Fear the Walking Dead showrunners on staging the 'most heartbreaking ending imaginable'
'We wanted to break people's hearts,' say showrunners Ian Goldberg and Andrew Chambliss. Mission accomplished!
Warning: This article contains spoilers about Sunday's midseason premiere of Fear the Walking Dead titled "The Door."
At the heart of one of the biggest tragedies in Fear the Walking Dead history was a knife. And, on Sunday's "The Door" episode, when Dakota (Zoe Margaret Colletti) accidentally revealed that knife to John Dorie (Garret Dillahunt) — showing herself to be the person who murdered Cameron (Noah Khyle) earlier in the season — it changed everything.
But while Dakota may have been the one actually holding the knife, it was Fear showrunners Andrew Chambliss and Ian Goldberg who twisted it. First, they gave the suicidal Dorie a reason to live as John finally had a purpose in hoping to help Dakota back onto the right path… only to have Dakota then shoot him in the chest and push him off the bridge to his seeming death. Then they showed John fight his way back to the surface and float off to seeming safety… only to have his wife June (Jenna Elfman) find him — much like the way he found her when they first met two seasons ago — and discover that he was a zombie.
It was a brutal, heart-wrenching sequence of events, and one which should have major ramifications moving forward for all the characters. We spoke to Chambliss and Goldberg to get their takes on John Dorie's death, why they gave him the zombie treatment, whether viewers should hate Dakota, and what's coming up next. (Also make sure to check out our interview with John Dorie himself — Garret Dillahunt — where the actor explains how they started charting an exit strategy for his character as far back as season 5.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Okay, you murderous bastards, why kill off John Dorie?
IAN GOLDBERG: Well, this has been, from the beginning of the season, about Morgan trying to put the family back together that was ripped apart. And where this family really began was with Morgan and John Dorie in season 4. And at that time, Morgan was in a place where he didn't want to be with people, he was running away on his own, he didn't want to connect with people, and the person who brought him back from all that was John Dorie.
John Dorie has always been this incredible point of light, this optimistic, hopeful beacon in the apocalypse, and really, we looked at John Dorie and Morgan as the beginnings of this family. And we knew that there had to be a cost to the war with Virginia, and, to this family, who is on the precipice of coming back together, losing someone that's so much the glue and the heart of this family, putting everyone else in a position where, how are they going to move forward now, without someone so critical to who they are. They're still fighting Virginia, but now they've got this giant hole of missing John Dorie, and it's going to have huge ripple effects on everyone going forward. So it's a long way of saying we love him, and the characters love him, and people had to feel it.
ANDREW CHAMBLISS: We talked about what the cost would be of what Virginia was doing to everyone, and how they were going to fight back. And it is looking at all the characters in John Dorie's orbit, and thinking about how they'll move forward, and what it will do to them. And ultimately it comes down to the fact that we have to remind ourselves we can't be precious about any of these characters, and we have to do what is going to continue to evolve the show, and continue to push the show in new directions, push all the remaining characters in new directions.
John Dorie is one of our favorite characters, he's so much fun to write because he was kind of a beacon of hope in the apocalypse, and he was so specific in his characterization, and Garret just did such an incredible job bringing him to life that it was one of those realizations you have where you're just like, "No, why does this have to all fall into place this way?" I think as writers, we go through a mourning in the same way the characters do, and the same ways as hopefully the audience will.
How and when did you come to the decision to zombify him because that's something we don't see a whole lot anymore with big characters in the Walking Dead universe.
GOLDBERG: There are a few aspects to it. One of the things that Andrew and I realized early on when we made this decision that this was going to be the end for John Dorie is we were talking about episode 405, "Laura," and wanting things to end up back at the cabin in the inverse of what happened in that episode, which was Laura — June — washing up on John Dorie's shore. And we knew that we wanted that final image to be John Dorie washing up on the shore, and June going to him.
