Danai Gurira reveals all about Michonne's final episode of The Walking Dead
Warning: This article contains spoilers about Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead, “What We Became.”
In the end, Michonne exited The Walking Dead the same way she arrived — hooded, with zombie pets, making the decision to help a stranger in need. Whether that decision will help reunite her with Rick Grimes in a Walking Dead movie, however, remains to be seen.
After eight seasons, Danai Gurira’s katana-wielding warrior has finally moved on. With the actress departing to become a showrunner on HBO Max’s upcoming Americanah (while also inking a new deal to create content for ABC Studios), it was time to chart an exit strategy for her character of Michonne, and that strategy culminated with Sunday’s “What We Became” installment.
After being trapped by Virgil, who had gone off the deep end after losing his family, Michonne was drugged — leading to a wild sequence of visions in which she imagined her life from a completely different perspective. That included her choosing not to help Andrea when they first met in the woods at the end of season 2, a visit from the deceased Siddiq, seeing herself as the doomed hitchhiker with the orange backpack, and most jarringly, her as a Savior, killing her friends and swinging Lucille.
Michonne eventually escaped, and after discovering Rick’s boots in a locker, embarked on a mission to find him. That mission began with her donning the hood, creating new pets, but then deciding to help a couple separated from their group. And that group could end up leading her right back to Rick Grimes.
It was a powerful, trippy episode, and an emotional farewell to one of the show’s most popular characters. It also turns out the emotion on set was just as high, as we learned when we spoke with Gurira about filming her final installment. Why was now the time for her to leave? What was it like walking off that set for the last time? What was the last scene she actually filmed? What was it like playing a Savior? And what did not end up making it into the final episode? Gurira opened up about all that and more as she looked back on the end of her Walking Dead TV series tenure. (Also make sure to read all about Gurira's next career move and our episode Q&A with showrunner Angela Kang.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, walk me through the decision to leave The Walking Dead. Why was now the time to make the move?
DANAI GURIRA: It was incredibly hard to even imagine leaving. I loved that show. I loved the family that I had there, and that I always have. The beauty of coming to work and loving the people you're around and the work that you're doing and the things you get to do and call it your job, is like nothing I could have imagined. So it's been a true gift to my life to have been part of it. It's always hard to accept that it's time to allow yourself to go in another direction. And it was incredibly hard to come to that place, but I had to. I had to start articulating it to myself and then to others, and it took a while to do that, because it was my home.
But there are aspects of my work as a writer, and I needed to allow it to have space. To really let it have its space in my life and in my artistic pursuits as well. And I just had to let the space come to pass. So it was really about that moment when you realize, I have to allow this change to be what I'm feeling it saying it needs to be. So it's a process to just come to the acceptance of that fact, and then you can see yourself that it's time to move to the next thing and create the space in your life for something else. And then stress because it's just incredibly hard. But yeah, it just felt like it was the time to do that.
Tell me about your involvement in coming up with this final chapter for Michonne on the show. What were the things you wanted to make sure were in there and part of the story?
I feel like our team did a really amazing job. They came up with this amazing architecture with the sliding-door component of how she revisits her life and what it could have been, and this-could-have-been-your-life-type thing. And she has the Virgil mission, that unfortunately does not prove successful. So it was very great architecture already in place. They were very generous about allowing me to get involved in various aspects of the story in certain ways.
They were very generous about how I was able to connect in with things. That was very important to me, of course, that her exit really made sense in terms of her doing it in a way that was very clearly coherent in what the circumstances were and leaving her children for a moment to pursue what seems to be a real indication of Rick very clearly possibly being alive and how to not explore that versus to explore that, and what information she would need to really see that through. And so there was a lot of details around that and around her. There were some things like that, but they were very, very generous. It was [showrunner Angela Kang’s] generosity that allowed me into the process that way.
Angela is known as a very generous and collaborative showrunner in that regard — always taking input from the cast. That collaborative nature much must've been pretty refreshing for you as an artist yourself.
Very much so. And she's great. What I love about everyone in this show and the stories and the journey I've been able to take with everyone is that the collaboration component has been so richly alive and everyone treats these others with so much respect and we're also in search of the best version of what we're trying to do. The story we're trying to tell collectively, there's such a collaborative energy to it with Angela and [Walking Dead chief content officer Scott M. Gimple]. I've had a really nourished experience on the show that way, and I don't take that for granted. So I'm very thankful to that.
Let's talk about some of the things we actually saw in this final episode. In terms of filming, what was it like for you to revisit some of these scenes and locations from the past? Eight seasons that you've been on this journey. What was it like getting to go back to some of those moments and play them in a different way and in a different context?
It was extremely trippy. It was extremely trippy and it was very trippy to watch also. Probably the one where she turns away from Andrea to see that sort of blended in with the Andrea footage and connected to the new footage was very trippy for me to see that Michonne and play that Michonne who turns away from that woman and that choice of what changed her entire life. For her to not have made that choice. That was very trippy. And then my connecting with Negan, that was a really back-road experience of trippiness and really just sort of playing out that lineup theme. I don't even know how to describe how trippy that was.
Well, how did it feel playing a Savior and being on the other end of that lineup, which you were in back in the day?
It was crazy. It was so nutty being Negan's right hand. It was a very emotional and painful experience shooting that scene with Negan, and it was our introduction. He just came in and had us on our knees, and then we were losing Glenn and Abraham. It was a really tough component. It was very straining and very emotional. So to step on the other side of it was profoundly trippy. And even the melding of Michonne looking dead into Rick's face, that pulled at my heart a little bit imagining that deeper reality of what was.
