'Walking Dead' Bosses Break Down Danai Gurira's Departure and the Franchise's Future

The Hollywood Reporter speaks with showrunner Angela Kang and chief content officer Scott M. Gimple about Michonne's sword-swinging exit, and what it means as the brand expands beyond television.
Eliza Morse/AMC

[The following story contains spoilers for season 10, episode 13 of AMC's The Walking Dead, "What We Become."]

Like Andrew Lincoln's Rick Grimes before her, Danai Gurira's Michonne has exited The Walking Dead — and just like Rick, she's alive and well, with future adventures in the greater franchise universe all but certain.

Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter about ending Michonne's Walking Dead storyline, franchise chief content officer Scott M. Gimple and showrunner Angela Kang alike both stress that the way in which Gurira's time on the AMC zombie drama comes to an end — with the character alive and in pursuit of her presumed dead partner, while also encountering a massive group of new survivors — leaves the door wide open for a continued presence as the series grows beyond television and into the feature film realm

"Death is always on the table for any of our characters, but Michonne is such a wonderful character that it feels like there's more story to be told," Kang tells THR about how the ending for Michonne's story came to life. "The idea of her possibly joining the filmic universe was exciting for everyone. As Danai and Scott were having those conversations, similar to the ones with Andy about how he was going to transition out [of the series], I just needed the end point information, take that, and figure out how to craft a handoff as best as we can."

The handoff comes in the form of a solo episode in which Michonne rescues a stranger from the brink of insanity, though not without enormous struggle — including a trip down memory lane, quite literally, as she relives a highlight reel from her past while hallucinating.

"It came out of conversations about the key moments that shaped Michonne into the person she is right in this moment," Kang says about the story, which integrates new footage with archive clips (see: the Negan lineup, with Michonne facing off against Rick and the gang, leaning on previously aired and unaired footage). "In talking about it, we decided there were these certain key turning points where if she made a different decision, everything would have gone down a completely different path. That's part of the fun for me in writing the show, and a lot of the fans of watching. People come to these forks in the road and they can go one way or they can go another way. A lot of times, people argue that the character should have done another thing, but sometimes that other thing takes you down a completely different path in the long run. We felt it would be fun to show you one of those stories that's a parallel universe. If Michonne made these key decisions, what happens if she goes the other way? What does she take away from that that might help her in her journey?"

Free from her hallucinations, Michonne finds something that feels equally illusory, but is actually very real: proof of Rick Grimes' continued existence. With blessings from their daughter Judith (Cailey Fleming), Michonne sets off into the world to find out more about Rick.

"Judith feels like they at least won the battle [against the Whisperers], but she's also this child who desperately wants to know what happened to her father, and Michonne is someone who desperately wants to know what happened to her partner," says Kang. "There's so much information that isn't fully known on either side yet. That's part of the emotional story we have that will still carry forward, without getting into too much detail about how it plays out."

The story will continue playing out on the flagship Walking Dead, as the full impact of Michonne's exit makes itself known in the season's three remaining episodes, but it will also eventually play out in other media as well. For instance, a trilogy of feature films starring Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes remains in the works. Now that Michonne has been put on the path to track him down, it feels fair to assume that Danai Gurira will appear in at least one or more of those movies — though all parties involved are stopping short of confirming the exact specifics of Gurira's feature film involvement.

"Is it fair to assume? It's definitely fair to assume that," Gimple tells THR. "There might even be her own story along the way. Some of it has to do with the way we're playing around with the story right now. There's this whole new story strand opened up with her departure. Angela and I talked in very broad ways at the beginning of the season that with Michonne, who stopped and helped someone in Andrea, it changed her life. We look at these stories as, 'What was the point of her story? What was it all about?' At the end of her journey where she has these unbelievable hints about Rick and a direction to go in, she still stops to help someone. That's who she is and who she's become. In some ways, even though she has a whole lot of story ahead of her, that completes her journey on The Walking Dead."

The final scene of the episode — Michonne on a collision course with a massive new group of survivors — serves two purposes in Gimple's mind: both as a way of thematically connecting who Michonne was with who she is now, while also introducing viewers to another community within the world of the dead. 

