[This story contains spoilers from The Walking Dead comics on which the show is based.]
AMC's The Walking Dead kicked off the 34th annual PaleyFest on Friday evening with a sold-out Q&A at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, where 11 castmembers - including star Andrew Lincoln - were joined by four executive producers for a fun, and slightly spoilery, panel.
Showrunner Scott M. Gimple opened the evening with a broader look at season seven, calling the deadly first episode of the year "traumatic" but pointing to the somewhat lighter second half, where "these characters can smile again." He warned that the remaining three episodes of the season are really about seeing the characters "come alive again and earn the place where they are" as they prepare to take on Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and the rest of his deadly group of Saviors.
As for the future of the series, Gimple pointed out that October's season-eight premiere will mark the 100th episode of The Walking Dead. "The first episode [of season eight] is less about that we've reached 100 episodes; it's more about setting up the next 100 episodes," he said, looking to the looming battle between Rick (Lincoln) and the surrounding communities as they take on Negan. "The end of this season is very much the end of a chapter; it's a conclusion that promises this epic story ahead. The first episode of season eight … it's about setting up this gigantic epic tale to come, not only in season eight but beyond."
Here are a few other highlights from the fan-driven event:
• When a fan from the packed Dolby Theatre screamed, "Kill him!" after the first reference of Negan, Lincoln was quick with a retort: "I'm working on it!" he said of the brewing war to come in the remaining three episodes of season seven. This season is marching toward an arc in the comics called "All-Out War," in which Rick rallies all the various communities to take on Negan and his camp of Saviors.
• Lincoln also described an amazing ending for what Rick's final scene would be, if he were to write it. He set up a scene in the desert with Rick alone, bitten by a zombie and never dying, after jumping off a bus in a heroic act to save Carl and everyone else. "I'm just waiting to die, and I patch myself up and a day passes ... and I don't die. "Holy shit, maybe I'm the cure!" he said to screams from the audience. "There's a high shot, and you see a herd of zombies coming, and Rick follows the tracks to go see Carl, and the herd walking toward him just separates and he walks through it!" Said exec producer Robert Kirkman after Lincoln's elaborate story: "That was cute!"
• Exec producer Greg Nicotero - who, in addition to designing all the walkers, is also one of the zombie drama's regular directors - recalled being "really haunted" after reading about Glenn's eyeball in the 100th issue of Kirkman's comic when it debuted at Comic-Con a few years ago. He confessed to feeling bad for the guy who would have to shoot that scene. As luck would have it, Nicotero directed that deadly season-seven premiere in which Glenn and Abraham were both killed by Negan and Lucille, his barbed-wire-covered bat. And yes, Glenn's eye was heavily featured.
• Asked if there is any redemption left in Dwight, currently Negan's right-hand man at the Sanctuary, Austin Amelio was optimistic. "I hope so. That would be great, yeah!" he said. Added Kirkman, offering a big hint at what may be to come for the character on the AMC series: "Read the comic!" Walking Dead producers typically take a remix approach to Kirkman's source material, with certain events mirroring the comics, while others get a different spin.
• Alanna Masterson had one of the more heartfelt lines of the evening when talking about Tara's return to the series after the actress had a baby. During her stand-alone episode, in which she encountered the Oceansiders community of well-armed women, the actress revealed she was game for any of the demanding stunts the producers came up with. After recalling the adventure of the episode, she noted that Tara "has got a lot of heart - and I hope she's holding the torch for Glenn."
• Josh McDermitt brought the comedy to the panel when, responding to a direct question, he joked, "I am Negan," in a nod to Eugene's falling in line with the head of the Saviors. The character is currently a high-ranking member of the community, despite being held hostage, and McDermitt noted that he didn't feel Eugene had a different plan in mind. "I don't feel like Eugene is playing a game; he's out for himself and trying to protect himself," he said. "Eugene is scared, and a lot of his fear is coming from Negan. So he's out looking for himself. … He's trying to protect himself, and why not align himself with the man who is causing the most fear in his life? It's how [Eugene] can continue to survive." The actor, who has a background in comedy, referenced Abraham's "Stage Two Badass" speech from last season and noted that this is Eugene's way of adapting to Negan's world. "To get to the next level, you have to change and adapt. … We may see him change and adapt again if he lives on in the series. That's how he survives: He lies and manipulates. He's like a cockroach," he said.
• Lauren Cohan, who joked that she was only at PaleyFest to find out what Eugene was up to, noted that the only way her character, Maggie, can be so determined after dealing with so much loss (husband Glenn, father Hershel, sister Beth, etc.) is by realizing that there's a greater good to the group's purpose. "It's about them as a whole and a greater good and persevering. What other reason would there be to experience such loss than to have life inside of you?" she said with a nod to Maggie's pregnancy. "You still have to live for that. We're just pieces in this puzzle now. The more people she loses, the [stronger] she is." Asked if it bothers her how much fans love Negan, Cohan confessed that it "bugs" her, but she understands it, given how much she loves Morgan as a co-star.
• Sonequa Martin-Green, whose Sasha is teaming with Rosita to head to the Sanctuary in a potential suicide mission, said the reason she's putting herself out there is to really experience the living that Abraham mentioned in season six. "It's beautiful to see how everyone is translating that into their lives," she said of all the Walking Dead characters. "For Sasha, all roads have led here. It's not about me pursuing my own safety or survival - it's about solidifying a future that we can create because we're leaders."
• Fan favorite Melissa McBride, whose Carol has been out of the action for most of the season as she attempted to live a life without killing, is now firmly back in action after learning of Glenn and Abraham's death. McBride noted how much Carol surprises her and said she enjoys playing both the fierce warrior and the woman who briefly lost her faith. "Badass is really hard for me to wrap my head around because I don't feel like I've played her as a badass; she just does badassy things … and I like that," she said.
• Leading man Lincoln recalled the brutality of playing Rick in the season-seven premiere in which both Glenn and Abraham were killed off in front of him. "It was a pretty miserable day at the office," he joked before turning serious. "I just thought: I've lost two really good friends of mine who have left the show forever. … And my mom really wants me to nail this scene! I just thought it was a brave thing to smash an archetype. … It was a very scary thing to do, and I thought, 'If we're going to do it, I'm going to do it with everything I have.' " Perhaps the most amusing anecdote of the night came from Lincoln, who nearly shot out of his chair on the stage when a fan in the packed theater kept somewhat mocking him by shouting, "Carrrrrrl!"
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC. For more Walking Dead coverage, bookmark THR.com/WalkingDead.