'Walking Dead' Boss Defends Cliffhanger, Fan Baiting; Answers Burning Season 7 Questions

Showrunner Scott M. Gimple addressed Negan's deadly arrival and previewed what to expect from the AMC zombie drama's October return during a conference call Monday.
Courtesy of Gene Page/AMC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the season six finale of AMC's The Walking Dead, "Last Day on Earth," and the comic book series that the show is based on.]

AMC's The Walking Dead capped its sixth season with as big of a cliffhanger as it possibly could deliver.

The series, based on the comics created by Robert Kirkman, finally introduced villain Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and, in a nearly frame-for-frame re-creation of its shocking 100th issue, left the fate of one of 10 survivors to be revealed in season seven.

Left in the lurch are: Rick (Andrew Lincoln), Michonne (Danai Gurira), Glenn (Steven Yeun), Daryl (Norman Reedus), Rosita (Christian Serratos), Carl (Chandler Riggs), Maggie (Lauren Cohan), Aaron (Ross Marquand), Eugene (Josh McDermitt), Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) and Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green). The 11 were all lined up on their knees in front of Negan, with the charismatic leader of the Saviors swinging Lucille, his baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire, at one of them before the series changed its point of view to that of the victim. With blood dripping down the screen, the series cut to black and viewers heard the jarring and repeated sounds of Lucille crushing someone's skull.

Showrunner Scott M. Gimple met the press corps Monday during a conference call with reporters, including THR, where he both defended the cliffhanger (as he did Sunday during Talking Dead) and previewed what to expect from season seven. Here are the highlights:

Why end with a cliffhanger? And will that graphic death actually be shown in season seven?

On Monday, Gimple mirrored his comments from Talking Dead and said that the season finale marked the end of the story where Rick was torn down from his powerful perch. "Where Rick winds up is completely different from where he started in [episode 601] and where he started in [episode 609]. I know — and have for a while — what is in 701. To show what happened in full force is the beginning of the next story," he told THR during the call. Asked specifically if the series would depict the "incredible work of gore" from the comics, he noted that he was "certain that we will be pushing some boundaries with it."

"We definitely anticipated" blowback.

Gimple was upfront that producers "definitely anticipated" some blowback from fans. The showrunner, who co-wrote the season six finale, repeatedly stressed that he knows where the story is going and has known who the victim is for some time and that this was part of "the greater story we're telling." Rather than go into specific detail about why he made certain finale decisions, he opted to protect the story and instead stress that producers have good intentions and care about their audience. "We're trying to deliver them an experience," he told reporters. "I suppose it's good everything is met with skepticism and people are thinking critically and distrusting things put before them. I'd love a little more trust, but it's a good thing for society that people aren't just trusting things coming across the TV set. It makes the challenge for us to win those angry people back with a great story — and that's much harder — but that's the business we're in. We're not trying to do the easy thing. … I do want to do right by this audience, and I hope to win them back."

What's with all that baiting?

The 45-minute call was testy at times as Gimple was asked multiple times to defend the way in which the drama baits fans — including removing Yeun's name from the opening credits earlier this season following Glenn's now-infamous dumpster dive. He asked viewers to give producers the benefit of the doubt and trust that they do have a larger plan in mind. "I hope with [episode] 701 people see that it justifies the way we've decided to tell the story," he said. "I know what 701 is and I feel that it delivers on what 616 sets up."

About that dumpster dive…

Asked directly if he had any regrets about removing Yeun's name from the opening credits, Gimple reiterated his remarks from earlier this season that he had the best interest of the show in mind. "I know that in my heart, it was about protecting the audience's experience," he told reporters, stressing that he could have been accused of being sloppy if he had left Yeun's name in the credits. "We do care about our audience a great deal and we don't enjoy the pain they go through, but it is part of a greater story that they themselves are going through. We're trying to take them through this journey, and there will be hard parts and sad parts and happy parts, but we want them to feel things."

Has the big death already been filmed? Does who dies know?

Gimple remained tight-lipped when it comes to just who met Lucille during the finale. He dodged the question multiple times and noted that there were "far too many landmines" to even broach the topic. Gimple stressed that the series, which is prone to multiple leaks and photos taken from drones by die-hard fans camped out near the show's Atlanta set, is going to work overtime to protect the reveal from leaking. "We're working hard to put things in place to protect it," he said, noting it would be hard to keep the secret if the victim booked a follow-up gig the way Jon Bernthal did before Shane was killed off. "We are going to try to protect the secret of this and to protect the audience's experience. I sure hope it doesn't leak, but the world is what the world is." After Kirkman noted that there are clues to who is killed off in the finale, Gimple stressed that he didn't think there is enough information to go on to successfully figure it out. "There are a couple things in there that might help people possibly limit the amount of people who are vulnerable, but I'd encourage people not to go down that route. I don't think there's a way to puzzle it out definitively," he said.

