unleashed one of its most violent and emotional episodes ever with the season 5 premiere on Sunday night. And because apparently that wasn’t enough, it topped things off with a first for the show — a post-credits secret scene showing the return of Morgan. We tracked down showrunner Scott M. Gimple to get his take on the big Terminus raid, those emotional reunions, the unique flashback structure, a first ever secret scene, and what to expect next week. (Click through both pages to read the entire interview.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Okay, so can we now finally confirm that the people of Terminus are indeed cannibals?
SCOTT M. GIMPLE: You know, I confirm so little. Does Abraham really have a mustache? Um, I will say that they did go through a room that, you know, I would assume looking at that room that they’re eating people. That looked like it to me, and they certainly were preparing, or at least… they were bleeding out people in a way not entirely dissimilar to how some people slaughter animals.
Alright, so I’m going to take that as a “yes.”
[Laughs] I never deal in those binary terms.
I know you don’t. That’s as close as we’ll ever get to a confirmation.
Yes. Oh, I just said “yes!” I just blew the whole bit!
Alright, let’s start by talking about this Then and Now structure you introduced here in the premiere. Is this something we can expect to see all season?
You know what? I will be definitive. No, we will not see that all season.
Will we see it again?
We definitely play with time this season. And we’ll be jumping around a little bit, but I believe this is our only Then and Now.
Tell me though how you came up with telling these flashback stories and the framework to begin and end with those to show how the people of Terminus got that way. What was the impetus or inspiration for doing that? Is it sort of an extension of what you did with the Governor’s catch-up episodes last season?
I think that’s a good way to think about it. When I sit down with the writers to approach these stories, we want to know the whole story. And there are histories, and all sorts of other stories going on the show that we never really get to, that we know what went on, but because they’re not part of the main story, we don’t tell them.
I knew the story of Terminus and what happened there as our characters last year were on their way there. And I went back and forth with actually telling that story, but ultimately the story of Terminus, which I believe we’re able to do fairly economically in this episode, could very well be an echo of what happens moving forward to Rick and his crew. That there’s something about this world that if still alive, you’ve got to have some sort of story. It isn’t like nothing happened to you. If you’re still alive, some amazing things happened to you. Everybody walking around the planet on The Walking Dead in that timeline has an amazing story. And, to that end, they’re kind of like walking ghosts of Christmas Future and ghosts of Christmas Past to our characters. And I think the story of Terminus works that way with our characters this upcoming season.
We have that huge explosion, we have the zombies on fire. How complicated was that to put together in terms of shooting it live, and then, of course, all the special effects that were added later. Obviously you had Greg Nicotero directing it and he did an amazing job with all that. That’s probably the most complicated action sequence we’ve seen in a long time.
Well, I mean it really, really, really helps that it’s Greg doing it, because Greg and I work with each other throughout the year — and in some way or another in every single episode, often in many ways on every single episode. So we started planning it pretty soon. And I started talking to Greg pretty immediately. And there was a great deal of wishful thinking involved. When I’m writing the script, I’m not wearing my producer hat. I put that aside. And then when you’re done with the script, I can sort of curse myself for all the things that I’m making myself make happen.
You have a lot of people getting stabbed in the neck and eaten in the face. I mean, pretty violent stuff, even for your show. I remember talking to Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus, and they were like, “I don’t even know how some of this show’s stuff is going to make it on the air.” Was there any concern about getting that stuff on TV?
Absolutely. But even with that, we work with the network at an early stage, and of course we work with them at a late stage. There’s what’s written on the page, and there’s the visual image, which of course have wildly different impacts. And, yeah we were worried about a lot of things. And we also want to be sensitive. We also don’t want to be gratuitous. But as long as it serves the story and it serves the moment, we’re very comfortable with putting it on the air. And also, you know, it’s a TV-MA show. I’d say, throughout the process, I think there’s a pressure that we put upon ourselves, or that is put upon ourselves, by having this kind of content. The pressure is that we make it worth it, and that we make it have meaning.
And the kind of institutional violence that I believe that throat-slitting scene portrays is very critical to our story. Seeing such a pronounced, bloody, horrific thing being done by men who are completely dispassionate about it, and who are merely just having another day at the office, that this is their version of “time to make the donuts.” I think there’s something terrifying about that institutional violence. Institutional evil, I think, is the scariest stuff. And as they go down the line, and we see that there isn’t a personal stake in it, I think we become very cognizant of, well, these aren’t people we can talk out of this. They don’t really have much emotion to it. This is almost like dealing with a machine. It’s very, very terrifying — these people are no longer really people. And I think it was important to portray that very early in the season.
We saw Gareth shot in the shoulder, and there were some scenes of him in your Season 5 trailer that we have not seen yet. So, safe to assume we are not done with that character yet
Well, you know, again, let’s not make assumptions. Let’s think for a moment. That could be Gareth’s brother Rob. There’s that possibility, that it’s his brother Rob, that he’s a much nicer guy. I mean, I will say, you know, the trailer did show somebody who looks like that in other episodes. And yeah, it’s potentially possible that we haven’t seen the last of him. Or that it’s his brother Rob.
