The Walking Dead showrunner on that epic bloodbath
[SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s “The Calm Before” episode of The Walking Dead.]
The Whisperers just sent a message that was loud and clear.
After Daryl allowed Alpha’s daughter Lydia to tag along with him and Connie when they rescued Henry, they knew repercussions might be coming. Suffice it to say, they came on Sunday night’s episode, “The Calm Before.” A disguised Alpha infiltrated the Kingdom’s awkwardly titled Fair of New Beginnings and captured several Hilltop residents. In the end, 10 zombified heads were left on pikes to mark a do-not-cross border for Daryl, Carol, Michonne, and Yumiko to find. Among the victims were two of the recently introduced Highwaymen (who attempted to rescue the others) as well as Tammy, Henry, Enid, and Tara.
The event mirrors a similar one in the comic book, however in that one there were 12 victims, with Tammy being the only one killed in both the comic and TV versions. Ezekiel and Rosita met their end in the comic pike line-up but survived here (although producers coyly tricked viewers into thinking the King might be a victim here as well).
We spoke to showrunner Angela Kang to find out how they settled on whose heads to chop off, how the victims were captured (since they did not show it on screen), and how the actors were informed their time on the show was coming to a close. Kang spoke about that and much more, including revealing the movie they were supposed to watch at the Kingdom before everything went to hell. Read through both pages for the entire interview, and also check out our Q&As with Alanna Masterson and Katelyn Nacon.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is obviously a huge moment from the comics with a slew of zombified heads put up on pikes by the Whisperers to make a new border. It’s probably right up there with issue 100 as maybe the biggest moment. Of course, the identities of the victims in the comic were different from what you did here on the TV show, so let’s start there. How did you go about deciding that Ezekiel and Rosita would live while folks like Enid, Tara, and Henry would die?
You know, there were so many conversations about it, because it’s really hard to decide who dies, and any time there is death on the show, sometimes it’s just story-related, sometimes, as with Andy [Lincoln], it’s because there’s a personal factor. There are contractual things. There are all kinds of things that go on. In this case, we love all of our actors. Some of the people who are on those pikes, we knew from the time we cast them that they were gonna be on the pikes. We specifically cast Brett Butler as Tammy knowing that she would wind up in that array. And we told her that at the time we cast her.
There are other characters that have been with us for a while. And it felt like, for the various characters who were on there, for example, Tara, as the leader of Hilltop, who Alpha really has a beef with, there’s some sort of sense and a feeling of retribution specifically with that death. And then there are people that almost feel random. And then you learn that there are people that just wound up in harm’s way by virtue of trying to be heroic, like DJ and those Highwaymen.
So it’s really a mix of things. Because we think that with Alpha, in some ways, this is an act of terrorism. And the thing about it is it’s terrifying because sometimes you don’t exactly understand how or why she picked her exact victims. And so that’s a big part of it. As well as, there are certain stories that we’re planning into the future, and so sometimes we’ve swapped out characters for those reasons.
What was it like having to tell Katelyn Nacon and Alanna Masterson, who have been on this show for a while now, that their time was up?
At the very beginning of the year, I had meetings with all of the actors just to talk about the story as a whole, the big twists and turns, what their characters were doing. And I let people know that this moment was coming. So people were aware that it might be their time, and it would definitely be the time for people that we love on the show. So people were kind of mentally prepared for it, and everybody was absolutely lovely and professional about it.
We do The Walking Dead. It’s in the title. It’s part of the deal when you sign on to do this show that your time in some way is going to be limited. And so everybody could not be more wonderful. And I’m excited for everybody to have great opportunities in the future, because I think everybody who’s on this show is so incredibly talented and just lovely. We had a good celebration of our long-timers time on the show in conjunction with their final episode, which was great.
Only one of the victims, Tammy, is the same as in the comics. You were messing with comic book fans a bit there at one point by making us think Ezekiel was one of the victims, weren’t you?
