By Dalton Ross
February 12, 2017 at 10:13 PM EST
Gene Page/AMC
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SPOILER ALERT: Read only if you have already watched The Walking Dead’s midseason premiere, “Rock in the Road.”

Smiles, everyone, smiles! No, we have not just landed a seaplane on Fantasy Island, but you are forgiven for feeling that way at the end of The Walking Dead’s midseason premiere, “Rock in the Road.” Surrounded by a scary-looking, weapon-toting group, Rick retaliated with… a huge grin?

Rick smiling under any circumstances is a momentous occasion, but this one seemed extra curious. What was behind the beam on Rick’s face? We went to executive producer Greg Nicotero — who also directed the episode — for answers. Nicotero also discusses that epic highway action sequence, Gregory and Ezekiel’s refusal to join the fight, and what’s coming up next. (Click through both pages to read the entire interview, and also make sure to check out our exclusive storyboards for the insane zombie-slicing extravaganza.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start with the very end. Rick is surrounded by this new group carrying shovels and guns, and he is all smiles. What is that smile all about?
GREG NICOTERO: Of course he is. It’s the perfect ending for the episode. You know, we see him at the beginning, he’s pretty dedicated to putting an army together. He needs people to fight, so he goes to the Hilltop. He has a loss with Gregory, but then he has a win with Maggie. Then he goes to see King Ezekiel, and the king was not necessarily willing to fight, but Rick knows they’re there. Then they find all the explosives on the freeway. So the whole episode is really based on that series of wins and losses for Rick, but Rick’s not giving up.

When they get back to Alexandria and they realize that Gabriel’s gone and strange things are afoot at the Circle K — when they are surrounded by that new and mysterious group that we’ve only caught a quick glimmer of, Rick sees soldiers. That’s why he smiles. I don’t think he’s worried for a second. I think he looks, and he’s like, okay, I need a win here, and there are a lot of people here, and they have weapons, and this is what I need. So the gears are clicking. The gears start turning, and then, boom, we’re out.

This could all be connected to the beginning of the episode when Father Gabriel takes all these supplies out of Alexandria. What is that all about?
There will be more information as you view it more than one time, because, if you notice, there is a moment when he gets in the car, and the car’s driving away, and somebody sits up in the seat next to him. Not alone. So what we like is playing with the idea that it was always intended to be sort of uncertain. Has Gabriel gone a little crazy? What’s going on? Did he come up with or brainstorm some plan and he’s going to take all the supplies? But then, as soon as he drives away, you see somebody sit up in the car next to him.

There’s even a little subtle thing when he’s putting gas in the car. You might see the reflection of somebody in the car. So I think after a couple viewings, it’s sort of apparent — especially even after Rick says Gabriel wouldn’t do that and Gabriel would never leave — that something must have happened. So then they go back to where the boat was, and they find tracks, they realize that they’re following the scent backwards and that Gabriel’s clue sort of leads them to believe that whoever was essentially watching them may have made a move.

It’s interesting when you have life imitating art or art imitating life. We have a president now that has advocated closing our borders, keeping refugees out, and taking care of ourselves first even if that means ignoring problems elsewhere. And then you have Gregory at the Hilltop, who seems to be working off that same script. It’s a bit of a separated at birth type situation.
Yeah, I would agree with that. Clearly, this script… maybe [showrunner Scott M. Gimple] has a crystal ball, but the script was written last August, and I don’t really think anybody believed we would be where we are now. I think the deal with Gregory is that he’s figuring out a way to keep this place alive, but the truth of the matter is — and I find Gregory a really fascinating character because he has to have done something right at some point; otherwise, they would all have been dead a long time ago — but once Rick and his group show their faces, I think all bets are off for Gregory. It’s just a matter of time, and we see Maggie there, and Maggie’s kind of ready to step up.

We’ve already established in the first half of the season that she has what it takes to protect this community, and he doesn’t. I just don’t really quite understand how he can’t see it, but he’s proven himself to be a coward. When the place was overrun in episode 5, he backed away into the darkness, and in this scene, he’s talking to all them like they’re 2-year-olds, and then he’s like, “Yeah, goodbye.” So they walk out, and they’re all ready to beat the hell out of him, and then Enid comes in, and then they walk outside, and a lot of the people that are there are like, “Listen, we know where our loyalties lie. We want to live. We want to survive. We feel that doing that is to follow Maggie.”

Xander Berkeley’s so good at being a weasel.
He’s so good. That was the first scene I’d ever directed with him, and we had a great time. There are a lot of light moments in this episode. You know, the first half of the season, it was heavy, man. There was just loss, and guilt, and just watching our hero have his face crushed into the ground under Negan’s rule. And now, in this episode, there’s a certain aspect of Gregory just being so outrageous, that you almost wonder if he’s doing it to provoke them because he’s just such a d—. And then we have the stuff with Ezekiel and Jerry. They all walked into the theater, and Ezekiel’s like, “Jesus, it pleases me to see you.” And Jerry goes, “It pleases him.” He’s like, “Jerry!” I love that. It’s George Costanza, you know? There’s a lot of humor in this episode, and there’s a lot of fun in there, and I think a lot of it plays out because the actors all got a chance to play again and not sit there and worry about who was going to get killed.

I know Andy’s talked to you, and Norman’s talked to you about the band being back together again. The chemistry that we have when these guys play scenes together, it’s unparalleled, and I really believe you can see it on screen. I think you can see it when Morgan is in there, or Maggie’s in there, or Rick is in there, or any of them. I mean, they’re all amazing, but I think the strength of The Walking Dead has always been the ensemble from season 1 onward. You know, Shane, and Lori, and Dale, and Andrea, and the strength of the ensemble.

