SPOILER ALERT: THIS ARTICLE REVEALS DETAILS FROM THE SEASON 9 PREMIERE OF THE WALKING DEAD. TURN BACK NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE EPISODE.
The Walking Dead returned for season 9 with plenty of action: Rick (Andrew Lincoln) laughing, Daryl (Norman Reedus) talking up a storm, Carol (Melissa McBride) getting engaged, Gregory (Xander Berkeley) trying to stir up trouble again, and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) proving she’s a fierce leader. Just as Rick did when he decided to spare Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) from an execution last season, Maggie will make her own decisions about how rulebreakers should be punished. (Which means: Goodbye, Gregory, you were an entertaining weasel.)
New Walking Dead showrunner Angela Kang discussed these and many other season 9 premiere topics with Rotten Tomatoes, including how Carl (Chandler Riggs) continues to loom large in the rebuilding of society, why Carol and Daryl shippers shouldn’t be too heartbroken about Carol’s engagement to King Ezekiel (Khary Payton), and how Daryl is going to be forced to step up as the leader we’ve always seen him to be.
Kimberly Potts for Rotten Tomatoes: Congratulations — this was a fun introduction to the new life Rick and company are trying to forge 18 months after the war with Negan and the Saviors.
Angela Kang: Thank you, I’m really glad that you enjoyed the premiere episode! We definitely have had a lot of fun this season as our characters [are], as Rick says in the premiere, looking to the past to build for the future. In a world where gas and electricity [are less frequently] resources they can rely on, it’s been really fun, from a production design standpoint and a story standpoint. The characters have to go to horses and wagons and rely on more hand weapons and figure out ways to have more renewable sources of food, to deal with issues of scarcity and the environment around them changing. It’s really given us a lot of grist for the season.
It’s such a clever way of going about it, too. Not only does their resourcefulness pay off, but it turns out to be a fun way to reveal backstory, like Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh) being a teacher.
Kang: It’s been really fun to tell stories with Jadis, because she’s such an odd character. That’s part of what we love about her, the oddness of her, the quirkiness of Gabriel kind of coming together for a story with her. Pollyanna is such an incredible actor, and she really has such great range. It’s been really cool to see [Anne] play Jadis, the character she created. … Anne was an art professor who almost did that stuff as a form of performance art to survive the apocalypse, because it throws people off balance. [Now] she’s trying to be a little more who she was before the apocalypse.
When you thought about this season and how it would jump forward in time, with so many changes for all the communities, what were the most important things for you to set up at the beginning?
Kang: Because we were starting with this time jump, it really gave us a lot of latitude to pick up the story at a point that we thought was interesting. We wanted to set up where each of our major characters and communities were at. So it was really important to see that the Sanctuary has been under almost like a peacekeeping force, led by Daryl, trying to help them rebuild. But not everything is well. We see that Hilltop is thriving. We see that with the Alexandrians, they’ve really been pursuing under Rick and under Michonne’s leadership the vision of Carl’s future that he wanted, which is all those communities working together trying to build for a larger future of civilization.
And then we just wanted to see where the characters were with each other. A thing that we talked about a lot was when you have something as monumental as Rick deciding, unilaterally, to save Negan, regardless of whether that decision had the intended result, regardless of whether it was right or wrong, he did it by himself. … He had promised Maggie that they were going to kill this man together and then he took away her agency in the moment. For Maggie this is something that causes deep pain. She has no closure, really, on anything to do with Negan or her husband’s death, but she’s tried to move on. I think that’s been one of the key things to set up for this arc of stories, is where Rick and Maggie are at, and what that says about where Alexandria and Hilltop are at with each other, and the way that that effects every other community around them.
Obviously it’s sad Andrew Lincoln’s leaving, but the episode had some quality time with Rick. He’s not exactly in a lighter place, but in some little ways, like the scene laughing with Michonne (Danai Gurira) in bed, he seems more optimistic. Is that a product of him knowing that he’s trying to put into motion exactly what Carl ask him to, to bring the communities together and rebuild society?