Oh yeah, a little bit. I mean, that’s a little bit of the fun of the show. Obviously, doing this show, sometimes we’re very directly adapting from the comic, but we also deviate, and everybody knows that that’s kind of part of the deal with the show. We want to pay homage to the comic and we want to kind of put in those little Easter eggs for the comic book fans. For regular viewers, they might go like, “Oh, maybe Ezekiel’s gonna die or not.” But for a comic fan, it means something different, and so it gives them a little moment to speculate as they’re watching the show, which we think is kind of fun.
Some of the people captured were very capable fighters at this point, so how were they captured, because that’s something we don’t see?
What do you envision happened to these people that were kidnapped and taken?
I think it was some sort of a mix of a ruse. Like when we had that moment where Henry had to kind of go off to deal with the pipe crisis — was that actually what was happening? Or was that something that they generated in order to kind of draw people in? And it’s very much in the comics. People were fooled into going with them, and I think that’s kind of what’s terrifying — that she’s able to put on a wig and a hat and look totally different and walk through the fair. In the comics, she just kind of walks around with her bald head, but because we played events differently, too many people got a good look at her. But she looks completely different with long hair and a flowing dress. So I think that’s kind of the horror of it, the feeling that somebody could snatch you from within the midst of a giant crowd.
And we didn’t want to really get into the weeds of exactly how it happened, ’cause in some ways it’s more terrifying not seeing that happen on screen. But I do think it was you trick people into going to an advantageous location, and then you very quickly knock ’em out, tie ’em up, et cetera.
How did you guys do the zombie heads on the pikes? Did you just film the actors in zombie makeup and then digitally remove their bodies and put their heads on the pikes? Or did Greg Nicotero cook something up with face molds and this and that. What’d you do in this instance?
It’s a mix of everything. Greg Nicotero cooked up some face molds. Really, most of the ones that you see on the pikes are actually not the face molds, the face molds were used as a basis for the addition of the effects work. And then the hair, because hair is really difficult to create digitally. The first face, there was a good base that looked quite like him, but then the actors were all filmed in zombie make-up and shot against green screen. And so those were their actual faces that were put onto the pikes. There was also digital scanning that created 3D models of their faces. So part of it is also digital replacement. It’s really kind of a combination of all the different ways that we go about doing something like this. You would be shocked at all the man hours and woman hours that went into creating this final effect. (Interview continued on next page.)
NEXT PAGE: What the deaths of Henry and Tara mean for Carol and for Hilltop
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you have to do this to the poor Highwaymen? I loved the Highwaymen!
ANGELA KANG: I know! You know what though? There are still Highwaymen out there in the world. We brought them in and we knew that they would be some of the casualties. We felt that there needed to be losses across the different groups. Angus Sampson, who played our lead Highwayman, he only had this tiny window to do the show, so it sort of worked out perfectly. We would have never gotten him otherwise. But we were hoping to cast somebody that it could feel like, “Okay, maybe this is a person in the show.” And then, he was one of the ones that was here and gone. But I really enjoyed having him. And there will be some more Highwaymen stuff in the future, just without the lead guy.
Poor Carol. She has to watch her zombie daughter walk out of a barn and now her zombie son’s head on a spike. What is this going to do to her?
It’s gonna have a huge impact on Carol moving forward. We started this season seeing her really happy. We saw her get engaged and be married, and she grew out her hair because she wasn’t being abused. She had this happy family. And obviously, a loss like this is going to have a gigantic emotional impact. We’ll start to see some of that impact in the finale episode, and where her head is at and what she winds up doing. Of course, she’s got strong feelings about Alpha and the Whisperers. Carol is an amazing character, and Melissa McBride is just a fantastic actor, so I can’t wait to keep going with it from here.
What about Hilltop? First Maggie leaves — we’ll see if and when she returns — then we lose Jesus, now we lose Tara. So who’s going to step up now to lead that community?
That will be a big part of the story going forward. Again with Hilltop, we also saw Hilltop have a change in fortunes over the course of the season. So I don’t want to give too much away, but that’s definitely a story point that we will get into in future stories.
