[Warning: This story contains major spoilers about the Season 2 finale of AMC's The Walking Dead, titled "Beside the Dying Fire."]
AMC's The Walking Dead capped its record-breaking second season in epic fashion Sunday, with a bloody finale that pushed Rick and the group forward in a huge way.
After stabbing Shane (Jon Bernthal) to death in last week's penultimate episode, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) learned that Jenner's (Noah Emmerich) whisper in the Season 1 finale at the CDC was, in fact, true -- everyone is infected and, without a fatal blow to the head, will come back to life after death as a zombie.
His return to Hershel's (Scott Wilson) farm, however, is interrupted as a massive herd of zombies closed in and took a hefty toll on the survivors, with Otis' late wife, Patricia (Jane McNeil), and Beth's (Emily Kinney) boyfriend, Jimmy (James Allen McCune), among the casualties. After everyone split off, most of the group was quickly reassembled on the highway where the season began and they lost Sophia.
Once the surviving members of the group were reunited, Rick was forced to explain Shane's death -- and in doing so, shared the details of Jenner's secret, instantly facing the wrath of everyone, including Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies).
Meanwhile, Andrea (Laurie Holden) was forced to fend for herself and outrun the herd, nearly falling victim to the undead before a mysterious hooded woman with a sword came to her rescue just as it looked as if her time was up.
So where does the group go from here? The Hollywood Reporter caught up with showrunner Glen Mazzara and executive producer/comic book creator Robert Kirkman -- who both penned the installment -- to discuss the heart-racing episode, why comic book fans are probably jumping for joy at the sight of the hooded woman (Michonne!) and which character nearly joined the body count. Plus, how are they approaching the 16-episode third season, which promises to be their biggest season to date.
THR: The farm attack is epic. Everything happened so quickly, including Jimmy and Patricia's death. We totally thought Hershel was a goner.
Glen Mazzara: That's something we've been building to. If Lori needed a road map to town when she crashed the car, how do you think zombies are doing on those back roads? They're just wandering around in the woods. They're idiots. And let me say, that was an interesting flashback that we did. That was a flashback to the fall of Atlanta and the herd forming.
Robert Kirkman: We've gotten to a point where viewers are surprised when we don't kill someone; anybody can go at any moment. We finally built that kind of anticipation to the same level that it is in the comic book, which is really exciting to me.
THR: Were there discussions about increasing the body count in the finale?
Kirkman: There was a script that was released where Randall escaped and killed Herschel and he died in the same episode with Randall and Shane. Herschel proved that there was a lot of story left to be told with him, which we'll see in Season 3. So, he's around for a while.
Mazzara: The plan was always to whack Hershel, and I actually told Scott Wilson, "Thanks for everything you've done, but in the next script we're going to kill off your character." We started writing that and it felt like Hershel's death was playing as a plot device and we were getting no emotional resonance. It was just playing as a gratuitous death. This was one of those examples where we won't play a shocking death for the sense of death; we have to get something out of it. We got nothing out of it. If you look at the shot of Hershel looking back and seeing that barn burning and his farm completely lost to the zombies, that shot was well worth it because we see the farm was really a character and you can only see that through Hershel's eyes. So it was the right call to keep him alive.
THR: How will the loss of Patricia and Jimmy impact him?
Mazzara: He's already changed more than anyone. Now he's a badass with a shotgun and it's like Scott Wilson is suddenly an action hero. Moving forward, he understands what it's like to live in this world and he's willing to just lock himself in a car and just wait for them to show up. He's already lost everything and he's interested in moving on. In a sense he's also a voice of reason and moving forward both he and Daryl (Norman Reedus) could be different types of consigliere through Rick.
THR: Why does Rick confess about the Jenner whisper when everyone's asking about Shane?
Mazzara: People are asking questions about Randall and they start asking questions about what happened with Shane. Rick wants to confess about Shane, but he can't, so he throws out the easier confession about Jenner's secret. He steps to the side and Lori confronts him about that Jenner's secret and he really opens his heart to her and confesses Shane's death. She doesn’t have the reaction that he wants, so they step back to the group and when he confesses his role in Shane's death, his murder of Shane to the group, he's already sanitizing and rationalizing his confession. So there are three confessions: Jenner's secret, his honest confession to Lori and this disingenuous confession to the group.
