Warning: Spoilers ahead for The Walking Dead Season 7.
We’re a little more than halfway through the first half of The Walking Dead Season 7 — just two more episodes until the Dec. 11 midseason finale — which makes it the perfect time for a “state of TWD” chat with showrunner Scott Gimple. As Rick Grimes and his crew continue to try to deal with the devastating losses of the season premiere and its ongoing aftermath, Gimple talked to Yahoo TV about Rick’s leadership challenges; how Maggie, Sasha, and Rosita are among the Alexandrians stepping up as new leaders; the incredible impact of newbies Negan and Ezekiel; and just how infectious — and annoying — “Easy Street” really is.
He also addressed those Morse code theories, and hints at what we’ll see for the rest of the season, including the promise that “the light stuff starts to compete with the dark stuff.”
Yahoo TV: Going back to right after that devastating season opener … introducing Ezekiel and the Kingdom in the second episode was perfect timing. Ezekiel is one of the best new characters introduced in the series.
Scott Gimple: So much of it is, of course, Robert [Kirkman’s] great creation in the book, but also Khary Payton… I mean, just such a force for positivity, he is someone who just exudes that sort of optimism. Great character, and just a perfect actor to portray him. I was really thrilled when I saw his audition, and was like, “Oh cool, that’s him. I can move on with my day.”
It was that clear-cut?
It was. It was. The only thing that I was slightly, that I had some pause about initially, being a fan of the comic, Khary is a little younger, he’s in a little better shape, he’s a handsome fellow. Ezekiel was a little older, a little heavier, you know, maybe not rakishly handsome in the comic, but I got to tell you, it works. It works what Mr. Payton is doing. It took me just a few minutes, then I’m like, “You know what, he’s fantastic. It doesn’t matter if he’s not overweight like the guy in the book.”
Touching on what you said about the character and the actor being optimistic, Ezekiel is kind of the perfect representation of one of the series’ ongoing themes, that you have to keep choosing to have hope in this world. I think especially in his talk with Carol, where he says, “I was a zookeeper. I had done some community theater. I kind of put these things together and created this persona, this leader who would allow these people to have hope, and have hope enough to go beyond just surviving, to try to thrive and build this community.” Ezekiel’s a great character in the comics, but Khary brings this whole level of sincerity that expands what is a great character already in the comic book. Was that what you saw in the potential of this character in this version to do?
Absolutely. The Kingdom, in and of itself, is just a different flavor than the rest of the world we’ve seen. It’s a place that is imbued with this optimism, this sunlight. Even when we were designing what the central courtyard area would look like, we wanted things growing out of a very broken-down kind of urban look, like a city. We have so much country in the show … if people look carefully, there are plants growing out of filing cabinets. It’s sort of the possibility of renewal, growth, of thriving in a broken world. Through that, sort of putting the world back together … Ezekiel does it with some theater, which is so effective because it’s so unusual in this world, in this world of hard reality, to engage people’s imagination. It’s a very positive place. We’re trying to show it as being this precious thing, that he’s even willing to compromise himself a little bit for, in regards to how he deals with the Saviors. But, you see why, see what it’s for.
Do you see him as the yang to Negan’s yin? They’re both theatrical, they’re both skilled with language, they’re both charming, you could argue Lucille is Negan’s Shiva.
Wow, yeah, that’s good. You have two people who have captured the imagination of a great deal of people, but by demonstrating another way. Negan’s way is very authoritarian, but even he … we see a little bit of how he contextualizes it to people he both works with and rules over. With Ezekiel, I mean, they’re both selling something, both selling an idea of how to live. Ezekiel’s idea is very, for a king, it’s very democratic. It applies to everybody, and everybody is welcome as long as they contribute, and they might even be welcome if they don’t, but he wants everybody to contribute in some way, and that’s all that needs to happen. Now with Negan, it’s a little more complicated. There are some people who have a better go than others, as we saw. They both are charismatic people, and they both have an idea of how the world should be, they both are really good salespeople. It’s interesting, there is very much a parallel between the two of them. I think the Kingdom has a much better choir, though. I think the choir at the Sanctuary is probably under duress.
And their whole repertoire consists of just “Easy Street.”
Yeah, that’s it, they have this horrible barbershop quartet that manages to make “Easy Street” an even more annoying song. By the way, though, the woman who sings that song, Petra Haden, is a brilliant musician and has done some amazing things on her own and with this band That Dog. She is astounding, and that song is astounding. I think if we didn’t play it over and over and over again, it wouldn’t have felt so tortuous. There was a song that I had wanted, but it didn’t come together… I listened to “Easy Street.” I was like, “Nah, that’s not annoying.” Then I walked away from my computer and for that entire walk to, like, the kitchen, or to then [producer/writer] Angela [Kang’s] office, that song kept on going in my head, and I was like, “Oh my God, that’s it, that is the most annoying song we could find.” It’s annoying because it doesn’t stop in your head. The song in and of itself is not like nails on a chalkboard; it is just one of the most incredible earworms ever created.
I have to ask you about a fan theory that’s going around this week. The Morse code artwork we see on the wall in Rick and Michonne’s house in “Service,” and then Daryl was blinking so much when he was in Alexandria… the theory is that he may have been sending Rick messages via Morse code. What can you say about that?
I would say this theory makes it official that this show has the greatest viewers and fans around. I would say I would desperately like to live in a world where Daryl Dixon intimately knew Morse code, and intimately knew that Rick knew Morse code. I’m not even kidding. That is completely badass. I love that. I love the amount of attention and imagination that is brought to this show by the audience. That is why we take the crazy risks that we do. That’s why we try to invite the conversation that can occur with big huge story turns.
