The Walking Dead showrunner on creating Alpha's unique look
SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s “Omega” episode of The Walking Dead.
We already knew that Alpha looked disturbing in her zombie-skin mask. As to how she looks now without the mask, we just got our first gander at the very end of Sunday’s “Omega” episode of The Walking Dead, and it turns out… also pretty disturbing!
We asked showrunner Angela Kang about how they came up with Alpha’s striking look, and also delved deep into the flashback-heavy episode that gave us backstories for both Alpha and her daughter, Lydia. We learned that the duo were trapped in Baltimore with Lydia’s dad when the apocalypse hit. But when others started panicking, Alpha took charge — killing some poor dude named Ortiz for freaking out, and then taking out her own husband when he wouldn’t let them leave once the going got bad.
Kang explains why they decided to give Alpha and Lydia a rare backstory episode, gets into what their big reunion at the end means, and even drops a tasty clue as to what to expect from the Whisperers coming up. (Read through both pages for the entire interview, and also check out our episode Q&A with Alpha herself, Samantha Morton.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: A big backstory episode here as we learn the origins of Alpha and what happened to her and Lydia at the start of the apocalypse. Why don’t you just start by telling me what you all wanted to achieve here by showing this, because it is pretty rare when you all do this for characters. Usually we just meet them in the present and they may tell us about their past, but that’s about it. Obviously, you went much deeper here with Alpha.
ANGELA KANG: Yeah, we tend to keep the show rooted radically in the present. We rarely do flashbacks, but I think the thing that became intriguing to us is we were just asking ourselves a lot of questions about it. Because, of course, all of us love the story of the Whisperers in the comic books. It’s something I’ve been looking forward to because these issues were coming out as I was working on the show. I was like: Oh my God. This is so crazy, I’d love to dive into it.
But as we were working on the stories, we’re like, what kind of a person decides that the way to go through life is to put on the skin of dead people and then gathers people around them to do the same? And what is that psychology? What kind of things are in that person? Who were they before the apocalypse? As we were talking about it, we just felt like: Oh, man, we have Samantha Morton, who’s this incredible, incredible actor. It would be fun to kind of show a little bit of who this person was, and to also show that unlike some of our other characters who maybe were trying to kind of be good for a long time in the apocalypse and before they became a “villain” — maybe there was something always a little broken in her.
What about the Lydia side of the story?
With Lydia, it really felt like, what is her goal there? What is she trying to do? We felt that she would be lying to try to get information, but also, she’s a kid, and what are the effects of being in this strange relationship with her mother been like? We thought that Alpha might have filled her head with a lot of nonsense about the way the world is. Part of that is true too, kind of like the comic. It’s surprising to her to see that the world is a different place than she maybe thought it was.
In order to do that, it really made sense for us to tell this flashback story, except it’s an unreliable narrator story too, because Lydia is realizing that her own memories about her mother, and her parents, and what it means to be in the world may be scrambled because she’s this victim of this very emotionally abusive and physically abusive relationship. So it sort of kind of came organically out of the conversations that we had and our own questions. We thought it’s so interesting to us to try to answer these questions that maybe it would be interesting to the audience too, so we decided to take a swing at it.
You have this situation where not only does Lydia finally open up in this episode, but we get a few different references to the physical beatings Daryl took, and those end up forging connections between him and Lydia, and him and Henry as well. So it’s really this interesting dance here where all three characters are trying to build trust with each other at the same time.
Yeah, I think Norman [Reedus] plays all the stuff related to that character’s abuse so well, just all the complexities of that. That Lydia has the upbringing that she has, we just immediately kind of jumped to Daryl as such an interesting character to cross with her because he has had a horrible childhood. He’s kind of risen above it in so many ways, even though there are still parts of himself that he struggles with. We thought that that was a really interesting opportunity to tell stories with people who have such trauma in their lives and are just trying to cope with it as they move forward in this apocalypse.
Henry really is the one that’s outside of that in some ways, but trying to empathize. He’s had a very lovely childhood. Obviously, fraught with loss, but has had loving, supportive people raising him, which is just a completely different kind of background for him. He has such sympathy though and empathy for these people who weren’t as lucky as him in that way. That’s been really fun for us to write too.
Lydia picks up that hammer and is ready to escape, but then hears a baby crying and puts it down. What is it about that baby crying that flips a switch in her?