And what’s great about this episode is everybody gets to shine. Everybody has a bone to pick with Negan. So how they’re going to express it, how they’re going to carry out their anger, whether it’s guilt or whether it’s they’re the ones left behind. You look at what Rosita did in episode 8, you look at what Maggie’s lost, what Sasha’s lost, what Daryl sort of partially was responsible for, there are so many great nuances. All of the blocks were lined up in the first half of the season for all of this to come to fruition in the next couple episodes.

NEXT: How they did that crazy highway scene and what’s coming up next

You all did something very interesting here with Ezekiel as Rick asks him to join the fight against the Saviors. Ezekiel is hesitant and doesn’t want to do it, but his two closest advisors urge him to join the fight. And I think a lot of us were expecting, okay, by the end of the episode, Ezekiel’s going to come around — that’s how these things usually play out. But then he doesn’t. He offers Daryl asylum, but no troops to fight. That was a curveball I did not see coming.
It is fascinating because we’ve already seen Richard. We already know that Richard is not the kind of guy that really wants to be under their thumb. He’s not having it. But Ezekiel has a very different relationship with Benjamin, which we’ve already established because of the relationship with his father and all this kind of stuff. So I think the curveball happens when Benjamin says to him, “I think we should help them,” because Benjamin is really coming from a different place than Ezekiel is.

Ezekiel has a secret — a lot of the other people that live at the Kingdom, they don’t know about the Saviors. They don’t know about Negan. So I think he’s more interested in protecting his own people than putting his neck out on the line. I don’t think he’s the kind of guy who wouldn’t put his neck out on the line, because obviously he’s brought in Morgan. He’s brought in Carol. He’s fascinated with them, but the idea that people will die, Ezekiel’s struggling with that right now. Like, what defines living? Clearly, not losing people is part of it, but, if things were to escalate, they would find themselves in a big, bad place fast.

Okay, let’s get to the big crazy action spectacular of the episode. The group finds a roadblock and there is a cable across the road lined with explosives. They remove the explosives and then Rick and Michonne drive the cars down the highway with the wire attached between them basically slicing a herd of zombies in half at 50 miles per hour. Where the hell did this idea come from?
When I got the original script for this episode, this was our popcorn popper scene. This was the scene we want everybody to cheer, and jump out of their seat, and throw their popcorn up in the air, and it was amazingly well written. The idea is that they find this cable that’s stretched across the freeway with a pressure plate to deter this herd of walkers that’s clearly on its way. Obviously, the Saviors never really thought about the fact that somebody might come along and steal all these weapons, but Rick looks at it as a tremendous opportunity. So he grabs all the explosives. He definitely pushes it a little too far, and the initial incarnation for the sequence is they get back into the car, the car gets overrun, and Rosita throws one of the explosives out, and it detonates, and it clears a path for the walker horde.

So when I read the first draft of the script, I called Scott, and I said, “It’s right there in front of us. We literally just have a little bit of work to do, and we can take this to a completely different place.” I said, “What if exactly the way you have it written, there’s the two cars. There’s the cable stretching across both of them, but the two cars get separated, and when one car gets surrounded, they have to get in the cars and drive the cars through the herd to clear a path for Carl, Rosita, and Tara in the other car?”

And Scott was like, “That’s perfect because now it gives Rick and Michonne an opportunity to have a win together, because they’ve been kind of on opposite sides of the fence for the entire first half to the season.” So I channeled a little bit of my buddy Robert Rodriguez in this sequence in terms of just it’s a little outrageous. We’ve never really done anything this kind of audacious before, but I felt, and Scott felt, that it’s a great way to start the second half of the season. Let’s be a little audacious.

Gene Page/AMC

We have some great emotional moments, we have some great thrilling moments, we have a couple scares and some heartfelt pieces here, but let’s also remind the audience there are a lot of zombies out there. They’re still inhabiting this world, and we have not even come close to running out of ways to dispatch them. So we shot that sequence over two days. I had a drone. We had electric cars. We were driving up and down the closed-off section of the freeway filming the cars driving up.

I think we had 100 walkers in makeup that day, and then visual effects put all the rest in, but I ended up sort of breaking up the sequence and storyboarding very specific cable shots. [ED NOTE: See Nicotero’s exclusive storyboards here] So even when we were on set, we already knew where the drone was going to be, what shots we would use for the electric car so that, as they’re driving through the herd, they’re just slicing and dicing. And we had all the 100 walkers, as the cars would drive by them, they would just kneel down and fall over, and then, of course, visual effects took over and would add flying body parts and blood and that. It was great. I loved every second of it. My only regret is I wish it could go on for, like, three more minutes because I think there’s so much more fun we could’ve had, but of course, no such luck.

Looking ahead: Will Daryl be able to stare Ezekiel into submission?
I don’t know. I think Daryl’s a little too fascinated with the tiger. And we all know that Norman’s been wanting a pet since, like, season 2. He’s always wanted a dog, so I think there’s some great opportunities there to just see Daryl kind of fascinated by this tiger. I don’t know if it’s him staring Ezekiel into submission. I just think they all have their agendas, and it’s clear what they all need to do, and they have their work cut out for them if they want to try to get Ezekiel on their side.

Before I let you go, I always like you to give us a little tease as to what you can say about what’s coming up next.
Well, episode 10 was directed by Jeff January, and it has a walker character that we did that is probably one of the coolest walkers that we’ve done in seven years. We’re also going to get a chance to meet a lot of interesting new characters and another locale. That’s what’s great about the show. We have Oceanside, we have the Hilltop, we have the Kingdom, we have Alexandria — we’re populating our world with a lot of really unique locations and unique civilizations, the hopes are that these are going to all sort of meld together in one group, but nothing ever goes down the way you want it to. So some great stuff coming up.

For more Walking Dead intel, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

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