Kirkman: I don't think he had confirmation that Jenner's whisper was actually true until the moment that he saw Shane come back to life. What do you do with that information? I think he's smart enough to realize that knowing that could actually make things more dangerous. That's him exhibiting good leadership skills.
THR: How will the group handle news that they're all infected -- and that Rick knew since the CDC?
Mazzara: People immediately question what kind of leader is Rick. Is he worthy? Has he morally advocated his role to lead them? He presents them with a very pragmatic option: If you don't like it, get the hell out and there are no takers. At the end of the finale, the true horror is Rick when he says, "It ain't a democracy anymore." That's the true horror.
Kirkman: That's a really important beat to end the season on. The important thing to note is that no one leaves. So no matter what they think about what Rick did with Shane and how they feel about this revelation, they're sticking by him. They may be sticking by him through loyalty or through fear. That's something that we'll be exploring in the third season.
THR: What's Lori most upset about, that her husband is a murderer, that he killed someone Lori loved, Carl's hand in Shane's death or that he finally revealed that everyone's infected and he's been keeping it a secret?
Mazzara: All of that is going through Lori's mind. Rick murdered Shane and she did confess she had feelings for Shane. Her son was a part of it. They're all infected. Is her baby infected? We're out on the road, where is she going to give birth? What happens if the baby dies? What happens if she dies? All of these questions are going through her head. The thing that affects her most is that she played a role in Shane's death. She put those two men at odds, she whispered in Rick's ear and then she talked to Shane at the windmill. She realizes that this has been over her, and in a sense she has been an active participant in Shane's death. So she can blame Rick for that, but she's horrified by her own culpability.
Kirkman:Rick is doing all of this to protect Lori and Carl and at the end of this season, it looks pretty clear that he has lost them by doing this. Lori doesn't want anything to do with him. Carl is very upset when he finds out that Shane was murdered. Rick is not going to be in a good place moving forward.
THR: Carol (Melissa McBride) turns to Daryl and suggests they leave the group.
Robert Kirkman: She's so terrified that she still stays. Everybody's going to be voicing their discontent. Learning that everyone carries this virus or whatever it is inside of them and people coming back to life is unavoidable. It's terrifying and you can't really do anything with that information other than go eeew. We'll be dealing with a lot of that stuff in Season 3.
THR: Will determining the cause of the outbreak be something that the group, now that they know they're all infected, spends time on?
Mazzara: Robert has not been interested in addressing in the comic book, and I'm not interested in addressing in the show. That being said, if it leads to new story -- if there's something that's important that we get out of it -- I'll be the first one to write it. But right now the cause of the zombie outbreak seems irrelevant. I always want the show to play like a horror movie every week. If you define what caused the outbreak, that puts us in a world of science fiction, and this isn't science fiction to me, it's horror. In my mind that's two different genres, so that is an important distinction to me.
THR: Did you consider keeping everyone split up as the cliffhanger?
Mazzara: That's something we certainly considered, but we didn't want to have too many storylines moving into Season 3. There were a couple of days where we were thinking of splitting off Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) so we had three different storylines. That didn't feel right.
Kirkman: This whole season was about Rick stepping up and accepting, owning and proving that he's worthy of his leadership role. At the end of the day, you can't really be a leader if you don't have a group to lead. It's very important to get them, to certain extent, back together by the end of the finale, especially when you see what we're doing with these characters in Season 3, which you get a pretty good glimpse of at the end of the episode.
THR: Why was it important to bring the sword-wielding Michonne in now? We were totally expecting to see The Governor considering his recent casting.
Kirkman: We're transitioning into a new world. This has very much been a show about what's going on in this world, how do we survive; everyone is scared. We're going to be moving into a different world where everyone knows how to survive and they're faced with more adversaries, danger and different kinds of threats. That's very much what Season 3 is going to be about. Introducing Michonne the way we did is a big part of that. This is the first time we've seen someone who's out in the wilderness, on their own. She certainly seemed capable. She saves Andrea and she's carrying a sword. This is a very strange visual for fans of the show. Fans of the comic book know all about her and I'm sure are very excited to see her. I like to think about how the audience that just watches the show takes that. I think that that is such a bizarre and jarring image. It really speaks volumes as to what you're going to be seeing in Season 3.
