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[SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s “Thank You” episode of The Walking Dead.]
Well, there is one person we know for sure died in that big scene from last night’s The Walking Dead, and his name is Nicholas. The character’s road to redemption hit a major speed bump when he and Glenn found themselves on top of a dumpster surrounded by zombies. A dazed and confused Nicholas got a moment of clarity and then blew his own brains out, causing both him and Glenn to fall to the ground where we know at least one of them was devoured.
The man who played Nicholas, Michael Traynor, called into Entertainment Weekly Radio (SiriusXM, channel 105) on Monday morning to discuss the big scene with Jessica Shaw and yours truly. And while he would not reveal whether Glenn was actually dead or alive, he provided insight and intel for why things went down the way they did, what filming that scene was like, whether Nicholas is a coward or a hero, and what memento he may have scored from the set. (Read through both pages for the entire interview, and also make sure to read our verdict on whether Glenn is really dead or alive.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How and when did you first find out about Nicholas’ fate here in episode 3?
MICHAEL TRAYNOR: Before we started shooting season 6, [showrunner] Scott Gimple was lovely enough and brave enough to give me a call and talk about their ideas and plans for the Nicholas story line. And I really think that was a commendable thing to do, because to tell an actor, “Hey, your time on this amazing job may be short-lived,” is a really brave thing to handle.
Nicholas lasts much longer in the comic version. Did you think you might be around a bit longer when you got this role knowing he stuck around for a while?
You always hope. It’s one of the best jobs you can imagine. But I find that in so many brilliant ways, the way that Scott pilots this show and this behemoth of a storyline — this is a really exciting deviation from the comics. I was excited to be a part of that storyline and just have Nicholas recede into the background and be another one of the army behind Rick.
What did you think when they told you how you were going to go out?
I thought it was a very interesting continuation of the argument of not only is humanity an attribute that is a positive or negative in the apocalypse, but what are the elements of survival? Regardless whether you believe it, humans are inherently good or evil? What are these elements that it takes to survive in this harrowing experience? And I think you have the dichotomy of Glenn, who is always focusing on solutions, and somebody like Nicholas, who seems to have had a crisis of faith in himself and in the opportunity to survive. So I thought it was an interesting talking point. I keep thinking this show does stir both wild fan reaction and emotion and throwing of remote controls at TVs, but it also does have that conversation: How would you survive the apocalypse? What would you do? What does it take?
This final move of Nicholas’ could be interpreted one of two ways: So why do you think he pull the trigger? Is this a cowardly move of giving up, or is he sacrificing himself for Glenn, thinking the zombies will get me and maybe he can get out of here alive?
Going into it and talking to Michael Slovis, who directed the episode beautifully, and Angela Kang, who was on set and wrote that episode — we were all chatting about this moment and this final farewell to a man who had just so graciously, almost to a fault, saved Nicholas’s life. We wanted to keep it a little ambiguous, and I feel as though there was just a moment of gratitude because what Nicholas says in that moment to Glenn is in a moment of peace. And I don’t think Nicholas has found any kind of peace since this horrible plague befell humanity. And I think what he’s doing there is saying thank you for this bit of piece and this it of clarity. As far as what his real motivations were, I think there is still room to explore that in the storyline.
How hard was it to film that and say those last words?
It was kind of beautiful because my journey on the show mirrored Nicholas’ in that so many times Steven as an actor and as an elder statesman saved me and helped me, and we talked through scenes. This was a big job for me and there was a lot of personal pressure I put on myself. And also you just want to tell a good story so there’s pressure for the job. It was kind of a beautiful thing to say “thank you” on camera to Steven and have that mirror in a strange way the Nicholas–Glenn storyline.
But chaos is also the perfect word. We had hundreds of extras around us, there were multiple cameras, there was a thriving mass of death around us, and this little moment. We only did it a few times because Michael Slovis was like, “No, we got it.” He was very confident in the story he wanted to tell and he knew when he had it. It was both a beautiful moment and rather exhilarating.
