The Walking Dead boss on the big Negan and Lucille reunion
Warning: This article contains spoilers about Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead, titled “What It Always Is.”
Negan went full Negan on Sunday’s “What It Always Is” episode of The Walking Dead. The show took a story line from the comics and completely remixed it as a young Negan disciple named Brandon helped the former Saviors leader escape Alexandria. However, Negan 2.0 wanted nothing to do with his old ways, so when Brandon murdered a mother and son in a misguided attempt to prove himself, Negan bludgeoned his young wannabe protégé with a rock to the face. He then followed that up by donning his trademark leather jacket and picked up his barbed-wire covered baseball bat, Lucille, for some good old-fashioned zombie bashing.
What can we make of this latest twist in the Negan evolution (or devolution)? We went to showrunner Angela Kang for answers. And not just on that. “What It Always Is” was stuffed with tons of other huge moments, like Ezekiel revealing he has cancer, Daryl lying to protect Magna and Kelly, more Magna backstory revealed, and Alpha sending Gamma out as a double-agent. We went to Kang for insight and intel, and here’s what she told us.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did this episode come together in terms of telling so many stories with so many characters? I can’t recall an episode that had this much going on in terms of the number of stories.
ANGELA KANG: We knew at this point in the season, once Negan got out at the end of episode 4, that we wanted to tell a big Negan story. So we actually started from there, but then we found, “Oh, wait, there’s so much other stuff going on that we have to tend to.” But, honestly, it started from the place of wanting to tell an awesome story about Negan being out there in the world. We’ve released the Negan and here’s what he’s up to.
And then as we were mapping out everything else that was going on in the season, we were like, “Okay, wait, we still have to deal with everything that’s going on with our Hilltop group and the other people, and service those stories.” So it was really an organic process where we knew immediately what the A story was, and then everything else just came in, and we tried to find interesting things that were going on with everything else, because there are so many characters and so many balls in the air at this point, that we wanted to make sure that everything was brewing.
Let’s start with the Negan stuff. You take a story from the comic with this character of Brandon who helps Negan escape, but then you change it up pretty dramatically in terms of what happens with them after they’re out of Alexandria, including this mother and son they meet along the way. How did you settle on this becoming Negan’s escape story?
We did want to pay homage to what happens in the comic, which is, there’s this guy who helps Negan and is out there with him. But time has passed in the show, so it felt like we need to do it a little bit differently. I really like the idea that he has this fanboy, and we wanted to tell a story about: who was Negan in the past, and who is he now, and what’s he grappling with? And to tell it with Negan having to reckon with somebody who was looking at him during a time of leadership and what he saw. I think he has to realize, “Oh, what I thought that I was doing was not always perceived that way by the very people that I was leading.”
And so that felt true for where he’s at in the show’s journey, which is, many, many years have passed now, and does he like that image, and there are aspects of it where he’s like, “Yeah, I was somebody, and I had a whole community and they looked up to me, and I was important.” Like the bat and the jacket, the symbols of who he was are important to him, and yet he wanted to believe that there was something heroic about what he was doing, and that he lived by a code, and that those things were important. So we really wanted to delve into all those character things, and that’s how this story came about. We wanted to explore: What’s the red line for Negan? What are the aspects of this code that he never wants to cross?
So if Brandon is this mirror that he’s forced to look into and see what he was, what should we read into him then at the end putting on that jacket and taking Lucille back?
I think we want that to be a bit up to the audience. That jacket and that bat is so strongly associated with the worst things that Negan has done. It’s so iconic to his look, and that Negan look — that was the Negan that we saw when he strolled into our world and killed two beloved characters — that impact still ripples into the current day, many years later. But we also just saw that he killed this guy because he killed two innocents, right?
So Negan has a lot going on. Negan’s also a guy who plays things close to the vest, and there’s all kinds of thoughts swirling through his head, and we’ll learn more about it as it goes on. Certainly, we’re seeing him embrace a certain side of himself that perhaps he was forced to leave behind, but it opens up that question of, is the old Negan completely back? Was he never really gone? And those are all things that we’ll be dealing with this season.
At the very end, is he looking for the Whisperers there, or is he just out zombie bashing?
I think he’s out zombie bashing, but he crosses that little, weird barbed-wire border, so he knows he’s going into that territory, and he knows that, at some point, he’s going to run into these Whisperers. The intention is that he’s probably trying to get found, but having a little zombie-bashing fun along the way, and what that means, we’ll find out.
As big a story as that is, maybe the one thing that really made me gasp is when I saw you’d given Ezekiel cancer. Which leads me to ask: Why are you such a monster, Angela?
We had a lot of conversations about what are some things that we wanted to explore further with Ezekiel, because he’s been through so much and he’s such a strong character. We had been talking for a while in our room about the reality of the world is that people get terminal and chronic illnesses. We live in a wondrous time, and yet cancer is always scary, but there are cancers that are much more treatable than others, particularly the one that he has, being one of those. We wanted to explore what it means for a character to get that kind of a diagnosis in this world, and especially with a character who is so joyful and such a strong leader, and so optimistic, and to have to grapple with something like that.
In talking with Khary Payton, what was really beautiful is that he said that he connected so hard with him, because his history and his family, and many fans who are dealing with cancer or with other illnesses come up to him. He said the line from a few years ago, “And yet I smile.” A lot of them really took that on as a source of personal strength, and that feeling that, in spite of hardship and in spite of these things that bring us down, wanting to find the hope in their lives. So he really connected very strongly with that story. Khary is doing beautiful work this season. Maybe we are monsters, but we really want to talk about the human condition, and this is a part of life.