Kang: I think that is a huge part of it, absolutely. I’ll just back up and say, the benefit of starting with this jump in time is you get to be out of the immediate angst and raw grief of what happened at the end of the previous season. Everybody’s had a chance to come to a little more of a sense of peace. And I think in terms of writing Rick’s arc, the writers room talked a lot about how Rick is a man who needs a mission. It’s not good when he doesn’t have a very specific goal to pursue, and I think that’s the way Rick deals with his grief. We’ve seen it over and over again in the show.
When he is faced with crushing loss, when he’s broken, the pain is so much for him, but when he knows, “OK, here’s what I’m going to do next,” that’s when he finds such intense focus — like the fact that Carl did have this vision, that he left them letters, that Rick can refer back to that letter, that he can carry it in his mind, but also just have a physical reminder of that. Regardless of whether we see that, he definitely has that letter and that’s something that gives him a sense of purpose at a time when, in some ways, he feels like a dinosaur after the war. He’s been a general who no longer has a war to fight. The war to fight now is to build up the new world, and that’s the way he’s going about it. But it has allowed him to have a little more optimism, and a little more hope.
The thing he’s really contending with is there are inner divisions between people who really are very smart, who respect each other, and who love each other, but don’t necessarily agree on what is the way to achieve these ends that they want. So for Rick, these are the challenges he’s facing, but he’s really trying to, like any great leader, get this stuff done for the future, for Carl, for everyone. But it is really fun for us to also let him have a little bit of lightness. Andy is an incredibly funny guy. He does comic stuff very, very well. I think it was fun for us to think about. “What does Rick think about being ‘The Famous Rick Grimes,’” something that comes out of the comic? The way that he played it, I thought, was just absolutely perfect. Rick thinks it’s all a little ridiculous, funny, and it tells us a lot about the relationship that Rick and Michonne have when they’re talking about that in bed. She’s funny, too. Michonne’s got quite a sense of humor, and the two of them can bring that out in each other.
It also really gives us another chance to see just how solid they are, not just as a romantic couple, but as a team, a pair of leaders.
Kang: Absolutely. That’s an important part of the story this season, too — we see them as this team, but it’s also very important that Rick and Michonne are not one entity. Michonne has her own portfolio of things that she’s working on, which we’ll see as the season goes on. We’re really seeing Michonne come into her own as a political leader. She’s always been a leader of the group and a warrior who’s a leader, but we’re seeing her grow into different forms of leadership. Danai is doing incredible work.
The only thing more surprising than seeing Rick laugh is hearing Daryl talk as much as he does in this episode. He is in a very different place. He’s unhappy that he’s not living with all of his friends, he’s not totally on board with Rick’s plans, and it feels like he is a little more confident in questioning those things than he would’ve been in the past.
Kang: Yeah, in some ways, I think of Daryl as a loyal knight. He’s not somebody who would aspire to be the king. He is so loyal, but in some ways the loyalty has come at a cost to his character. There are times when he went along with decisions that he didn’t totally agree with, even though Daryl kind of does what Daryl does — when he goes rogue sometimes, and that’s what we love about him. But I think part of the evolution of his character is he is not a man of many words usually, but across time he has built these very close relationships with certain characters who he’s very loyal to. Daryl and Rick look at each other like brothers. That can be a complicated relationship, but he is developing ways of being more open about what he feels. That’s part of his growth as a character. He’s growing up, and he’s able to express these things that used to sometimes come out as rage, and he’s able to talk about it and form a plan while still very much being the Daryl that we know and love.
Carol and Ezekiel are officially a couple now. Daryl tells her he’s happy for her, and we know that he wants her to be happy. People have wanted Carol and Daryl to become a couple for so long — do you think there are any unresolved feelings there or is he genuinely just happy that she’s found someone who treats her well?
Kang: I think he definitely is genuinely happy for Carol. I think this is one of the deepest relationships that we have on the show. It’s a relationship between these two people who are so damaged in some ways from their prior lives, before the apocalypse, and who’ve come so far together. Neither of them trusts people very easily. The idea of being in a romantic relationship for either of them is not something that is easy. We have not seen that at all for Daryl.