THR: Andrea almost joined the body count but Michonne appeared from out of nowhere to save her. How will her arrival impact Andrea? Will there be a time jump?
Mazzara: I don't want to answer that. We're working through the material but part of the goal of splitting Andrea off is to examine that character. Andrea's always been defined in light of other characters: Shane, Dale, Lori.
Kirkman: That'll definitely be something that we'll be talking about over the course of the summer as we start promoting our third season.
THR: Have you cast Michonne?
Mazzara: We're in that process now.
Kirkman: We're keeping secret on that for now.
THR: Her arrival mirrors what's in the comics -- showing up with two chained walkers and a sword. How closely will her story following the comics?
Kirkman: I don't want to spoil anything, but if people do want to run out there to grab those comics to look at them, they will get some glimpse of what's coming up in Season 3.
THR: In the comics, Michonne arrives just before the group finds the prison -- which is when Rick also meets Tyreese. Could we expect to see him next season?
Mazzara: Tyreese could possibly be next. There are some other surprises that could also be next. We have this treasure trove of material to work from. We've told our farm story. We've told our Rick, Lori, Shane story to an extent. Now it's time to put our characters out on the road and into the world. We know they're at the gates of that prison. We know Michonne is in the world. Obviously people know from casting it that The Governor is out there. The prison does equal the governor's story. I think we're getting to the meat of Robert Kirkman's Walking Dead universe.
THR: How much does the comic influence what you're looking for in an actress to play Michonne and what you'll be writing to?
Mazzara: This is really a character that we will make our own. This will be our version of what's in the comic. We know that she's a loner, we know she kicks ass. But we have some other traits about that her that are not in the comic book that we'll deviate. There's an interesting process as we start to write this character and bring her to life. We see this character as a significant character, not just as someone who's in the mix. This is a major addition to the show.
THR: Are you looking for a name?
Mazzara: I don't want to say who's in the running, but we are really looking for someone who inhabits the traits of the character. We don't feel like we need to bring in a name for this. We really feel like we want an actress who's going to be identified with the character and bring the character to life.
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THR: Robert just told Michonne's back story in a six-page special. Any plans to incorporate that?
Mazzara: We have an idea of Michonne's back story and that is something that we will address in a surprising way. I know people are going to ask, are we going to go back and do flashbacks of where Michonne was when the outbreak broke out. Probably not.
THR: The season brought them back to where it began, near the highway where they left Sophia, with a final glimpse of the prison in the background. Was that intentional?
Kirkman: To a certain extent. They were a lot more optimistic in the first episode than they were in the last. The characters have definitely gone on a long journey. Moving forward, the way we pan up and reveal that the prison is just on the horizon, we are saying there's definitely new things on the horizon and different things that they're going to be encountering. So we're not necessarily leaving them in the exact same place.
THR: Last year there was a lot of behind the scenes turmoil with Frank Darabont's departure, with Glen's addition coming during in the middle of the process. How are you approaching not just your first full season, but also your biggest, with 16 episodes?
Mazzara: The show is a bear to produce, but we have a great team that now has figured it out. What we've done in these past seven episodes is make each a thrill ride. I guarantee there is no filler in Season 3; there's no stretching it out. Every episode is going to land a punch. Every episode is going to continue to be just as packed, just as dense as these last few episodes. We've hit our stride and I'm looking forward to the challenge. I'm not nervous about it at all.
Kirkman: We've pretty much completed the bulk of the first half of the season. So, the first eight episodes are pretty much locked. We're moving forward full steam ahead to try and make sure that Season 3 is as explosive and just as dramatic and awesome and compelling as the last half of this season has been. I think we've got some really cool things in store.
What did you think of the finale? Are you excited for Michonne's arrival? How do you think the group will fare under Rick's dictatorship? The Walking Dead's third season will premiere in October.