"We felt the ending both sells the story we want to tell — which is, who has she become — but it also opens up a narrative thread that's so tantalizing," he says. "That is an incredibly huge and organized group that looks nomadic. The Whisperers were certainly nomadic, but they look like a little gathering compared to this group, which is like Coachella marching through the valley."

What shape does that story take place? A Michonne-centric film or limited series all her own? Again, Gimple stresses he has "ambitions" for solo Michonne stories, but no concrete plans as of yet.

"With the films, we definitely have plans. But even beyond the current plans, I have some ambitions," he says. "I love her and Rick together, but I love seeing her as the pure lead on her own, too. It just so happens that there's a lot of story terrain to cover. But you're right: it's ambitions. Right now, the plans have to do with the feature film."

Of course, all Walking Dead plans are currently in flux, as television production across the industry grapples with the impact of the global coronavirus pandemic. According to AMC, production on The Walking Dead season 11, which typically starts in May and shoots through November, has been pushed by three weeks, with the writers room currently working remotely. Production has been underway on Fear the Walking Dead, but is now paused due to the pandemic. Gimple spoke with THR before news of upcoming spinoff series The Walking Dead: World Beyond moving from its intended April 12 debut to a new as yet revealed premiere date, an indication of how rapidly the situation is developing.

"Every day is like a year as far as information goes," says Gimple. "Even the pause plan we had last week, we're just monitoring everything with the advice from government, and even stronger than advice in most cases, to make sure everyone is healthy and safe. Like everyone else, once we're given the all clear, we're ready to roar back. Just like with everybody else, it's this weird moment of pause. There are so many people who work on these shows. Between the three shows, we're talking about [numbering] in the thousands. We want everyone safe and healthy. That's the deal. We all have to pull together to make sure everyone is safe and healthy."

"What isn't paused," he continues, "is the writing. All the shows are in some degree or another of writing. Fear the Walking Dead didn't have a ton of writing left, but a good amount of it. We're cooking on [writing The Walking Dead] season 11. People were starting to peel off and write their scripts, and that's moving along. Post can work remotely to a degree. There's a good amount of work on all of the shows that needed to be done in rooms, and we're still doing that, just not together."

Included on that list: the Rick Grimes features. "That's totally in the writing phase, the phone call phase and the discussion phase," says Gimple. "We've been fine-tuning that and playing around with it for a while. That's where we're at now. We were in a stage that just required final drafts and rooms."

The feature films, the return of Fear the Walking Dead and the debut of The World Beyond are all off in the distance somewhere, as is the eventual return of Danai Gurira as Michonne, in whatever form such a reprise takes. For now, the clock is ticking on the Walking Dead proper, with only three episodes remaining in season 10. According to Kang, Michonne's loss will hang heavily over the remaining hours.

"We have these last few episodes in the season without her," she says. "There are people who are definitely missing her and feeling the loss. But they're also trying to move on and get done what needs to be done. Michonne's spirit carries on with these people. She's such a crucial part of their community. As we work on season 11 in the writers room remotely, that's something we continue to talk about. There's a legacy there with that character, with her children who are left behind. It's very much part of the emotional landscape we're exploring with all of these characters."

Will Michonne's exit pave the way for an even grander exit: The Walking Dead itself? Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard's comic book series on which the AMC drama is based contains only one major storyline beyond the current scope of the TV adaptation, and no more. With writing ramping up on season 11, is the end in sight for AMC's horror juggernaut? Gimple "can't quite imagine it," he says, insisting an end within the next two seasons "isn't the plan."

"But," he's quick to add, "we are living in very weird times. You have caught me in a moment where nothing feels real, so for all I know, it's going to become a puppet show next week. It'll be good, though. We'll have all the original actors using voices and they can do the puppetry from their own homes."

More seriously, Gimple adds, "We're kicking around some ideas to try and have some Walking Dead supportive fun for people stuck at home, to help keep people's spirits up. Hopefully we'll have more news about that soon."

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