Credit: AMC

SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have watched Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead, “The Well.”

And now for something completely different…

Gone was the doom and gloom of Negan and Lucille this week on The Walking Dead, as we were introduced to a far more agreeable newcomer — King Ezekiel! The former community theater actor and zookeeper-turned-leader of the Kingdom burst upon the scene… because that’s what you do when you have a scepter and a pet tiger: You burst.

We spoke to executive producer/director Greg Nicotero to get the behind-the-scenes scoop on the latest episode. How did they bring Shiva the tiger to the screen? What trick did Nicotero pull to make the Kingdom look different from every other community we’ve seen before? And is there a love connection brewing between Ezekiel and Carol? Read on!

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start right with the cold open. Carol is having these visions where the zombies that Morgan and the Kingdom dudes are killing — their faces are tuning human in Carol’s eyes. What’s that all about?

GREG NICOTERO: She’s clearly a bit feverish from her gunshot wounds and she’s sort of imagining the world alive and dead at the same time. It’s clear that Carol’s journey has been to try to get away from anybody that she cares about, because she doesn’t want to be forced to have to kill. So, in her fevered state, she keeps flashing back and forth between the world of the living and the world of the dead — clearly part of her internal struggle to determine which world she wants to live in. I mean, at the end of last year she was like, “Just kill me. I’m fine. If I died right now, it’s okay.” So I took that as some of it being her acceptance into the fact that if she were to go right now, it would be okay with her. So, sort of visualizing the world of the living and the world of the dead.

Morgan brings Carol to meet Ezekiel, and we’ll chat about him in a minute, but let’s talk about the tiger. Robert Kirkman, who created the Walking Dead comic, told me that when he first brought Shiva to life in his pages, part of him was like, “Yeah, okay, let’s see how they handle this one on the TV show,” because it seemed a somewhat impossible task. A lot of that task fell to you. Tell us how the sausage was made here, sir.

We’ve done a lot of pretty astounding animatronic animal effects. One of the first big projects that my company ever did was Dances With Wolves back in 1990. So part of the pedigree of a K&B has been our realistic animal replicas. Out of the gate, I had pitched to [showrunner Scott M. Gimple], “Listen, when we’re in medium shots and wide shots, let’s make a couple of awesome, amazing, cool animatronic puppets,” and then when she has to walk around or she has to do anything a little more elaborate, then we ended up going to a company that I had worked with quite a bit called Rhythm & Hues, who did Life of Pi, and they clearly had some pretty astounding digital tiger skills. For us, it’s been a lovely and very exciting marriage of these two techniques.

If they can put a tiger in a boat, I guess they can do pretty much anything. What about the Kingdom itself? Tell us about your vision for what this community is and how you wanted it to look, because clearly it feels different from what we’ve seen before.

It’s not a dreary prison that’s been fortified, even in terms of Alexandria, which doesn’t necessarily feel overly vibrant. The way that we established Alexandria is there are always these walls in the shots and we always still feel slightly claustrophobic — like there’s a beginning and an end to that community. With the Kingdom, there is no end to it. As a matter of fact, one of the things that I did was for every shot in the Kingdom is I increased the saturation of the color just a little bit because I wanted everything to pop. I wanted it to feel so different than the dead world outside. When you’re outside the walls of the Kingdom, it feels a little drab and it feels a little dull and a little lifeless because it is; it’s a dead world.

But then you get inside the Kingdom and you see beautiful flowers and you see a thriving community and you see a teacher teaching children and there’s a choir. I mean, everything about the Kingdom signifies vibrance, it signifies life, and it’s something that we haven’t seen in The Walking Dead, I don’t think, ever. Even Woodbury back in the day still didn’t have it right. So, this is really, in my opinion, the first community that we’ve encountered that really seems to have it dialed in: The people are happy; the people are thriving; there’s food; there’s well-trained people — everything that you could ever want.

That was one of the main things I talked about with [Melissa McBride] and [Lennie James]. When Melissa is being wheeled through the Kingdom, they have to look at this place — even though she’s 100 percent skeptical about what’s going on and she’s saying to Morgan, “What did you tell these people about us? What’s going on?” — I said, make sure that you still feel the fact that you are looking at a place that you have not seen in years.