So this is just now a matter of time for him then now?
I mean, we’ll see. Breaking Bad was a story about a guy with cancer, and he made it for many years, so it could go many directions, is what I’ll say.
All right, I want to ask you about some Daryl stuff. First off, why does Daryl lie to protect Kelly and Magna, who had been stealing food and supplies for their secret stash?
Daryl understands that this group is a very tight-knit group. He likes them, he has started to form a bond with Connie, and ultimately, they found a way to take everything back, and give it all back to the community, so the harm was mitigated. I think Daryl — being a character who has his own lone wolf instincts — there was probably a part of him that was like, “This was not the right thing to do, and yet if we fix it, what’s the point of stirring up a bunch of trouble for this group when they’ve learned their lesson from it?” And in a way, that stash being out there actually did help at a moment when Kelly needed help, so it’s all things being equal. I think Daryl is in a place where he’s just looking at it in a wise way, and realizing, we can fix the situation without making things worse for this group that has had some trouble in the past.
Connie says to Daryl at the end that the two of them are family. Listen, me and my sister are family, but you know what? Me and my wife are also family. There are different kinds of family, so what kind of family are we talking about here?
I mean, they’re all family, right? [Laughs] I think they’re open for interpretation.
So you gave us some more Magna backstory in this episode. Are we to assume Magna straight-up murdered a dude who sexually assaulted her cousin? Is that what went down there?
Yeah, I think in our backstory she murdered somebody, and she was in prison for it, and it was probably prepping to go to trial and all of that stuff. She’s a character that maybe felt from her perspective that there was a greater justice served, and, of course, there are many sides to any story, so who knows. She went vigilante, so is that great? Not necessarily. And the big thing for her relationship with Yumiko is that there has been a lie at the middle of it all, and that’s the thing that, for Yumiko, is so hurtful.
Magna raises the point, now that they’ve both killed, what does that mean? And Yumiko being somebody who was a lawyer before the apocalypse, who pledged to, in some ways, be true to the law and to rule, there’s all of that, and yet in the apocalypse everything changes, but it’s more about breaking up that trust for Yumiko. There’s a really interesting, deep character exploration, while dropping some backstory, but it becomes so complex in the way that relationships can be. There’s the questions of in the apocalypse, would they have ever been a couple, if not for everything that happened? They just happened to be together when everything went down.
Let’s move over to the Whisperers. We see Aaron help Gamma after she sliced open her hand and then Alpha says, “You might just have to wear a new mask.” Does this mean Gamma is going to play double-agent?
That’s certainly what Alpha is strongly implying in that moment to her. I talked to you at the beginning of the season about how we felt that the Whisperer war was really more of a Cold War, and the idea that there’s a story at the border and the relationships that form between people who are on opposite sides of a border, which has happened throughout history in different war situations. We wanted to humanize one of these Whisperers, because so many of them feel so faceless and nameless, and they literally don’t have names.
We wanted to see what is inside the heads of somebody who’s a follower. Not the Alpha, not the Beta. They worked together from the inception, right? Here’s this person who’s just boots on the ground for them, and what did they go through and what are the struggles? And I think for Gamma, Aaron is so kind. Aaron is one of the nicest characters we have, he has his moments of darkness, but all in all, he’s somebody who wants to bring people together. He shows these basic human kindnesses that she’s not used to, so she’s torn. That’s just the start of that story that I’m excited for people to see how it starts to unfold.
We learn Alpha is indeed sabotaging the communities with the tree and damning up the creek. What’s the big picture plan for her, because they are protecting her daughter as well?
Alpha is like a cult leader, and so she believes that her philosophy of the world is the only one that makes sense, and I don’t think it’s just B.S. from her side. I believe this is what she actually believes, and wants her people to believe. Ultimately, she wants to prove that these communities that she has said, “They never last” — she would like to see them fall. But the thing that really would most make her point is if they tear themselves apart, or if they seem to fall on their own, and maybe she’s hastening it. But, ultimately, in her mind, it’s all going to come apart.
So it’s like a big game of, I told you so.
Yeah, sort of, but these groups are a threat to her. It’s a threat to her way of life and her philosophy. And she’s such a purist about what she believes that she doesn’t want these communities to keep standing. We’ve referred to her herd as her nuclear bomb, and it is that, but to release that bomb, to use the hoard, it in many ways is a path of mutual self-destruction, much like an actual nuclear war, because they have this very spiritual idea of the dead being their guardians; if they unleash the hoard, yeah there’s a really good chance they’re going to run through these communities and the communities are going to fall and people will die, but also a lot of that herd and her Whisperers will die too. There’s no way our people are going to go down without a fight. This isn’t a group of a few people living in an encampment; they’re behind walls, they have weapons, they have soldiers. It’s a big deal to push the red button on that, so she’s going at it in a different way to start.
Okay, what can you tease in terms of what’s coming up next week?
Next week we’re going to go into a Carol and Daryl story. They’re best friends, they’re both lone wolf types, and so they’re going to go on their own adventure that turns events in a very particular way that affects the rest of the season. And then we will get to see what happens to Negan as he’s behind the enemy lines. Or perhaps friend lines? We’ll see. For people who’ve been asking, are Negan and Beta ever going to meet, we got a bit of that answer at the end of this episode, and we’ll see what happens between the two of them. It’s a lot of fun.
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