'Walking Dead' Showrunner on That Bombshell Rick Reveal

The Walking Dead S08E09 Still 5 Carl - Publicity - H 2018
Gene Page/AMC

[This story contains spoilers for "Honor," the midseason eight premiere of AMC's The Walking Dead.]

Outgoing Walking Dead showrunner Scott M. Gimple doesn't want to say one way or the other if the final scene from Sunday's season eight midseason premiere featured the show's leading man, Andrew Lincoln's battle-worn survivor Rick Grimes, actually on death's door.

The supersized return of the AMC zombie drama bid an emotional farewell to Rick's son Carl (Chandler Riggs) as the badass pudding-eating teen left his father with an important dying wish: that the violence end and he work toward what comes "after." As it turned out, the flash-forwards from the season eight premiere were Carl's vision of a post-war Alexandria. With that part of the show's timeline resolved, what's left is now the show's biggest burning question: Will showrunner Gimple kill off Rick Grimes?

As Gimple and company continue to toy with the show's timeline, questions remain about "red-eyed Rick" and the scenes in what appear to be the not-too-distant future of the show's central hero bleeding from the abdomen and sitting alone against a tree. Sunday's episode ended with a pale-looking Rick, having lost a ton of blood, saying: "My mercy prevails over my wrath." That's the same line that Siddiq (Avi Nash) said to Carl when the two met in the season eight premiere.

Below, Gimple talks with The Hollywood Reporter about that cryptic ending, if he can envision a Walking Dead without Lincoln and what to expect from the season eight finale. (Click here for THR's interview with Andrew Lincoln about that bombshell ending and here to read Chandler Riggs' parting thoughts.)

The last image of the episode is of what appears to be a dying Rick in a not-too-distant future. Is that scene real or a vision?

I don't want to say either way, but we will be finding out definitively what that is toward the back half of the season.

Rick says, "My mercy prevails over my wrath," which is a line Siddiq (Avi Nash) said in the season eight premiere. That would seem to indicate that Rick's tree scene is from the not-too-distant future, after a point where Rick and Siddiq have a face-to-face. Can you confirm that Rick is dying? How concerned should viewers be about Rick's health in that scene?

Obviously on this show, you should be concerned about everyone, given the world that they inhabit. I wouldn't want to push the Rick's dying thing too hard. But you'll see at the end of the season how it all plays out. There's a little something there but not a ton.

Sources tell THR that Andrew Lincoln has a deal to return for season nine as a regular. Given Lincoln's strong feelings about Rick's story eventually having an end and wanting to pay that off, how real are your conversations about bringing an end to Rick's story?

It's really not something we're talking about now. But in the same respect, we're always keeping an eye on how everything ends. Just because you're telling a serialized story, you should have a good idea where you're going. As I've said in the past, there are so many different factors to it. We really do hope to play out the story as the comics are playing out and we want it to be satisfying. The only reason I bring that up is there's no imminent plans for that at all — and I'm just talking overall endings. But everything we do has a butterfly effect for the future so you're always thinking very far into the future about the stories. That's a pretty clinical answer to your question about how much do we think about the ending. But the ending comes up a lot only in as much as all these little pieces kick in in the future. Anything you do, you have to consider how it's going to affect the different conclusions that you have in mind. This stuff is so far ahead that it's a little bit just sort of planning for the future.

How will Rick's words "my mercy prevails over my wrath" be explored in the second half? That sounds a lot like a theme for second half of the season.

I wouldn't say if he was dying and I would be racing away from that topic. That has to do with how Rick evolves or doesn't evolve and what he comes to; Carl has left him with an idea that might not be so easy to embrace. Everything toward the end of this season is charging toward a conclusion of who these people are going to be — or who they were — and in that way, it really concludes a huge swath of story for the show. And it really sets it up for its next evolution.

This episode explained the "Old Man Rick" — that timeline was Carl's vision of the future but then there's this vision of Negan with Judith in Alexandria. Is that timeline still part of Carl's vision, or is that a fear of the future that a dying Rick has?  

