(Photo by AMC)
After nine years of cast turnovers and a handful of high-profile departures by executive producers, The Walking Dead is experiencing its biggest changes since its fourth season: the arrival of new executive producer and showrunner Angela Kang and the departure of star Andrew Lincoln. It appears that the future of TWD is decidedly female.
While Kang told Rotten Tomatoes she didn’t think there was a conscious shift toward a more female-forward focus — “I think we have these incredible women who are lead characters. But we also have our great men, like Norman [Reedus] who plays Darryl,” she said, “so I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a conscious change towards doing sort of a gender thing.” — a change is definitely occurring both on screen and behind it.
Throughout the series, characters like Maggie (Lauren Cohan, who is also departing), Carol (Melissa McBride), and Michonne (Danai Gurira) persevered through physical and mental trials to become some of the series’ strongest characters. Kang, who has written on the series since its second season, said the character progression for each of those women was only natural.
“It’s more like, here’s who we have that we’ve followed for many years, that are really strong, that we have organically moved to places of leadership within the story,” she said. “It does allow us, though, at this point in the story, to sort of spotlight these really strong women characters, and see how they bounce off of each other as well as the other characters in our world.”
To McBride, the changes in leadership coming to Alexandria and the ones occurring behind the scenes already reflect a different sort of Walking Dead; which she credits to Kang.
“The show has gone through a couple of different showrunners and they all have their unique point of view and the way that they approach the work. And it’s totally felt and realized in the production,” McBride explained. Those showrunners include The Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont, who ran TWD for the first season and a half; The Shield‘s Glen Mazzara, who took over when Darabont’s relationship with AMC became acrimonious in the program’s second year; and Scott Gimple, who took Mazzara’s place the following year and ran the series until he was promoted to AMC brand manger for The Walking Dead ahead of its ninth season.
McBride continued, “From the very first episode [of the season, the show has] a lot more cinematic of a feel — the way [Angela’s] using the landscapes, the way she’s using the props, the way all the departments are just really taking hold of what it is they do, being creative within their departments. Angela’s got good leadership and she also communicates well with the departments.”
Like McBride, Reedus will be one of the most senior members of the cast after Lincoln’s departure — no easy feat on this show — and one of the few to make it all the way from Atlanta to Alexandria. In his view, Kang’s leadership has produced a visibly different set in the show’s ninth year.
“We had a couple seasons where it was male-driven and guys sort of chest-bumped going ‘I’ma kill you, I’ma kill you, I’ma kill you,’” he said, adding, “We have a lot of new directors, a lot of new writers, they’re mostly all women. It’s a different vibe.” Reedus also credits the change with establishing new “awesome” characters for the year, which include Samantha Morton and Ryan Hurst as Whisperers Alpha and Beta.
The Whisperer War storyline, featured in issues 157-162 of The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard, was a personal favorite of Kang’s, and her immediate pitch when she succeeded Gimple. In the comic book storyline, Negan (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan on the series) takes on more of an advisory capacity, and Kang teased “a version of that story” may play out in the new season. Of course, if Rick is gone by the time the show’s version of the Whisperer War begins, who could Negan possibly advise?
As is the tradition for The Walking Dead’s cast and crew, everyone was mum on any further details. But Kang noted Rick’s imminent departure changes the very nature of the show.
“I think it forces us to reevaluate as writers our own storytelling rhythms, and the things that we have leaned on over the years to make a Rick-centric story work,” she explained. “We have to go, ‘OK, well, we can tell stories with these other characters. But these other characters are not Rick. They don’t have his personality.’”
As a result, characters like Darryl, Carol and Michonne (Danai Gurira) will face very different sorts of dilemmas once whatever happens to Rick happens.
“It’s been interesting creatively because it really forces us to look very hard at the ways that we can tell these stories going forward,” Kang added. “So that’s the thing that we challenge ourselves to do every day.”
One of the show’s most powerful characters, Michonne, has had what star Gurira describes simply as a “journey” from season 3 to the woman audiences will see after the 18-month gap between seasons 8 and 9.
“[Michonne has] been saying since season 5 [that] we have to not turn into something we don’t recognize. From her own experience, she’s been pushing away from that,” Gurira told Rotten Tomatoes. “To get to that point, where we can actually have some stability and have a moment to try to find our feet, and create something for our children, and our children’s children. Getting back to something resembling who we once were [is] something that I think has been really threaded through her quite beautifully over the course of years.”
Gurira was quick to add that Michonne’s journey may not lead to a Rick-style leadership role.
“She’s trying to create something that allows for people to come forward and come together. I think that’s the clear thing,” she said. “If you put the structures in place, it’s not just about you. You’re thinking in a futuristic way. You’re thinking generationally. You’re not just thinking about yourself. That’s how Michonne is built.”
Of course, Gurira skillfully avoided any more specific questions about Michonne’s life following Rick’s departure, instead joking that working on the show has taught her “how to say very little to press.”
Reedus, however, said that he would miss Lincoln’s presence on set — and credited the star with teaching him how to be a much more professional actor.
“Part of what makes Andy ‘Andy’ and a good leader on set and a good quarterback for this football team is he cares from a good place. He’s never been into the limelight or the money or whatever,” Reedus told Rotten Tomatoes. “He does everything for the right reasons and, like everyone says, he’s the first guy there and the last one to leave because he comes from a good place.”
Lincoln isn’t completely gone, however. He’ll actually be on set following his character’s departure so he can shadow a director in anticipation of directing an episode of his own during season 10.
“It’s just going to be family time,” Gurira said of his imminent, though different, return.
And as with TWD‘s many other cast departures, the show will hold Rick in high regard as it forges forward with new storylines and new characters.
“We have loved our long relationship with Andrew Lincoln as Rick. It’s been really fun for us to write for him and to watch him on screen,” Kang said. “But there is definitely a lot more story to be told with the rest of the ensemble that is left.”
The Walking Dead season 9 premieres on Sunday, October 7 at 9 p.m. ET.