'Walking Dead' writer Robert Kirkman talks 'Bloodletting'
“Bloodletting” is a title you could give to pretty much any episode of AMC’s gore-drenched, zombie-filled Walking Dead. But it was a particularly apt one for Sunday night’s show, which found the stricken Carl (Chandler Riggs) being given transfusions of the red stuff from his father Rick (Andrew Lincoln) following the young ‘un’s shooting at the end of the season premiere. Said transfusions took place on a farm belonging to new character Hershel (Scott Wilson), a venue that seems likely to be the characters’ base for the next few episodes (at least those who can get there alive. IronE Singleton’s T-Dog was looking rather peaky by end of the show and heaven knows what’s happened to Madison Lintz’s Sophia).
Below, Robert Kirkman — who pens the Walking Dead comic and is one of the show’s writers — talks about the episode, why Shane (Jon Bernthal) is “a good guy,” and his enthusiasm for the idea of a Walking Dead breakfast cereal.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you start the show with a pre-apocalypse flashback?
ROBERT KIRKMAN: It speaks to Shane and his relationship to Lori and Rick in the early days. A lot of people think of Shane as a clear villain and that he did a bad thing. But if you really analyze that situation, he’s a good guy and has done the right thing at every turn. Because he’s done that, and it’s not working out for him, it’s driving him crazy. So we really wanted to show that he’s a tragic figure much more than a villainous figure. It’s just a series of unfortunate situations that have led to him slowly losing himself in this world. Popping back in time and showing his concern for Rick and how he cares for Lori and Carl, I thought that would be a good thing to do.
I find myself trying to second guess Shane’s motivations all the time. In this episode, when he insists that he is the one who should go and get Lori, you’re left to wonder if he’s doing that because it’s the most sensible course of action or because he wants to seem in some way heroic to her.
At this point, who knows? His motivation could be anything. But I like to think that at the very least, very early on, everything he did was altruistic. I also have to go back and say that (director) Ernest Dickerson’s choice of running by that fence at the very beginning of that scene, before you even realize it’s flashback, really blew me away. That guy is a rock star when it comes to directing.
“Bloodletting” introduced several new cast members, including two great character actors in the form of Scott Wilson and Pruitt Taylor Vince. At this point, what is the audition process on the show like?
It’s really awesome being able to watch the screen tests when they come through, or the videos, or whatever it’s called when an actor sits in a room and reads lines in the hopes that you will hire them. It’s cool seeing that process. It fascinates me to think about how actors go into a room and read lines, not knowing if their height is going to knock them out or their hair color. Not that we decide on hair color. But sometimes [someone will say], “I don’t like this guy’s cheekbones.” You’re like, “F— you, his cheekbones? That’s not his fault! How can you do that?” It’s just a weird situation that fascinates me for some reason.
I didn’t see any kind of substantial fence around Hershel’s Farm, which concerns me a great deal, zombie-wise.
That’s something we explore moving deeper into the season. There’s a lot of fences on Hershel’s Farm and also it’s a large plot of land and it’s in a very rural area. It’s so rural that even having fences might not be necessary because the population is so… What’s the opposite of dense?
Sparse! That’s what I’m looking for.
Good thing you’re not a writer, or anything.
Well, I’m not usually doing it live. Come on! But because the population is so sparse — because there are less and less zombies as they move out of the city — Rick and his group are encountering a different kind of threat, they’re encountering people that don’t know what the outside world is like. And that’s going to bring a lot of conflict, moving forward.
Were you always determined to get to Hershel’s Farm as soon as possible this season? In the comic book there’s a great little story arc where Rick and the rest of the survivors think they’ve found this great, undead-free place called Wiltshire Estates, which actually turns out to be Zombie Central. Were you tempted to incorporate that into the show?
Everybody in the writer’s room wanted to get on that farm, see those pastures, change the vibe of the show as early as possible and have a pretty clear transition between season 1 and season 2. But I like that Wiltshire Estates stuff in the comic too. There is a kind of a tribute to that coming later in the season.
When I saw the zombie in the FEMA jacket at the high school I imagined a lot of Tea Party members going, “Ha! This is what happens when the Federal government tries to sort out a disaster!”
We want every member of the world to be a member of our audience!
From politics to religion: In the first two episodes of this season there were several nods to the subject of prayer and in the premiere you actually had Rick asking for heavenly advice. Is that something you felt the show had to tackle?
We feel it’s true to the region. There’s a lot of religious people in that area of the country. It would be disingenuous to ignore that. It’s an interesting thing to deal with: What place religion would have in this world after this kind of a catastrophe and where people’s mindset would be in relation to that. I like to think of Rick as a somewhat non-religious person. I think that scene shows just how desperate he is, that he doesn’t necessarily believe in that, but he’s like, “Okay, I’m here. What’s it going to hurt? What the heck do I do?” He just doesn’t know if he’s doing the right thing and he’s very insecure about his position in the group and how everyone’s looking to him as a leader. And it’s that insecurity that’s going to be a thru-line through this season, Rick kind of finding himself as a leader.
When I reread the comic I’m often struck by the thought that, while Rick means well and is clearly a brave individual, maybe he’s not a good leader. If his followers had to fill out some sort of exit questionnaire, I can imagine some of them having harsh things to say, particularly on the subject of Rick’s inability to keep people alive.
[Laughs] Yeah. “I got this questionnaire for how good of a job I did. Who would like to…? Oh, there’s no one left.” I mean, he’s saved Glen! No, he has an impossible job. To a certain extent, even surviving for a week is miraculous in this world. The fact that everyone is dying around him and people are still like, “This guy knows what he’s doing!” just shows how chaotic and terrifying things are, which is kind of cool. But he does suck as a leader when it gets down to it, in the comic. In the show, he might be a little better.
I have to admit that I’m suffering from Michael Rooker withdrawal.
We’re all suffering from Michael Rooker withdrawal. That’s really all I can say on the matter. We love him. We want him back. It could happen in episode 3, could happen in episode 7, could happen in a possible third season. But we’re going to get him back. Both him and Lennie James (who plays Morgan) brought a lot of credit to the first season and we’re absolutely dying to work those guys back into the show. It’s not something we’re going to forget. We’re not going to abandon these characters.
Walking Dead is far from being the only comic you write. What other title of yours would you recommend fans of the show check out?
I’m contractually obligated to mention that I do Invincible with Ryan Ottley, who is a very good artist, and everyone at Entertainment Weekly should read that book. It’s very important to me to keep my foot in the comic book world. I am a sell out. I make no bones about it. I have young children and a wife and I have to make a living and, by god, I’ll do Walking Dead cereal. I do not give a s—. [Laughs] “Gummy zombies in every bite!” But I don’t want to abandon who I am and I am a comic book writer. The TV show is great and I enjoy working on it. But I don’t want to work on it to the point where I can’t do comics. So I made a real commitment that, if I’m going to go to California and work on the second season, I’m going to have to make the time to do the comics. But I’m happy to do a Walking Dead baseball hat because it’s a neat thing and people like wearing baseball caps and whatever. I’ll take that money.
The problem will come if Rick starts killing zombies while wearing a Walking Dead baseball hat.
See, that’s where I draw the line. I’m never going to have Rick walking around in a Subway t-shirt going, “If I could only find a submarine sandwich!” That’s not cool.