That is a vision. In my mind, that's an extension of Carl but one could say that that is subject to interpretation. And we knew that.

That scene is like the debate Rick and company will have after Carl's death: do you embrace his vision of the future in which a sociopath like Negan will co-exist with the innocent, like Judith, or do you go the other way and continue killing one another?

You're talking a lot better than I am! That's pretty good. That sociopath in that vision was standing there and contributing to the community and farming …  

Given the Glenn dumpster experience, do you worry about backlash after seeing this image of Rick? He's lost a lot of blood and looks very pale …

We are lucky to have a wide fan base and there are aspects of the show that people love and it's interesting to see the stuff that people dig that other people don't. It's very passionate in both directions; there isn't a lot of middle ground among fans of The Walking Dead. I don't think we think about that too much. You just have to put it out with a belief it's part of a greater story, that it's something that is cumulative and works all together. We've never gone into anything rubbing our hands and thinking, "Oh boy, we're going to pull one over on the audience." That's not what we're trying to do. We do try to engage the audience's imagination and want to put them in suspense and want them to wonder, think about and talk about things with each other. A lot of that stuff will have the spectrum of that conversation and that conversation can be thrilled, angry or scared. I do wish folks would hear us when we are always trying to tell the best story. And it all works together in these little individual parts that feed the greater whole. We take no joy in some of the pain that we put the audience through in keeping to the integrity of the story and what the characters go through. It's part of the package of the world we've all invested in.

When we spoke in December, you said you were confident of the show going beyond 10 seasons. That said, is there an end point you're working toward? As you said, these little pieces add up to something larger and the show did just kill off Carl, who is a huge character for the franchise.

The comic is still going strong and we want to tell that story. We just want to keep going and doing it. TV itself has changed as a medium from the time we started in another era in 2010. And we have changed with it in a lot of ways. We want to tell this story and I think that's going to take plenty more than 10 seasons. I'm loving the comic book right now and that's well ahead of where [the AMC show] is at, and I look forward to telling those stories.

As you talk about wanting to do all the larger stories that are coming in the comics and telling them through a season 12, can you imagine doing that without Andrew Lincoln?

I can imagine it because the world that they inhabit, you go through important iterations of story and lord knows when I'm turning my comic book pages, I don't know what's on the next page. I would say it's absolutely possible because I can picture it in the comic. It is part of the world that they live in. The thing about these characters is they hand off who they are to each other; they carry each other within each other. There are aspects of Glenn that are still alive on the show. Rick and Morgan's relationship, the way they have changed each other — Morgan was gone all those seasons but was still present in some ways. The characters are so bound to the other characters. It's part of the world whether they're there or not.

Given how slowly the pieces of the timeline have been parceled out throughout the first nine episodes, how would you describe the season finale?

It is the cumulative conclusion; all of the story threads meet there. And things along the way, I hope — and even by the end of the episodes leading up to it — have greater meaning. That is the trick with serialized stories: that part of beginning that you might experience one way, and by the time you get to the end and see how it all fits together, it could mean or be something else. So all that time you put into it, you have a richer experience for the things the characters went through and see it in a different way, as a path that led you to this place. And hopefully that's satisfying. In some ways, I think it will challenge the audience as it challenged the characters, in terms of how they feel. It's classic Walking Dead: How they feel about what they would have done in the characters' places and they might feel by episode eight, one way; and by episode 16 an entirely different way. That really is part of the journey that we're trying to give to the audience. It's bumpy because the characters go through hard things and then the audience goes through hard things. It's part of that greater story that maybe you'll see that hard thing in a different way by the end of this season. It's a high-wire act.

How deadly will the remaining episodes be this season for the core cast? Can we expect other major character deaths?

There's deadliness. It's part of the world and part of the conflict. There's a conflict going on and it's in a world that is unforgiving, however capable these survivors have become.

Follow THR.com/WalkingDead for full coverage of season eight and the fallout from Carl's death.