Speaking about Melissa, I want to talk about the scene near the end between Ezekiel and Carol where he catches her as she’s sneaking out and he tells her the truth about this whole royalty act and that he was actually a zookeeper and community theater actor. I love the line where he explains his philosophy by saying,“I found a way to deal with the bad by going a little overboard with all the good. I just embraced the contradiction.” It’s fascinating the way this guy made himself into who he is in this world.

For me, that sequence with Carol and Ezekiel — that’s the heart of the episode, because the tone of his voice changes and he’s not The Man That’s On Stage anymore. He even says, “Listen, I do this for the people. They need something to believe in. Yeah, it’s a little ridiculous, but, you know what? When people heard that I had a tiger and I realized I had a role that I could play that could help people, that was my job.” I love the idea of him knowing that there are people out there that are like, “This guy’s got a tiger. If he’s got a tiger, he’s gotta be a badass.”

The iconic imagery and the mythology surrounding him is almost as powerful as Negan and almost as powerful as Rick. So, you figure you have a guy that when they hear his name, that they’re going to react a specific a way. That’s why the whole King Ezekiel gets played over and over again, because everybody around him is playing in this court with him. They do it for him and he does it for everybody else.

It gets to the heart of the matter that really, whatever you were before, it doesn’t matter. The apocalypse put a complete reset on everything. Once the apocalypse happened, he became King Ezekiel. Clearly, he wasn’t walking around as a king before the apocalypse.

Listen, Glenn was a pizza delivery boy before the apocalypse.

Too soon, Greg. Too soon. The other thing about that scene where he confides in Carol is that in the comic, it’s Ezekiel and Michonne — who later in the comic become a couple. There’s definitely some chemistry there between these two and we do see him knocking on that door at the end, so is there a possible love connection in the works here as well?

I think he admires her and respects her and I think she admires and respects him as well. Because he gets her and she understands what he’s trying to do. She thinks it’s a little ridiculous what he’s doing, but there’s respect. She’s like, “Listen, you’ve got a community here of people and they’re clearly not being murdered and not being torn to pieces by the living dead.” So she respects that he’s got something going, but she’s still wounded and she’s still like, “Listen I can’t be here. You have to just understand that.” He’s like, “Well, you know what, I’ll make a deal with you.” And that’s why she ends up at the cottage. Even that scene with Lennie and Melissa, when they get to the cottage and she’s like, “I’m sorry I hit you,” there’s just so many beautiful little sort of realizations.

I mean, it’s a great episode for Morgan, too, because Morgan finally realizes after an entire season that he can’t dictate to her who she is. He finally learns, cause he says to Carol all through season 6, “I’m afraid I can’t let you do that. I need to save you.” He’s on a mission, basically, to save her and she’s like, “It’s not your job. You don’t need to save me. I’m capable of saving myself if that’s what I decide to do. So, you need to leave me be.” So, it’s a great bit for Morgan, too, because he finds himself in a community of likeminded people where he can flourish and survive and he also realizes when he’s sitting there talking to Benjamin that he can’t make Carol be something that she isn’t. He finally decides to stop.

So what are we to make of Ezekiel showing up at Carol’s door at the end?

The fact that Ezekiel shows up at the end, to me, it’s just a sort of a peace offering. She hears the roar of the tiger at the door and opens it and he’s got the pomegranates there. I think it’s Ezekiel’s way of saying, “Listen, you need to choose life because there’s no reason to go on living if you’re not gonna embrace humanity.”

Give us a little tease of what we’ve got coming up next?

I would probably say that we’re gonna get back into our core group a little bit and start to feel some of the fallout from the first episode.

Also read our actor Khary Payton’s fascinating theory about Ezekiel and Negan, and Check out our new Walking Dead cover of Entertainment Weekly on stands now, or buy it here. And subscribe now to receive a free Walking Dead tote! For more Walking Dead scoop, follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

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The Walking Dead

AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.

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