The ninth season of The Walking Dead has been a tumultuous and unsettling one in many ways (especially with the loss of Andrew Lincoln and fellow lead Lauren Cohan early on) but the show’s six-year time jump and its tonal shift (to hew closer to the original source material, the Robert Kirkman comics) have been a source of new lifeblood for the AMC series, according to Season 9 showrunner Angela Kang.
“What I really love is this kind of horror-western vibe that we really wanted to play with and it’s really inspired a lot by the comic books,” Kang said at The Walking Dead panel at PaleyFest LA. After pausing to acknowledge the ovation of the comics-loving partisan audience, Kang continued: “There’s a [time] jump in the comics but you know we decided to go a little further ahead in time than the comics do…I kind of felt like, ‘Okay, we’re writing out Rick [Grimes, Lincoln’s character] how do we promise that there is so much more cool story to tell with all these amazing characters that we have on the show? So I thought it would be a really fun twist to jump that time at the end of his last episode.”
Kang was joined on the panel by cast members Norman Reedus, Christian Serratos, Eleanor Matsuura, Lauren Ridloff, and Ryan Hurst. The moderator was Chris Hardwick, the host of The Talking Dead. Reedus, who portrays Daryl Dixon, was clearly the crowd favorite. Reedus has moved to the show’s central spotlight after the departure of Grimes but the actor explained that his character could never wear the vocal leadership mantle that so naturally suited Lincoln’s lawman. Reedus also said his character’s energy was directly influenced by his own early on-set experience. Reedus didn’t feel warmly embraced at first (unless you count an extra-snug headlock from brawny Jon Bernthal) and the newcomer felt some defiance coming through in his performances.
“I came on in the third episode and that cast really knew each other. They had been doing press and they were all stupid-tight…in the beginning I didn’t quite know what I was going to do yet, I kind of had an idea of the Southern thing and I did that a little bit,” Reedus said of his character, who does not appear in Kirkman’s comics.
“The first scene I did was, ‘Merle, come down here, I got squirrels let’s stew them up,’ which is a crazy line, first off…when I turn around there is all this cast. There’s like 13 people who were just staring at me. And I immediately got a chip on my shoulder. I was like, ‘They hate me.’ And I realized, that’s who this guy [Daryl] is. ‘You hate me? I hate you, too.’ And that’s just how I started.”
From that point on, Reedus said, his character had a scowl ready to go most of the time. “Everything kind of came out of the side of my face” he said, adding that it was safer that way for other characters. “If I’m going to look at you directly I’m probably going to stab you.”
A different Dixon is at the center of the show’s saga now. He’s matured and endured. Reedus said Dixon is a leader of a different sort than Grimes but also a figure of respect in a hellish landscape that brings out the worst in many people.
“Daryl started talking straight on. Everything he says, he means. You can believe him. You can trust him. And he’s not going to lie to you. And he’s not trying to impress you. And he’ll see through your bullshit. And this show, as it kept going on, I’ve seen so many people come and go now and right now on the show those ghosts of all those guys are with me. Every fricking scene, it’s true.”
The season finale of The Walking Dead is March 31st and the show is at an interesting crossroads. As far as mass effect, The Walking Dead hit its zenith back in mid-October of 2014 when a record 17.3 million viewers tuned in to “No Sanctuary,” the Season 5 opener. The numbers have declined since the start of Season 7 in 2016. The Walking Dead remains the top-rated show on cable television but viewership is down across the board.
The Walking Dead, however, remains the top-rated show on cable. The brand’s value goes beyond its ratings in any given week, anyway. Early access to key episodes has been a primary engine for the $5-a-month AMC Premiere service for subscribers, for instance, and the show is viewed as a fountainhead for tie-in IP. Crossovers are in the works between The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead and the brand will find a second life on the big screen with a series of movies that will focus on Andrew Lincoln’s character, Grimes.
Ten days before Valentine’s Day, The Walking Dead was renewed for Season 10. Two weeks after Valentines Day, AMC confirmed that a second spin-off series is in active development. With all the different directions it could be hard for the center of the brand to hold but Kang said the original comics are the tuning fork that keeps the show’s writers in the correct key.
“We are all so inspired by the comics,” Kang said. “Kirkman is such a master of the page-turner. You read it and it’s like a juicy, juicy, just fun comic book to read. There’s so many wonderful, iconic moments in the comics. Moments you get to and just say, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe he just did that. I have to see this on screen!’ As writers, as with any fans of the comics, we have those same responses. But with the show we have such a different array of characters and such different circumstances that’s it never going to be exactly the comic, nor should it be. It’s a different medium.”
Kang said that comics and television have far different imperatives but that the energy of Kirkman’s saga on the page provides an essential drumbeat that the show writers keep in mind even as they rearrange the orchestration for their own medium. “So what’s really fun is to go: here’s that amazing moment in the comic and here’s how it made us feel. Now, how do we capture that feeling even if the way you get to it is not literally the same way that the comic book got to it.”