How big will the death be?

The showrunner was held accountable for killing off minor characters this season including Jessie and Denise while keeping all the central characters alive and kicking. "What's coming up is going to change everything with the story," he said of the finale victim. Gimple reiterated what Kirkman and the rest of the producers have said for years: that all the deaths on the show have to mean something to the story and the other characters. "Whether [the finale victim] is a fairly new or a fairly OG character, there is a long-running plan to this show, and someone will meet their end."

Will there be stories told from Negan's point of view? 

On Talking Dead, producers note that it was quite possible fans would be rooting for Negan if The Walking Dead had been following his story for six seasons. Gimple called the character "very honest" and said unlike David Morrissey's Governor, Negan is an open book. "With Negan, what you see is what you get," he said. "With Negan, it's about positive reinforcement. He's approached the world in a certain way and been rewarded again and again. We will see stories from his perspective, but the guy you see is the guy he is. There won't be this reveal [about who is] behind the mask [like there was with the Governor]."

What's the theme of season seven?

Season six explored two central subjects: the responsibility of survival (from the first half) and what to do with that power (the last eight episodes). Gimple said the first half of season seven is going to open up even more beyond Alexandria, the Saviors and the Hilltop. "We'll have a wide variety of locales and tone and characters," he told THR during the call. "There's going to be … probably the biggest variety of stories we've had yet. Without spoiling anything, things are going to start off very, very dark because everybody knows where we're starting. But that won't be the whole season. It's not going to be darkness upon darkness upon darkness." The central theme of season seven, he told THR, is "How do you begin again?" "The world is not what they thought it was, so how do you start over in this new world?" That goes for all the characters beyond the 11 lined up in front of Negan. "Even the characters who weren't in that lineup are in a position where they will learn the world isn't what they thought it was," he said, noting that would include both light and dark stories. "For some, it isn't going to be wholly negative but it will challenge them with how they chose to move forward and who they want to be."

Prepare for The Kingdom

During the call, Gimple would neither confirm nor deny that the men Morgan encountered in the season finale were members of the so-called Kingdom. "Those guys may or may not have been from the Kingdom and we may or may not see the Kingdom," he told THR. "But if we do see the Kingdom, it'll be a big reveal and it will be another new world to inhabit and explore." Clues that the series would introduce the Kingdom were first offered in the penultimate episode. In the comics, the Kingdom is overseen by a George Clinton-like leader named Ezekiel. The former zookeeper oversees the community with Shiva, his pet tiger. Members of the Kingdom, like those of the Hilltop and Alexandria, do not wish to be a part of Negan's reign of terror. Asked if the series would feature an actual tiger, Gimple remained coy. "Can we have a real tiger? We can have a lot of things and people will have to wait and see," he said. "But if I were just watching the show, I'd want to see that tiger."  

Let's talk about Carol (and Morgan)

Gimple stressed that the series isn't done exploring Carol's evolution and the fact that she's reached a point where she doesn't want to be around people she cares about so she doesn't have to kill to protect them. "She's reached a point where she's comfortable with dying. She has a road to go down and she wants to be alone. That's what that character wants and what she's going after. It will be interesting to see if she gets what she wants and if she can live with that," he said. As for Morgan, who broke his no-kill philosophy to save Carol from death by Savior thus proving Carol's point, he hasn't settled anything. "Morgan faced that directly," Gimple said, noting season seven will explore how they chose to move on from that.

Can Maggie and the baby survive?

While Maggie appeared on the verge of having a miscarriage in the finale, Gimple remained mum on the character's fate and only said that her exact diagnosis "will be shared one way or the other." 

Carl and Negan's journey

In the comics, Carl and Negan have a very unique relationship where Negan takes a liking to Rick's son. Gimple said that relationship would be featured in season seven but, as he tends to do with the source material, may be remixed a bit. "It may be very brief, but we will absolutely see them have a pretty intense moment," he said. "There's going to be a bit of remixing and there may be another character involved who takes some of it. That relationship will be absolutely shown. Whether it's with Carl or not, I cannot say. But I absolutely want to explore Negan having that kind of respect for someone, which is the hallmark of that relationship."

What did you think of The Walking Dead finale? Will you be back? Sound off in the comments section, below. For more Walking Dead coverage, go to THR.com/WalkingDead. Click here to read what Jeffrey Dean Morgan had to say about Negan and his future and here for our in-depth interview with EP Greg Nicotero.