So ET called up Walking Dead showrunner Angela Kang and asked her our most burning questions for the series: How long have these Walking Dead movies been part of the plan? Have we seen the last of Maggie (Lauren Cohan)? Are the walkers evolving? And why wasn't Carl (Chandler Riggs) or Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) in any of Rick's dream sequences?
Read on for all the exclusive scoop...
ET: As the showrunner of The Walking Dead this season, how long have you known that Andrew Lincoln's “final episode” would actually not be the last time that we'll see Rick Grimes?
Angela Kang: I knew that for a long time. From the time that I knew that we had to write him out, I knew that the plan was to transition him into these other projects, but since that part is not my realm, it wasn’t for me to speak about. Scott Gimple – who was writing these movies and planning the expansion of the universe – he kind of said, "Okay here’s what I need to have happen: Rick has to go out by flying off in a helicopter." He told me what the backstory for the philosophy of those people are and, while I don’t know everything that’s planned for that movie, we were like, "Okay that’s a pretty cool story." So we were able to start seeding in the things that we needed to make sure that the helicopter story was back and alive in the world, while hopefully having a bit of a mislead with how he exits the show. So that was a great gift that we knew early on and that’s what we were going towards the whole time.
It was so great to see familiar faces we haven’t seen in a while come back into the picture with Shane (Jon Bernthal), Hershel (Scott Wilson) and Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) – was there ever any talk to have Chandler Riggs or Sarah Warne Callies come back so we could see Carl and Lori?
AK: Actually no and I’ll tell you why: it’s a story reason. It’s not anything that we expect fans to necessarily figure out, it’s just part of our internal logic. We really started diving into this idea of something called "the third man phenomenon," which is something that commonly happens to people when they’re on the brink of death, but actually, survive. They sometimes believe they see somebody who they either know or somebody they don't know that appears to help them to help them survive. It’s like when somebody trapped on a mountain in the snow and a sherpa would come out of nowhere and they’ll swear that this person led them down the mountain – except they were never there. So that’s kind of the context we used for these hallucinations and these dreams. Each of those three characters kind of give a specific piece of the puzzle that he needs to keep going: Shane kind of riles him up but pushing him towards the brutal courage that he needs. Hershel represents, like, a vision of heaven – a place to rest his heart. He’s a father figure to him, he gently tells him he has to keep going. And Sasha as a soldier she really imparts some wisdom, and strategy, and the idea of a bigger picture. For us creatively, Lori and Carl were the family he was looking for. They represent a kind of endpoint that he wants to get to, but for a dying man that felt like if you find Lori and Carl, that means it’s time to rest because you found your home, you’re going to die now. We thought his mind would not allow him to see those two because what he’s trying to do is keep going for the family he has now which is, you know, all of his friends and Michonne. He has to save them, he can’t stop – and if he were to see Laurie and Carl, he would stop. That’s what we were thinking creatively for why he doesn’t see Carl, but he does hear Lori’s voice for just a moment.
Now, Michonne (Danai Gurira) and the rest of the group believe that Rick died because of this explosion. How is this going to affect the group moving forward?
AK: You know this is a big part of the story going forward and I think what I’m really excited about is it’s giving us the opportunity to tell the story of leadership with the characters that are left behind. The story picks up still 6 years later, Rick’s presence and his influence are definitely felt in the way that they either try to uphold messages that he believed or the way that they’ve drifted from those things. But that memory is very much alive and we’ll learn in the aftermath days that they looked for him, and looked for him. Judith shows up at the end of episode five and she’s got her father’s gun, so that came from somewhere. We kind of deal with characters who were not able to find the closure that they wanted and that’s definitely something that weighs on everybody. We’ll see also that Rick was really many steps ahead of people in terms of envisioning what the future might be like if they don’t all get it together to work together. He knew that bridge – both metaphorically, but also very literally – connected these communities, so that’s very much a part of the story we tell going forward and I’m excited for people to see that.
We're now six years into the future and from what we've seen, it seems like the walkers are evolving. Can you talk a little bit about that and the new obstacles that the remaining members will be facing?
AK: We’re getting into a really exciting parts of the story, we’ll get into the "The Whisperers" storyline from the comic book, which deals with that very question: Are the walkers evolving? How do we deal with a threat that we don’t understand? So there’s definitely mystery, and the twist and turns, and a lot of action, excitement and suspense. That story, just as it was in the comics, will really try to pay homage to how brilliantly that was plotted. I’ll say that this group is dealing with the scariest threats they’ve ever had and it's completely different than anything we’ve ever done on the show.
Let’s talk about Maggie – was that Lauren Cohan’s last episode? Can you talk a little bit about her departure and if we'll ever see her again.
AK: So that was Lauren’s last screen appearance for the season. Lauren is pursuing some other wonderful opportunities as well, but we are very committed to try to tell our stories with Maggie, and Lauren is excited about that as well. That’s all just stuff that takes some things and time to be worked out. We have a very clear idea of where Maggie is in the universe and what she’s doing and have some stuff brewing in our minds in terms of what the next story would be that we’d tell, so hopefully that all works out. We’re really excited, and we’re so privileged to have her for these five episodes this season because I think she just did absolutely stellar work.
There are some who accepted the fact that we were going to say goodbye to Rick Grimes, and now it's been revealed that Andrew Lincoln will be starring in not one – but three new movies. What would you say to the fans that were ready to put Rick's chapter to rest?
AK: What we wanted to do with the show is make it feel like there was some sort of feeling of conclusion – but in closing a door, we another opened a door. What I’ve heard in the [TWD fan] universe is really exciting and I think and I hope it’s stuff that will engage the fans. I’ve mostly heard the reaction that people were relieved that they didn’t have to watch Rick die because he’s been such an inspiration for so many people and so many millions of fans around the world. I hope people will roll with us and we have so many great stories with the rest of the cast ahead and I think that’s the thing to really focus on.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. EST/PST on AMC.