'Walking Dead' Showrunner Teases "Pulse-Pounding" Final Andrew Lincoln Episode

The Walking Dead S09 Cast - Publicity - H 2018
Victoria Will/AMC

[This story contains spoilers for season nine, episode four of AMC's The Walking Dead, "The Obliged."]

The future looks grim for Rick Grimes, the veritable cowboy played by Andrew Lincoln for nine years on AMC's The Walking Dead — a tenure that's going to draw to a close next week, one way or another.

Lincoln's final episode is "What Comes After," the fifth episode of the AMC drama's ninth season. Already, the stage is set for how he's going out: with a bang, or more accurately, a very bad case of impalement. Sunday's episode, "The Obliged," ends with Rick skewered on a piece of construction material, with a hungry horde of walkers fast approaching, all because he was steadfastly defending his dream of building a bridge between Alexandria and the surrounding communities. 

How can Rick possibly escape his present predicament? It doesn't look like he can, both due to the deadly reality of the situation, as well as the behind-the-scenes situation involving Lincoln, whose departure was formally announced this past summer at Comic-Con.

Rick, who spent the majority of his penultimate Walking Dead appearance trapped in a hole on the side of the road with his post-apocalyptic brother Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), rides one last time in next week's episode — an episode showrunner Angela Kang describes "as a giant season finale dropped in the middle of a season." For more on if this is the end for Rick and what to expect from what AMC is billing as his final episode, The Hollywood Reporter turned to Kang to field all of those burning questions and more.  

Based on the ending, it looks like Rick Grimes is at death's door. Can you confirm or deny that he's about to die?

I cannot confirm or deny that! (Laughs.) What I can confirm is what's already been confirmed: episode five will be his last episode on the series. I think there's a really emotional and exciting story awaiting the fans. We'll see what happens!

What were you hoping to achieve with the way Rick's story ends here in his penultimate episode?

In this story, we're seeing things come to a head. Rick has been really pushing this idea of the bridge, which is something that exemplifies the spirit of community and togetherness he believes that [his late son] Carl (Chandler Riggs) wanted. He's been trying to pursue that. He's seen that his own friends and the people he loves — his own family — they're at different positions in how they're thinking about things. He's seeing that there is a lot of strife. We wanted to show a man who is trying to do something very good, optimistic and forward-thinking, but still with so much to contend with. We wanted to put him in a situation that feels impossible. I always feel like you get great scenes out of Rick that way. He's such a survivor, and he's a survivor because he cares about other people. He cares about his family, he cares about his friends, and he will do anything he can to help them and to save them. You see him in the middle of a selfless act [at the end of the episode], and already he's getting just completely screwed. It's something that tells you about the kind of person he is. That's the story we'll be telling in his final episode of the show.

If news had not broken about Andrew Lincoln leaving the show, would you and AMC have promoted what viewers saw in this episode in advance? Was your preference to take people completely by surprise?

There was a lot of discussion, one way or the other. Andy really wanted people to follow the story, but of course, things leak. That's the way it is. We roll with the situations as they unfold. The choice was sort of taken out of our hands.

AMC announced in advance that Andy's final episode would be the one airing Nov. 4. What was the calculus on sharing the exact timing of Rick's exit? 

Because that information was already kind of out there in the form of leaks and things like that. We were hearing a lot that there are fans of the show out there who may have lapsed, or there's time-shifting, or whatever it is … but those fans really want to see this story for Rick, and they want to know what it is, and they don't want to miss it. That was some of the internal discussion about it. Is it better to go for a surprise? It's really about the fans who want to see it. They would be so angry and upset if they missed something, because it falls in an unusual part of the season. That was the thinking. It's in service of the fans who don't want to miss it. 

When you started breaking down the story for Rick's swan song, and without revealing where you landed on the answer, how much back and forth was there between you, creator Robert Kirkman and [chief content officer] Scott M. Gimple about whether you could or should kill off a character as iconic as Rick Grimes? 