I will also say it was an incredibly sunny day. Also, Andy [Lincoln] and Norman [Reedus] are really close. I think the theory actually could be correct, but not within the story. Meaning, I don’t put it past those two gentlemen, who are now so unbelievably close, that maybe Andy and Norman were communicating with each other, like they were saying, “Oh, that was a good take. I really like what you did there. You’re really bringing it.” Or, this could be a whole ruse, and there was Morse code in there. I will say this again: This is a superbusy time. Today is the last day of production, actually [on Season 7]. I’m jumping between working with the folks in Los Angeles and around the world, and so I have not read the [theory] on this too much, but I was talking to folks about it on set. Again, I’m just blown away by the fans of this show. I feel very, very, very lucky that in this time, even with their phones in their hands and their Xbox One in the corner of the screen, and maybe tweeting on an iPad with their feet, that they’re paying that much attention, that they are giving us that much attention … that we have this level of engagement and intelligence from these fans.
Turning to this week’s episode, “Go Getters,” it’s heartbreaking when Rick says goodbye to Michonne and goes to kiss her on the cheek, as if he doesn’t feel she can respect him as a leader right now. I love that she grabs him and kisses him on the mouth, but in general, certainly with Carl, he is not feeling the love for his leadership. I would argue Rick really is, kind of more than ever, being the leader he needs to be in the face of Negan’s demands and violence, doing whatever he has to to keep his loved ones alive. Why can’t the others recognize that right now?
I think some of them are. The way [the season premiere] was structured, I really wanted to ensure that the audience was with Rick throughout that whole story, that the audience is looking through his eyes, or POV, that the audience went through the trauma that Rick did, which was an incredibly painful and horrific, and just utterly traumatic, experience. I wanted the audience to feel more so that they would understand why Rick was going about things the way he is. I think the audience is sympathizing a bit with Rick’s predicament and how he’s going about it. I don’t think anybody, after the events of [the season premiere], goes, “Oh man, you should take [Negan] on right now. You should bash him over the head.” They’ve seen how quickly things can go horribly wrong and how difficult it was to lose the people they lost. None of those other characters went through the experience the way Rick and the audience did, whether it’s Michonne or Carl or Rosita, these people didn’t take the journey that we did with Rick. They can’t think the same way that Rick did … having the ax in his hand, and it really did seem he was going to have to cut off his son’s arm. That’s enough to be, like, “OK, I don’t want these other people to die. I don’t want to cut off my son’s arm. We have to live under this situation, but that does constitute living.” Michonne doesn’t think so, and there’s a conflict. I think there are characters that do sympathize with Rick. I think Gabriel did, I think Aaron certainly does. I think Daryl … Daryl’s got enough issues right now.
But, you know, so much of this year is seeing Rick as a true leader. We think of leadership and we think of these people that run the tip of the spear into battle and make these hard decisions about fighting, or driving something through … this is different. This is a pragmatic choice that Rick has to make. It’s something that doesn’t make him look heroic, unless you’re going to look at it in a nuanced way. But taking those kinds of hits, doing the right thing even though it might not look that great for you, that really is leadership. I don’t think he’s incredibly proud of the position that he’s in, but I think he knows his number one job is keeping people alive. Right now he feels the way to do that is to accept the situation he’s in.
You just mentioned Rosita. Maggie and Sasha at the Hilltop, Rosita — Carol’s gone now, but Rosita’s stepping up, I think, to be a potential leader in Alexandria. There is no bigger collection of fierce female characters on TV right now, especially given the losses they’ve all just experienced.
Yeah. I don’t think I would mess with any of them. I’m lucky that they’re good actors, and they’re much different in real life.
We’re really seeing the dawn of a new leadership, likely Maggie, at the Hilltop, with the way she and Sasha led that defense against the AMC Pacer attack.
That is true, and you see Jesus recognize that in them. You see what they did, activate Jesus and push him from somebody who was kind of participating in his community by going away, and now feeling, “No, I have to be involved. I have to do something for this place.” It really comes from seeing who Maggie and Sasha are as people, what they do. That’s exciting. You know as far as Maggie goes, Deanna, back in Season 5, saw something in her. She believed that Maggie could be a leader.
What can you say about the rest of this first half of the season and where we’ll get to by the midseason break?
Well, we began in a great deal of trauma and unbelievable heartbreak, real true horror. Now we’re in the middle of the story, and we’re seeing how they’re all planning on moving forward. Before this half season’s end we’re also going to see some spikes out of the story that are complete left turns, that right now have really nothing to do with this greater story. It just affects some characters that we haven’t seen in a while. But, you’ll see Rick get tested more and more; we’ll see the conflicts between the characters about how to deal with this grow greater. It will all crash together. I will say that the end of the season could not be more different than the beginning of the season. The end of the season really is the start of a very different vibe, a very different flavor, a very different structure to the episodes. I think for the audience … we’ve asked a great deal of them. I wanted to put them through all the traumas that Rick suffered in the beginning of the season, have them understand where he’s at, but as we move forward, things change a great deal.
As we move into the back half, things become more textured in as much as, it isn’t so simple. It’s essentially what Ezekiel said, “It isn’t so simple as the world’s all bad.” The audience, for the journey that they’ve taken, gets to smile again. They get to see some lightness on the episodes. They get to see romance. I think the audience is taking the hero’s journey, and they get to hit those highs that the hero gets to hit. I think it’s a very rewarding and satisfying journey for the audience. I really just can’t wait for them to see it and to feel the turns that we’re going to take. The light stuff starts to compete with the dark stuff.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.