I always assumed in my head that this event was going to be in the season finale, and it feels like a season finale — especially with Siddiq’s speech at the end. So why do it as the penultimate episode?
When we started working on this season, that was our assumption too, that it was the finale. I kind of felt like, “I don’t want it to be the final moment, but it’s probably in the finale.” And that’s the assumption we went on for a long time. But as we worked on it, we found that it’s everybody’s expectation. And one of the big things I wanted to do this season is kind of play with the rhythms of our storytelling a bit here and there so that maybe the things are happening at times that you don’t expect it to happen, so there’s a little bit of an element of surprise for the audience. I also think there’s something interesting about, “Here’s this gigantic thing that happened,” and then, “What happens next?” And seeing a taste of it.
But again, I’m gonna take a little bit of a left turn in the finale, too. So we just thought that this would be an interesting way to go about this story. Because we’ve seen our people go up against enemies. We’ve seen them go to war. We know kind of the rhythms and what that looks like. And we wanted to explore like, “Okay, well the Whisperers are a completely different group than we’ve ever encountered before. What’s different about if something like this happens when it’s the Whisperers involved?” So we thought that we wanted to tell the beginning of that aftermath here.
You all once again played with time here a bit. You show Daryl and company leave the Kingdom and what happens to them until they are surrounded by Beta. Then you go back to that same point where they left and then we see what happened during that same time frame at the Kingdom. How and why did you settle on that structure to tell the story?
It just felt right for some reason. It starts with Carol and the King kind of splitting. And this is a fateful moment in the timeline. It’s like, this is the moment where in some ways, it’s like the Whisperers took advantage of what would normally be the very smart thing to do. It’s like, “Okay, we head out to protect the most vulnerable place,” because they don’t know that the Whisperers have discovered the Kingdom. And in a lot of ways, it’s what makes them weaker in the moment. They’ve split off some of their most capable people, and then it’s like they’ve gone through and picked through what’s supposed to be this really happy, joyous thing. And so it kind of makes sense to go, “Okay, here was this very important incident in the timeline. Let’s see what happens with group A, let’s see what happens with group B.” And then it all just merges together at the end.
Did Daryl make the wrong call in taking Lydia with him? 10 people — including his best friend’s son — are now dead.
I mean, I think that it’s a matter of personal opinion. This is the question any time that somebody takes somebody in that is in need. Is it the right call to take in a refugee? Or a homeless person? And it’s hard to say objectively what it is or isn’t. Are there things that happened that were terrible — would those same things have happened anyway? Could it have all been avoided? If he hadn’t taken her in, what would have happened?
I think that’s part of the fun of writing on the show, is a lot of times when we’re making these story turns, there’s no clean answer. ‘Cause even two writers might disagree on whether something is the smart or the dumb thing, or whether this was fair, or whether this was right. All of our characters, like us in real life, are just trying to make the best, most ethical call in the moment, and then you don’t know what’s gonna happen from there.
Alpha was pretty amped up. And we’ve learned from Lydia that when they have run into other communities in the past, things have happened, right? So maybe if they didn’t take her in, the same thing would have happened. We don’t know. So it’s part of an interesting dilemma. But certainly Daryl, and Carol, and all these people, these are questions that are in their own heads.
Alright, Angela, I’ve saved the most important question for last: Was there an actual movie at movie night, or was it just Baby Huey in Quack-a-Doodle-Doo?
Maybe that was the precursor movie. That was the movie that we could get the rights to and that we could make look really good. The colors looked so great on the screen. And we also thought there was some delicious irony in what the content of the movie was. So I think they watched that cartoon and the plan was to do that and then a movie afterward. But, you know, obviously things went very, very wrong.
Well, let’s name the movie then. Let’s make some official canon here. What movie were they planning to watch, Angela?
We had been talking about the movie Sullivan’s Travels. For some reason, that was the movie that kept coming up from both production and the writer’s room.
AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.