[SPOILER ALERT: Read only if you have already watched The Walking Dead midseason finale, “How It’s Gotta Be.”]
The cast of The Walking Dead promised some big and surprising deaths in season 8, and it doesn’t get much bigger or surprising than what happened on Sunday’s midseason finale, where it was revealed Carl Grimes (played by Chandler Riggs) was bitten by a walker, signaling his impending death on the show.
What makes the move so shocking is not just that Carl is one of only five original characters still on the show — and another one, Lennie James’ Morgan, will be leaving by the end of the season to move over to Fear the Walking Dead — but he is still a major figure in the comic book. In fact, not only is Carl still alive there, but the comic book has often felt to be just as much about him growing up in the apocalypse as it is about his dad Rick. Many fans have even wondered if Rick might be killed off there with Carl taking over leadership duties.
We caught up with the man who plays Papa Grimes, Andrew Lincoln, to get his thoughts on the show’s most shocking move yet, what it will mean for Rick going forward, and what it was like having to say goodbye to his on-screen son.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your reaction when you first found out about this happening to Carl?
ANDREW LINCOLN: [Showrunner] Scott Gimple always makes a phone call to everybody, and he said to me, “You’re going to hate this one.” And I mentioned four names. None of them were right, and he had to tell me that it was the kid. I was so shocked that he said three times, “Are you there? Are you there? Are you there?” I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say.
I never saw it coming because I always thought that the kid would be the future, and that was the whole point of this — that I was going to hand over the revolver and let him walk off into the distance, you know? So it was incredibly shocking. Everybody was reeling from it and continue to reel from it.
I mean, you can’t write a character like Rick Grimes — whose engines are his wife and his son — and you take away the wife and you’re left with the son. And then, of course, there’s Judith, but then you take away the other engine that fuels him, that got him off his deathbed in the first ever episode, and you take that away. That’s not done lightly, you know? And from this episode onwards, that s— got real.
You all always talk about how you are The Walking Dead family down there and here you have someone who literally played your family leaving. What’s that like?
When someone from the old guard goes, there’s a part of you that goes with them. It’s like what they say — when formative people in your life die, a part of you dies because what is carried in that relationship is your memories and your history, and all those kinds of things. It’s not that dramatic, okay. It’s a job and all those kinds of things, but certainly for Chandler and my relationship — he’s a kid. I saw this child grow into an amazing young man in front of my eyes, and one of the best parts of this experience has been watching that young man turn into who he’s become today.
So of course, the great news is that he absolutely nailed this episode and the returning episode in which he completes his tenure on the show, and it was the perfect way for him to leave with doing some of the finest work that I’ve ever seen him do. He grabbed the bull by the horns and really owned it, and that was one of the great joys of the job. But then the back half, it’s seismic. It’s like they spun the show off into a completely different universe. The first part of this season is over here and yeah, it’s a war going on, and then this happens, and it’s seismic, and it changes everything — certainly from Rick’s point of view.
I remember seeing Rick when he thought he was going to have to chop Carl’s arm off, and how shaken he was by that. I can’t even imagine what this is going to do to him.
Yeah, there were many scenes in the back half of the season where it was very challenging to play this guy. He’s in the middle of a war and he’s lost the reason he went to war. It’s a big deal, so to try to thread that needle was very challenging and exciting. There were many days that the show felt very dangerous again, and that was an unexpected sort of offshoot from what was a very, very dark and shocking revelation.
What’s kind of interesting is that it all circles back to a scene from last season — that I don’t even think it made the final episode — of you and Carl and Michonne in the house talking about how this fight was bigger than any one of you, and if one of them had to go, that the others had keep on.
Yeah, that was definitely foreshadowing. The interesting thing is I don’t know when the decision was made to do something this radical. It must have been relatively late because I had no clue. I mean, they don’t just generally tell me things. Like, I don’t want to know, but I would’ve thought there’d have been some warning from Scott that something this big was coming because this is by far the biggest death we’ve ever done.
Glenn was so radical, but this — with the repercussions of it and what it means to lose a boy — to lose this significant character from the comic books is an extraordinary call. They made the call. They could’ve played safe and had the hero live and take on the show. They didn’t do it. They shouldn’t. He’s the new hero, he’s the hope and the humanity, and everything left in this guy — and yet they took him down. The torch is the kid. They can’t pass the torch on to the kid. That’s the standard way to do it and they’ve not done it. I mean it’s incredibly courageous and I have to commend AMC and Scott, and the writers for making the most daring call they could possibly have made.
What was it like watching Chandler grow up on set?
It’s been one of the great gifts of my career to spend so much time with this young man and watch him develop. And also, he’s super smart, and he’s incredibly composed as a young man. I just think to be able to navigate the schooling years in the zombie apocalypse, it takes a big man, and they found him in Chandler Riggs.
For more Walking Dead intel, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.