What was it like filming those scenes at the lineup where you’re having to react to people that aren’t actually there because it’s all going to be put together in editing? How did you handle that?
They had these fantastic doubles who were there, and they did a great job. And then good old imagination. They put down people there who were dressed as close to the actual people as they could be. And then I connected to them. I mean, there was a part that we didn't end up using where I was in Carl's face quite a bit. Really awful, but it didn't make the cut. I don't know how these things happen. But there was a double playing Carl, that was very dark. But, that exchange as well, for her to see that. We know how much Michonne loved Carl, but the underbelly of that. And if that hadn't gone that way. Basically, we recreated the lineup. Of course, [Jeffrey Dean Morgan] was there, and we created the lineup with the doubles and worked it that way, including a double of Michonne.
Oh, right. You're looking at your own double there. That's weird. I love the part of that scene where you look at it from the Saviors’ side and get in Rick’s face about the atrocities they committed. And you say, “You didn’t know who they were. Or where they were from. You didn’t know s— about them, but you came in the dead of night and slaughtered them anyway, in their sleep. Like cows.” That’s always been interesting to me because if you do look at it from the Negan perspective, that’s pretty messed up what Rick did.
Yes, yes, yes. And it was always a theme that we had to contend with as the Rick clan, was that we did that. That was always this really pivotal contention that we had made that choice to sort of eliminate a threat. But we did it unknowing that if there is a lot to come behind that because it eliminated, like, a 10th of the threat. And in a very evil way.
So how did you enjoy your death scene where Norman Reedus pumps you full of arrows?
It was awful, awful. No one wants to go down like that. I mean these are people you love, this is your family. So Norman and I shooting that scene, you know, he's left shooting through the crowd and shooting me. Then Rick’s boots pinning my leg, my arm down. That wasn't fun. I don't know how else to tell you.
Was there ever any talk of a zombie Michonne appearance in this episode?
Oh no, no, no. I guess we've never done that. I guess the closest we got was when she saw the woman who looked almost exactly like her in season 4, episode 9, where she kills all those walkers in the field.
What do you make of the significance of Michonne at the very end, sort of coming full circle and creating and then destroying another set of pets?
You know, I actually was very thankful for that. I thought that was a very generous way to let her exit because she has to be true to herself, and being true to yourself has its inconveniences. The aspiration is she is supposed to go and find her partner, love of her life, father of her children, bring him home. And that's something that in Michonne's mind, only she can do that. If he's out there and he needs help, only she can bring him back. So she has to go do that. But because she's being true to herself as she found that inkling to be true to herself, even when she was cut off from herself when she saved Andrea, she has her own aspirations in service of others. And that's who she's become.
And so to help these people at the end and get them towards their people is something she knows she can live with. And that's something she knows that she is. And so we see her exit to show that honest, truthful Michonne decision that we've seen her grow into over the course of her time on the show. But growing it more and more into her own heart and her own humanity. So I thought that was a great way for her to walk away through her stuff.
And if you look ahead, it ends with Michonne on this mission to find Rick. Does that kind of confirm that you're going to be part of this Walking Dead movie with Andrew Lincoln?
[Laughs] I mean, we'll see how it goes, man. You know what I mean?
That's all you're going to give me?
[Laughs] How many years have I been dipping and diving from your questions, man?
What was the last scene that you shot? I know it was probably some pickup or something or another, but what was the last scene that you did shoot on the show?
Sadly, horribly, it was the scene where I was the Savior and I was shooting Glenn and Heath.
Oh, right. When you're in the bed.
Yeah, that was the last thing. And then I was avoiding Rick, so it was that stuff. The stuff where they come into the satellite place, but me being a Savior. So I wasn't even in my wig. So it was interesting because I was dressed as Savior as I exited.
What were the emotions you were feeling as you were filming your last episode?
It was very, very, very emotional. There was a lot of love. I received so much love, I was really blown back by how much love I received from everybody. When you receive all that love at the same time around your leaving, I was overwhelmed, and just beyond full of gratitude. And so you're dreading that last day, that last minute, that last frame, you're dreading it. That's it. And at the same time, there's so much beauty and love around it that you're able to just be in the moment with it. So it was great. It was beautiful. It was like leaving home. There's nothing quite like it.
How did it feel when you drove off that set for the last time and you knew you were saying goodbye?
It was a lot of things, a little heartbreak. It was pain, but it was love and it was joy and it was peace because I feel like I left well. I left with having done my utmost best and given my all and having worked wonderfully with these people who I will always love and respect and I always have relationships with.
I stayed really late because I had to clean out my trailer, and Melissa [McBride] and Scott Gimple and Christian [Serratos] stayed with me. And then as I was like “Guys, I got to go,” Scott started playing a song on his phone, I can't remember what it was. Something scary, maybe something Star Wars-y. It was a tune we all know, but you're going to have to ask him what it was. [Ed. note: Gimple reports that the song was “Fanfare for the Common Man,” by composer Aaron Copland, while McBride also serenaded Gurira with “You’ve Got a Friend.”] And as I got to my car and they helped get everything in and I exited the studio for the last time, it just felt like it felt a completion. And so I'm thankful for that. I felt like I'd exited well. That was the feeling.