Let’s go back to the beginning of the episode where we see Nicholas having these moments where he is freezing up and zoning out. Is this him having flashbacks to his role in the previous incident where a bunch of his comrades died and this is hitting him now? Is it the pressure of being chased by a herd? Is it the proximity of the town where the incident took place? Or maybe all of that?
That’s the way I was thinking of it. There are echoes of “we have a plan,” and then when the plan starts to go wrong, how do you handle that pressure of not just executing the plan, but of dealing with the bumps and the turns and the unexpected events? And he doesn’t handle that well. Again, the idea of — do you focus on the solution? Do you adjust and stay agile, or do you focus on what’s going wrong? And I think, unfortunately, Nicholas had a proclivity for focusing on all that what goes wrong and all that being uncontrolled and unraveling.
And there are those moments in season 5 where Aiden and Nicholas talk about this mission that got screwed up and they lost other Alexandrians. And then throughout this episode Nicholas is forced to go back and relive that — even encountering the remains of one of the guys who he left behind. So I think there is a haunting and a reliving of that failed plan.
Let’s talk about that scene where you come across that walker of the former Alexandrian named Will that you left behind. Nicholas says he should be the one to do it. Is this him continuing to try to right the wrongs of his past?
He’s totally trying, but he’s just not conditioned for it. He jumping right into this horrible nightmare and he’s just not conditioned for it. He doesn’t have the skill set to survive that. There have been so many times where Glenn, and Rick, and Daryl, and Michonne have had these scrapes where they seemingly can’t get out of, but they are able to find a way through grit and determination are able to survive, and that conditions you to know you have the tools. And when the proverbial zombie bits hit the fan, Nicholas just didn’t have that faith. It was a crisis of faith. He had an extra bullet in the chamber and there was an opportunity for peace.
And Glenn tries to talk him up and tell him “You’re not that guy now” and give him inner strength to solidify his new identity.
That’s the tragic thing. That’s what’s so brilliant about this show. It can handle these tragic storylines. It’s so sad. You have this guy who wants to be a better person. You have another man who is the caliber of person that Nicholas wants to be who believes in a strange way for whatever reason in Nicholas. There are always elements that it could become a great partnership, or at least a mentorship. And then it just can’t. We fail. The majesty and tragedy of life is right there in that storyline.
What’s it been like to see the reaction from everyone about what went down?
It’s part of television history. It seems like it was a really important episode for the fans and the show and it is challenging everyone’s sense of what is or isn’t safe, and what is or isn’t sacred on the show. It was a lot of fun to watch the matrix of Twitter glitch and freeze and everything. You want to go and hug everyone and say, “It’s going to be okay. We’re going to get through this,” but my fingers just couldn’t type fast enough to answer all the calls for solace.
How many calls did you get? How many people have tried to get you to tell them what is going on with Glenn?
Everybody — my mom included. I didn’t tell a soul what was happening. Not even my mom knew. She’s got some dirt on me that she threatened to call any publication with, so you know it’s a good when your mom is trying to blackmail you.
How do you think Walking Dead fans will ultimately view Nicholas?
In the history books Nicholas might be viewed as somebody who tried — who admitted the error of his ways and tried, but unfortunately came up short. I hope I was able to do the writers justice and lend some complexity in the flesh that was certainly on the page to this guy. He was just a human being, and sometimes the challenges in front for us are overwhelming.
What was your last day on set like?
It was kind of beautiful. My experience of doing The Walking Dead — the first few episodes I was just terrified and wanted to do a good job and really honor this opportunity I had. And then you always want to know, how is it going to happen? What is it going to be? Do I get to do a lot of episodes? Am I going to die next? But once you get the call and once you know, everything is sort of blissful. You’re like “Aw, man, this coffee is the best coffee I’ve ever had!” It’s almost an existential training camp for how you’re going to handle death as a human being. And that last day was so great. And every joke you share with the crew and the cast is the best joke ever. It was just a beautiful way to kind of go. Steven was lovely and everyone was really great.
Did you snag any mementos from the set?
I have my script for episode 603 signed by all of the folks, and that was kind of it. Maybe Nicholas’ belt went missing. Maybe I lost it in the woods. Maybe I have it at home. But, most likely, I just lost it in the woods. [Laughs]