Here’s what I’ll say: We’ll find out a lot more about the Whisperers and babies very soon. There’s an aspect related to the culture of their society that’s probably running through her mind. But I also think for somebody who’s been told the world is over, there’s no such things like communities behind walls that are safe and where people can live — all of that’s a lie, all of it will fall apart always. To be in a place that is clearly thriving, where they have crops, where people have homes, where people can have families, and the baby cries, and the baby is safe, these are all things that are just breaking every sort of truth that she believed that she knew about the world. So it’s like the hopefulness of being able to raise children in a post-apocalyptic world — I do think that there is something to that for a lot of our characters.
Lydia spent her entire childhood that she really remembers in the apocalypse, and that’s an emotional thing to think, like, “I’ve been wandering around outside the walls, wearing this skin of a dead monster, and here’s this baby that just is safe behind walls, loved by somebody, taken care of by a community.” That’s something that’s a triggering moment for her. We thought that that was an interesting way to simply dramatize that moment, but there’s also something very specific about babies, and the way that they deal with babies, that we’ll learn about in the next episode. (Interview continues on next page.)
NEXT PAGE: Kang explains Alpha’s new look and what’s coming up next
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Super-intense ending here as we finally see Alpha’s real human face in the present as she shows up to demand her daughter back. First off, tell me about finding that look of how Alpha would appear without her mask.
ANGELA KANG: Kudos to Samantha Morton, she’s just like, “I’ll shave my head. I’ll do whatever.” A lot of costuming, which I really love, is based exactly on the comic book stuff, right down to the snake-eating-its-own-tail infinity belt buckle that she has, which I love. The thing that we kept talking about is one of the things with zombies and walkers is that they don’t have pink human skin. Anything that gives away your humanness — probably the zombies would be fooled by you having the smell and the look of zombies if you’re kind of shuffling along with them, but a human won’t be fooled by that.
How do you make it so that if you’re ever encountering people from a distance, they won’t immediately be able to tell that you’re a human? So we were like, “Well, underneath the mask, anywhere where skin would show — so like the nose holes, the eye holes, the mouth hole — you have to darken all that down because that flesh tone immediately gives you away.” So it’s the makeup department, everything, and [Greg Nicotero’s] group worked on that look with the dark ashy spots that are around those places where the skin shows. Weirdly, that’s terrifying to me.
It really contributes to her sort of strange and unique look. Samantha, who’s just been incredible, really adopted the philosophy of this group. She’s the Alpha, it’s something based in the idea of roaming packs of wolves or animals. If you just even look at the way she kind of barrels up to the gates, it’s a very animalistic, head-first, alpha animal movement. She comes across as really powerful and strange. I’m really thrilled with how everybody who worked on it brought that all together because I think she just looks terrifying.
We heard Lydia say earlier that typically the Whisperers would not let someone back in if they had been caught and captured, yet here Alpha has come to retrieve her. What does that say about Alpha and the connection with her daughter?
Yeah, this becomes a story point that we deal with moving forward because we actually thought about, okay, do they go back for people who are left behind, or if they get lost? What happens? We felt like, in their extreme philosophy, I don’t think so, because that’s weak for the pack. They don’t put themselves in danger to go back and retrieve somebody who’s fallen behind. They have an extreme survival-of-the-fittest sort of mentality.
Just the fact that Alpha does come back to her daughter, which is an event based in the comic book story, we just felt like, okay, what complications does that cause for Alpha? What actions spring out of that? I think there’s some really strange and interesting story turns we were able to take as a result of this kind of thing happening. But yeah, it’s like when Lydia says, “They don’t come back. My mom’s not going to come back.” That is the truth. She’s telling the truth about what she believes her mother is not going to do, so it’s a surprise to her as well.
Okay, it looks like the Hilltop — and Lydia perhaps — is going to have a decision to make here. What can you tell us about what’s coming up next?
The next episode is a really fascinating episode. Obviously, we’re going to be doing the story of Alpha and the standoff at the gates. I think there’s a lot of different ways that that could go, but it goes a particular way. There’s some interesting action, and excitement, and mystery, and tension that come out of that.
Then we’ll also see a really interesting story that has to do with the Kingdom, and sort of in contrast to the philosophy of the Whisperers. We’ll see a philosophy of radical joy at work that I think winds up being a very interesting intercut in the story. So we’re just delving into what does it mean to various people to be alive in this apocalypse? What’s important? I feel like that’s where we’ve always gotten really interesting stories because it’s just a meditation on what’s important to people, and how they think it’s best to survive.