'Walking Dead' Bosses: We're Not the "Character Death Show" But It's Part of Our World

Creator Robert Kirkman and showrunner Scott M. Gimple preview what's to come in season five
"The Walking Dead's" Andrew Lincoln  Gene Page/AMC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from The Walking Dead comic series that the AMC drama is based on.]

AMC's The Walking Dead heads into its fifth season firing on all cylinders. The group is (mostly) reunited — though currently trapped in a train car and at the mercy of a camp of likely cannibals — but full of fight. And to hear executive producers Robert Kirkman and Scott M. Gimple tell it, the sheer size of the group will help the series explore these characters in a new way. (Though it would be a reach to expect all of them to survive the entire season.)

The Hollywood Reporter joined Gimple and Kirkman for a conference call to get the scoop on what to expect from TV's No. 1 drama (among adults 18-49).

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First it was Dale (Jeff DeMunn), then Hershel. Who is going to be the group's new moral compass?

Gimple: It's tough with the world they're facing right now. If Herschel (Scott Wilsonwas around right now, I don't know if he would be leaping to keep Rick (Andrew Lincoln) in check. This season, they're being ground down into the dirt. And it pains me to say how interesting it would be to have Herschel around because I don't know if Herschel would be like, "Hey, take it easy, let's be kind first." After losing the prison and enduring everything they've had, there may not be room for a moral compass. There may not be anyone who can fulfill that role for the things that they've been through.

Kirkman: A cool change for season five is the fact that this is not really a group that is as conflicted as they've been thus far. It's not really a matter of, "Are we going to follow Rick? Do we need to follow Rick?" The entire group, because of their experience with Terminus, is completely as driven as he is now. It's more about seeing these people who have been battle-worn and living in a foxhole together for so long working together more and being a lot more in agreement when it come to these kind of crazy decisions.

Gimple: If anything, and it plays out in episode two, which Robert wrote, and episode three. There are moments where there are characters who even want to step up to do the hard and harsh things who have a little trouble with it. And they aren't saying, "Oh no, no, we shouldn't do this." There's actually a sense of shame that they can't. There's a sense of being grateful to Rick for him being able to.

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Last season was very dark with Carol putting Lizzie down and Carl's near rape. Where do you draw the line?

Gimple: Those two things — and the Carl thing may or may not have been what was happening — were about stories being played out. I think we earned the right to have those things happen by virtue of that fact that they were part of a greater story and that they weren't just done for shock. They were both highly emotional events that affected the characters. As long as we follow that, a lot of horrible things can happen but we're not doing them for shock. As long as they're for story, generally we can do them. There haven't been any barriers. And by no means are we rubbing our hands together, looking to top that in horribleness. We want to top that in story and in character — and in what these people face so that it changes them or it helps them maintain who they are.

Season four came full circle with the events in the finale directly connecting to the premiere, with individual character explorations along the way. Will this year follow the same structure?

Kirkman: There's always going to be a bit of that because we have such a large cast. When we have a chance to dial down and focus on an individual character and really get to know them better than we have when they're part of the larger ensemble, those tend to be well-received episodes. Anytime we have the opportunity to do that, we will. One of the really cool things about season five that differentiates it from season four is that we are starting this season with this group together and working in a way that we really haven't seen before. We are starting in a place where we are dealing with the entire ensemble all together for the first time in a while. There's a lot of really interesting interplay that comes from that and really cool scenes from having our cast together.

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How will we get to know these characters better this season?

Gimple: Through each other. Through the changes they engender in each other. After the events of last year and the season premiere, it really is who these characters are now. We get in to the past this season more so than in other seasons. But it really is who these characters are now and how they are reacting or how they are carrying the things that have happened to them at the end of last season/beginning of this season, and how they move forward. They're being defined by all the experiences that are in front of them, and that's answering who they are.

The theme of the season is if these people are too far gone. How will that be explored? 

Gimple: That question was pretty much answered last season. Are they too far gone? Yes, they're too far gone, but they are still people. I think Rick tearing a guy's throat out in one act of episode 16 last year and then telling Daryl he's his brother in the next act covers it. They can do horrible, unspeakable things, but they still are people too. This season explores what that means: who do you become if you're this integrated barbarian. We're going to get into these people being barbarians and how they keep living and how they interact with one another. Another thing that comes up over and over again is trust. How can you trust anybody in this world? And you need to, so how can you?

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Is Gareth and his group of cannibals the big bad of the season?

Kirkman: I'm not going to answer the cannibal thing directly but I'll say that anyone who is looking at Gareth as possibly being the new Governor, should know that Gareth will eat that guy for lunch.

Gimple: On this show, there isn't so much a big bad as a steadily parsed out bad.There's a multitude of them. You'd even [the people who have] Beth; there are all sorts of different "bads" going on.

The show has its largest cast to date. How many of these series regulars can we expect to be killed off this season?

Gimple: We're trying not to be the "character death show." It's a part of the world. In the last couple years, major character deaths on shows has become part and parcel to seemingly every type of TV show, except reality. The Simpsons just had a major death. Family Guy has a major death the year before, plus The Good Wife and Homeland. We don't want to play it as like a tool in our tool chest or something that's some part of story rhythm. It's absolutely a part of our world and it's part of the things that changes these characters and it's part of the stakes that make them who they are today.

Kirkman: No one in the writers' room is ever sitting around saying, "We haven't killed someone in a while. We really need to kill someone." It all comes from story and if we ever decided that the story merited absolutely no characters deaths whatsoever in a season, we would definitely do that.

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Rick is going to be surrounded by a lot of couples this year — Glenn and Maggie, Sasha and Bob and, at some point, Abraham and Rosita. Could his relationship withMichonne turn romantic?

Gimple: At the end of last season, we didn't really get to see Abraham and Rosita as a couple as much. There was not room in the things that were happening to them to see them as a couple. But, there is a scene this season where we define them as a couple very quickly. As far as Rick and Michonne, their relationship will grow even more intimate and even more tight, but I don't know if there's really going to be room for romance with the things that are happening. They're very close. I was talking to Danai about it, and she referred to Michonne as being Rick's "work wife." So maybe they'll wind up like Pam and Jim [on The Office], but that took a long time.

How much do you miss having Andrea to write for considering she becomes Rick's love interest in the comics?

Gimple: We are telling the story from the book that is a big part of the story from the book, but yes, the person in question is dead on the show, but in some way, in some manner as we remix things, we're still going to tell some manner of that story.

Kirkman: That era of the comic books, if we're adapting the show fairly directly, is still pretty far off. So any kind of big sweeping changes, or adjustments, that could come into the show could completely change how those events would play out. It isn't a real issue in the show. So when we get to that material, we'll either adapt it or we won't. We'll cross that bridge when we get to it.

I speculated that we might be seeing current comics villain Negan. Is that a possibility this season?

Gimple: There wasn't any barbed wire around that bat.

Kirkman: While Negan's introduction isn't something that we have planned, that moment would be something that we would build up to in possibly a more substantial way than that. It wouldn't just be an aside or a wink and nudge. That would be a pretty monumental event that would be possibly be something we would shape an entire season around. So, I wouldn't expect that to just be kind of slipped in casually.

The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@THR.com
Twitter: @Snoodit

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