And the other aspect of it was really wanting to feel like even though Dakota shoots John on the bridge and he's mortally wounded, we wanted him to fight for life until the very end, and to really put the audience there and feel that even though he's down, he's not out yet, he has discovered this new meaning, he finds the photo of his father when he sinks to the bottom of the river. And it really feels like he's fighting for every last breath he's got.
We wanted to break people's hearts, and we wanted to make it feel as though he might just be able to come out of this, so that when he doesn't, and June is faced with the unthinkable of seeing the person she loves as a walker on the shores of the cabin, it was just, I mean, honestly it felt like the most heartbreaking ending imaginable for both of those characters.
Also, the other aspect is how it's going to affect June going forward. The way that John died, having to put him down the way that she did, and then how that impacts her in subsequent episodes, those were all the ingredients for why we ended that the way we did.
When John tells Dakota that helping her may be his reason to live and keep going, does he mean that, or was he just trying to say something to keep her from shooting him?
CHAMBLISS: Yeah. I think a cynic could watch that and say, "He's just trying to survive," but our intention with that moment was really to have Dorie believe that we really wanted this episode to be an episode of him finding the light again. The thing that makes John Dorie, John Dorie — he starts the episode in the darkest place we've ever seen him, he's thinking about killing himself. And then this is him choosing the opposite, choosing life. And the irony is the person that helps him do it is who we learn is the person who is at the root of all the darkness that's been at the heart of the season.
But for John Dorie, that's the challenge that he thinks will keep him going, so he really does mean that. And the interesting thing is Dakota, this impressionable young woman, just doesn't believe that. She doesn't believe someone could be that selfless. And she's lived in a very different world. She's come of age in the apocalypse, and she's seen what her sister has done to create the world her sister has created, and it just doesn't compute for her. So, in her mind, the only way she can really ensure her own survival is to kill him, despite his offer.
So you know everyone watching is just going to be hating Dakota right now. I mean, she not only shoots him — maybe a panic move there — but she pushes him off the bridge. Is that hate everyone is feeling right now justified?
GOLDBERG: I think we could certainly understand why people would hate her because the audience, and we as writers, love John Dorie, and it is horrible to see that happen to him in such a brutal way. But I think the flip side of it, and we will be exploring this more, is she's a product of Virginia. She's grown up with Virginia as essentially a role model, the only family she's known, and we've seen Virginia can be really brutal in the way that she deals with people and the way that she maintains her fiefdom.
And I think that where you can be empathetic, or at least sympathetic to Dakota, is when you grow up with that as your role model, I think it twists your circuits a bit, and twists your worldview of how you're supposed to treat people, and what life and death and killing and murder actually mean. And so, I think she's a bit of a victim herself of her upbringing and her circumstances. And so that's where, while you can hate the action, and hate what she's done, we hope that people will on some level at least understand where it comes from.
I know you shot the majority of this episode before COVID shut down filming. Which parts did you film after the pandemic break?
CHAMBLISS: We had shot the bulk of the episode before the pandemic, including the action on the bridge. I mean, that action with all the walkers, we wouldn't have been able to shoot now, just because we'd never be able to get that many extras and stunt people so close together. The pieces that we had not finished were ultimately John Dorie's death, the final moments when he washed up on shore at the cabin, all the scenes in the cabin with June and Virginia.
So even when we were assessing, when we shut down, how much we'd be able to air, we were looking at this episode and we had a cut of it that was really good and we were really excited about it except it was just missing that key piece. And we did actually turn around with the idea of like, could we have it as a cliffhanger? But it just felt like it wanted to be a complete whole.
Okay, each of you give us a quick tease for what's coming up next.
GOLDBERG: We have been building toward a confrontation with Morgan and Virginia since episode 601, and this episode we're finally going to deliver on it.
CHAMBLISS: We'll return to an important location that we saw in the premiere, but it will be in circumstances that are kind of flipped on their heads.
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