There were a lot of discussions. Some of it, I don't want to get into too much [until after Rick's final episode]. We obviously care so much about this character and so much about this actor. We're going to do whatever it takes to let [Lincoln] live his life and pay tribute to his legacy on the show. I'll say that many discussions happened back-and-forth, and they went different ways. Andy had been thinking about this for a while, too. He and Scott had a lot of discussions before I even came into the picture to run this season. It's been an interesting process. It's something Andy has been very involved in himself. He's a great collaborator who thinks deeply about character. He and I had really interesting conversations as well. Of course, he very much trusts the writers to go off and tell the story. There are definitely things that he definitely helped us deepen, which I'm grateful for.

I was about to ask what kind of input Andy had on Rick's exit … it sounds like he had a lot.

It is, and it isn't. What's great about Andy is he really respects the process to making an episode. He doesn't want to overstep into roles that are not his roles. He's so wonderful and thoughtful. The conversations we would have about Rick were so deep. For everybody who has ever run the show, it's always a tradition to start the season with a series of conversations with the actors and to talk about the things we're thinking about: the themes, the arcs for the characters. We ask, "What things have you been thinking about?" We bounce those ideas around. You learn a lot about what actors are thinking in terms of their character. It's not story pitches. It's more: "Where is my character's head at after these events?" A lot of times, those conversations lead to really interesting stories that come out of the course of the season. 

So many people have already reached the conclusion that Rick is going to die, which is only heightened after this week's ending. Do you think expectations are so high that if he survives, you could potentially face pushback the way the show did with Glenn in "Thank You" — with the infamous dumpster dive — or even the season six cliffhanger? 

You never know! We try to take creative risks on this show and hope people come along with it. There are different rhythmic things that were happening with those [two examples]. For my taste, I like to start with a story and quickly start to pay it off. People watching the show this season have seen that by the end of the first episode, something happens; three episodes in, another big thing happens. I don't think it feels drawn out. But we'll see! I'm really blown away by the actors' performances in episode five, and even in episode four they're doing such fine work and so much of it is informed by the personal relationships they have with each other. There's a real emotional depth there. I hope even from that standpoint, it's something the audience enjoys: feeling those relationships that have developed over time, and how deep they are and how touching they are.

In the spirit of that, there's a good chance this episode featured the final scene between Rick and Daryl, as they fought their way into and out of a pit together. If this is indeed the last time we see them together, what did you want to accomplish in Rick's last ride alongside his best friend in the apocalypse?

It was really fun for us this season to write some meaty stuff for Daryl. We got to put him in scenes with characters he has these great relationships with, and certainly the bromance between Rick and Daryl has been wonderful for us to write. A lot of the fans respond to it because it's a complex relationship. It started off contentiously, and then grew over time to become this really beautiful brotherhood. We really thought it would be interesting this year to show the complicated parts of brotherhood. People [who are close] can be at odds fundamentally in their attitudes about how they go through life. There's a way in which people who are so close tell each other the truth in a way nobody else can. That's really what we set out to do with them in this episode: putting them in the bottom of a sinkhole, where they're stuck with each other in kind of the lowest point of their relationship, and just hashing it out. It ends up being very emotional in the process. For me, it's also very important that we always show that it's a relationship based in mutual love and respect. That's why we have Rick call him "brother," as he has in the past. It shows how far they have come. Andy and Norman played those scenes so beautifully. They worked so hard on it. I always like to tell people who are interested in the "how the sausage gets made" part of it that these actors work so hard. I don't think people understand how much rehearsal they put in, even just with themselves, separate from the time they spend on set with the director, to make it feel effortless and real. There's a lot of sweat equity with these actors.

How would you describe next week's episode, the final ride for Rick Grimes?

What I hope people will take away … it's really elicited an emotional response in the people who were working on it. That often tends to be a good indicator. There's an emotional story to it. There's also a lot of adventure, action, heroism and some pretty big twists. I'm excited for that. I think there's going to be some things that are unexpected for the viewers. It's pulse-pounding and epic. I'll even say the music in the episode is some of my favorite music that we've done on the show in a long time. Our composer Bear McCreary is amazing. You really see the work of all the departments on display. It feels like a giant season finale dropped in the middle of the season. It should be a fun one.

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