What I’ll say is, these are characters who have come a long way, who have had long stories. People who are lamenting a certain pairing or whatever, keep in mind that we’re telling a long, serialized arc and stories develop and stories change and things move along. What we know is that Carol and Daryl, whether romantic or not, they are soulmates. They needed to find each other in this apocalypse, and they’re both stronger for having each other.
Ken endeared himself to everyone right away, so it was emotional when he was killed before making it home from Washington — and even more emotional at the funeral with Alden’s moving performance of “The Last Rose of Summer.” Did you know Callan McAuliffe could sing so beautifully? How did that come about?
Kang: I actually did know Callan could sing, because on social media I had seen that he posted some little videos of himself singing. It’s funny, because Callan is very self-deprecating and humble. He’s like, “I’m really not a very good singer.” I said, “Shut up, you’re so good!” I played a clip for our composer and our music supervisors, because I needed their help finding the right song and clearing all the rights, composing the version to use, and they were like, “He’s great!” I’m like, “I know!” I wanted to show everybody that the character of Alden, who had come in and was a Savior, integrated so much into the Hilltop that he found this little surrogate family. We didn’t get to know Ken much in this episode, but he meant something to the people there. That’s the story we were trying to tell without having to build up Ken too much. What we do know is that for the people who are left behind, this was a crushing blow. It obviously affected the events of the episode very deeply, and then those events will go on to have a domino effect on the rest of the season.
Gregory has done so many rotten, dangerous things, but using the loss of Ken to make his grief-stricken father do his bidding certainly is a new low. But his execution seems like a risky move by Maggie. Some of her people could turn against her.
Kang: Yes, absolutely. And I think Gregory … part of the fun of Gregory is that he’s a weasel, making the wrong choice over and over again.
I will miss him. He was always fun to watch.
Kang: He was fun to watch. I think Xander did a really great job of portraying his weaseliness. I [told him] it’s important to me that in this episode, we catch a glimpse of why Gregory was actually a leader for a while. He does have some interesting people skills that can be effective at times. Xander did a really nice job with that speech, the eulogy. He really brought the complicated layers of that character. But for Maggie, this is part of her emerging philosophy that we’ll find out across the season, which is, how do we decide who is redeemable or who is not? What are the consequences? It’s a big part of the story that she is diverging from the values of Alexandria, which decided that Negan rots in a jail cell instead of getting the death penalty. She’s making a clear statement in the moment: “I’m no longer doing exactly what Alexandria is doing. This is my responsibility, the Hilltop.” Of course, this is going to raise questions for people: whether this move was for the good of Hilltop, or was it out of personal vengeance? Does she get to make all these decisions by herself? It gives us a lot of opportunities to play with the story in that way.
At the Sanctuary, when Daryl, Rick, and Michonne walk in and everyone is treating Rick like a hero, Daryl tells Laura he isn’t going to get up on a stage and make a speech like “him.” Who is Daryl referring to?
Kang: He was referring to Negan, and that part of the leadership of Negan where he would gather everyone together, stand up on the catwalk and say, “Look at what we’ve brought for all of you!” That was part of Negan’s political genius, that he always reminded people, “Hey, we’re the ones providing for you! Yes, you may live under these rules, and yes, there’s different classes of people, but you get everything you need, right?”
But in some ways, Daryl, he’s also watching as Rick gives speeches. So even though he’s referring to Negan in the moment, we see that Rick also has a kind of political skill. We’ve seen Rick give a fair number of speeches over the years. He is good as a charismatic leader who’s able to rally the troops. Daryl knows himself, and he knows he is not that type of leader, nor does he aspire to be. It’s part of his arc for the season, as people look to him more and more as a leader in certain situations. It’s something he struggles with, because he doesn’t feel like he’s a person who likes to give speeches. He’s a person who likes to be out there on the road, in action. But that in and of itself is a different type of leadership. He’s going to find what it is that he’s comfortable with and go forward with that.
Which again circles back to him having more confidence than we’ve ever seen him have.
Kang: Yes, exactly. We really get to see Daryl this season making choices in the way that a leader does, but it’s in his own style. Daryl is always going to be Daryl. But he also still has to really grow up and accept the fact that he is a seasoned survivor and people look to him for cues
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.