Sure. Okay, Scott. Alright, a few really heavy emotional beats in this episode. You have Carol reunited with Daryl and Rick, you have Rick and his baby Judith reunited. Then there’s Tyreese and Sasha. Which was more emotional for you as you were writing this thing?
Hmm… that’s a great question. I’ll answer it in two-parts. Writing it, it was interesting because from a structural standpoint, I knew the way it just had to go. And just in sort of a writerly perspective of it, it’s, like, man, these are two reunions right back-to-back. Is that too much? And as I was writing it, it just felt to me so right that Carol not only being there, but Carol delivering Judith and Tyreese to Rick and Carl and to Sasha. It just seemed so important, and it felt like a heightening of the emotion, which I was certainly feeling a great deal of emotion to see those characters come together. And also that those characters could come together in such an irrefutably good moment. You know, if Terminus hadn’t happened, and they were walking up to Carol, that scene would’ve been completely different. It’s not like it just would’ve been pure joy. It would be a little more complicated. And there are complications in it even in this scene, but Rick seeing that Carol was responsible for creating some of the ruckus that enabled them to be free, I mean, that makes that reunion immediately positive. And then to be heightened by the fact that she delivers Judith and Tyreese, it’s all positive.
Now on the day filming it — it’s funny because it absolutely came together wonderfully on screen — but, if you’re a little baby, and you’re sitting there in Chad Coleman’s arms, and you have Andrew Lincoln charging you at full speed, you burst out crying if you’re a baby and there’s some guy running at you at full speed. [Laughs] So it was a little bit of a different thing filming it, because, you know, Judith didn’t know what was up. She was scared by the man with the beard. So it’s kind of a funny thing, but I was very happy with the way it turned out.
It’s important to me that we do a show that hits all these different places in the human experience. The only reason that Rick does the things he does — it isn’t really for his own survival, it’s for the survival of his children and the sake of love. And the thing that these people struggle with so much is maintaining who they are as human beings. This is all very positive stuff, and to be able to portray that sort of thing on TV, you know is very exciting to me. And it really is the other side of horror, or the other side of survival, which is… yeah, things like love. I’m very happy to see that the audience is down with that. There’s so much TV that is so nihilistic, and so about how bad people are. I think it’s so much more complicated than that, and I think great stories can come out of that complication.
I always have to ask whenever I don’t see it happen onscreen: Did Tyreese actually kill that guy in the cabin?
I never say one way or the other, you know. But I will say that’s not a bad thing at least to pick up, like “Wow, the way he said that, we didn’t see it, what happened.” I mean there’s always the possibility of a greater story towards things that we don’t see. It could be the story of how he killed that guy, which could be a whole big story and super interesting, or it could be how he didn’t kill that guy, and that also could be a whole big story that’s super interesting. But picking up that there’s more to it? Sure, I’ll accept that.
We see you do this secret scene at the end. We see Morgan come across Rick’s crossed-off Terminus sign at the end there. First off, just talk about why do that as a post-credits scene? That’s the first time for you guys. So tell me about the decision to do that.
That was about storytelling rhythms. That was about, yes, having a surprise for the audience. It also was about sequestering this story of this episode, “No Sanctuary,” into its own contiguous piece. And that bit with Morgan is another story. It’s another thing. He’s walking off the railroad tracks, going into the forest, following something. It seems like the start of something. It just felt good that way. And I asked AMC, “Hey can we do that?” They were like, “Hey, that sounds great.” And that was enough for me.
How much more Morgan can we expect to see coming up, and also, what is his mental state like these days, because it was certainly a little shaky last time we caught up with him in another episode you wrote, “Clear.”
There are clues onscreen to his mental state. I would say that he’s definitely dressed better than the last time we saw him. He looks pretty well put together. You know, he’s not talking to himself. I would say that, just laying eyes on him, it looks like a different Morgan. And then as far as how much we’re going to see of Morgan, you know me very well — that I will not be specific about that. But I will say that it does seem like he is following something, like he’s walking towards something, that it’s the start of something.
And let’s talk about another person. There’s this big villain named Negan in the comic books down the line a little bit. You guys have said pretty clearly that at some point this guy’s going to show up. There was a character in that last scene from the train car who comes in and whacks Gareth in the face. I’ve already talked to a few people that have asked, “Is that Negan?” My thoughts are it’s too soon to see him yet, but I will ask you: Is that Negan that we saw there?
I’m going to say this one definitely, because I think it has an important aspect to the story. No, that’s not Negan.
Okay, that’s what I figured.
Negan does not have a ponytail. Unless he’s carrying someone else’s in his pocket, it’s not him, the ponytail. I will say that you do see that a character at the end of the show, earlier in the show. [Ed note: Turns out the guy in that final scene is the same crazy one Glenn freed from the other boxcar.]
You spent months and months teasing this season premiere, telling us, “Hey, we’re going to get a lot of answers,” and we certainly did. But now that’s done, Scott, so now the next question is what can you tell us about the next episode we’re going to see on Sunday?
Oh, wow we’re into that now.
That’s how quick it happens, man.
I will say that there are some massively disgusting things that happen. You know how I was saying it’s complicated between Rick and Carol? Some of that is explored. A lot of business between these characters is explored. We might meet a new character, and I’m going to go back to super disgusting. I mean, super disgusting stuff.
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AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.