'Walking Dead' Showrunner Explains Where the Zombie Drama Goes Next Without Andrew Lincoln

Angela Kang talks with The Hollywood Reporter about returning favorites Jon Bernthal, Sonequa Martin-Green and Scott Wilson, as well as how Andrew Lincoln's departure impacts the series.
Jackson Lee Davis/AMC

[This story contains major spoilers from episode 905, "What Comes After," of AMC's The Walking Dead.]

AMC's The Walking Dead just experienced the biggest change it could have.

Leading man Andrew Lincoln literally flew off into the sunset during Sunday's episode. His character, Rick Grimes, was written out of the zombie drama and is being spun off into a series of three feature-length movies to air on AMC.

Following a valiant effort to return to his family, Rick sacrificed his life to spare his loved ones from a massive herd of the undead by blowing up a bridge he considered to be a literal metaphor for rebuilding civilization. As Michonne (Danai Gurira), Daryl (Norman Reedus), Carol (Melissa McBride) and others looked on, Rick fired his trusty revolver at a stack of dynamite and the bridge exploded in a ball of fire. While viewers see foe-turned-friend Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh) rescue Rick and escort him to another mysterious community, the beleaguered former sheriff is presumed dead to the remainder of Team Family.   

As AMC and Walking Dead chief content officer Scott M. Gimple plot a trio of TV movies to explore Rick's new journey, the flagship series opted to jump forward a number of years. The jam-packed episode concluded with an aged-up version of Rick's daughter, Judith Grimes, who now lives up to the Lil' Ass-Kicker name that Daryl foisted upon her at a young age.

Below, showrunner Angela Kang — who took over at the helm of the flagship after Gimple was promoted — talks with The Hollywood Reporter about where the AMC series goes next, why Jon Bernthal, Sonequa Martin-Green and Scott Wilson had to return and why this is the end — possibly only for now — for Lauren Cohan and Maggie.  

Andrew Lincoln's final episode of the flagship show doesn't offer a conclusive ending for Rick Grimes. How concerned are you about backlash when it comes to what appears to be a cliffhanger, even with the announcement of the three feature-length TV movies?

Any big move we make on the show, there are some people who aren't going to be happy with it. But I think there will hopefully be a lot of fans who are excited that his story is continuing. There have been conversations with Scott Gimple and Andy Lincoln for a long time about what the entry into that universe was. We tried to map out a way that the story was left open for Rick to transition into these other stories — and hopefully more stories going forward — and concentrated on trying to tell the best version of that that we could in the episode.

Was there any discussion about offering a more conclusive ending for Rick here given that AMC's marketing made a huge deal out of it being Andy's last episode.

No, it was always meant to be sort of an open-ended story. The episode was always intended to transition into this other world. Marketing is marketing and I'm dealing with the show and there's obviously this whole other universe that's involved, which is not my arena.

Will Andy ever return to the flagship given that he's still alive and, as this episode reiterated, he'd pretty much walk to the end of the earth to find his family.

I don't know. This is intended to be his end on the series for all the reasons that have been spoken about — he needs a little more flexibility in his life to be with his family — so the intention was that this is his end arc on the show.

Rick, fighting death, saw hallucinations of influential people and places in his post-apocalyptic life: the scene on the freeway and in his hospital bed from the pilot, along with the "Do Not Open, Dead Inside" doors. Walk us through the concept of this episode and why it was important to bring back Jon Bernthal (Shane), Sonequa Martin-Green (Sasha) and the late Scott Wilson (Hershel).

We wanted to tell this story about Rick and his heroism and we'd thought about what's been the thing that's been driving Rick for the entire series — not just in these last two episodes, but throughout. He was a man who woke up alone in this apocalypse and was looking for his family. It was a very simple search. Over time, he found this entire group that is this larger family for him. He has always been driven by the notion that he needs to protect people and keep them safe. And sometimes, that has led to some really complex decisions and sometimes that's led to him hurting people or doing things unilaterally. This season, he is dealing with some of the fallout from that and knowing that this firefight erupted when he has been trying to build this community is difficult for him. But he feels like he has to make things happen. The idea of Rick's dreams and hallucinations came from a discussion about what happens to people when they are dying and their bodies are shutting down. A very common phenomenon is something called the third-man factor where a lot of people, when their bodies are not doing well, can often imagine that there is a person there trying to guide you out of trouble. Sometimes it's somebody you know. We thought that that was an interesting opportunity to bring back certain characters from various points of Rick's journey that had a particular influence on him.

What does Shane represent?

Shane, in a lot of ways, triggered so much of the change in Rick compared to who he was in the first two seasons. This guy who led with this brutal gut instinct and reminded Rick to keep his courage up.

Sasha?

Sasha was like a soldier and was able to have a larger view of the things that have happened and of Rick's relative place in them. She had a perspective on the fact that people do die in this world but it doesn't mean that they're forgotten. It means that it's part of the way things move on. It gives him that final push to continue his mission as a soldier who helps his entire group.

And Hershel?

Herschel was like a father figure to Rick and has this image of a kind of heaven that's a rest for him and reminds Rick of the heart of these matters. It was wonderful having Scott back. We didn't know at the time that he was sick. He told us that after he shot his scene. We were blessed to have him back for his final screen appearance anywhere. He was thrilled to be there. I hope that people who loved that character enjoy seeing him on screen again because we certainly loved having him so very much.

Was there anyone else that you wanted to come back but couldn't get? Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Dale (Jeff DeMunn) were the moral compasses of the show for so long. 

We spoke about several actors. Steven was somebody we considered, but there were scheduling difficulties with him. Hershel had a particular relationship with Rick. There were other people whose names we talked about and then we came to these three and it felt like a good mix of people who represented the different aspects that Rick really needed to have the courage to push forward.

What do you hope viewers take away from this episode?

The sense of Rick's great heroism. The love that this group has for each other and that he had for them. I hope from the ending [with Rick's survival and the time jump] that they take away a sense of hope. It was very emotional to see and once we cast our wonderful young Judith [Cailey Fleming, who played young Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens], it was special for the cast and crew to see her step on the set. She looked so much like Sarah Wayne Callies [who played Judith's mother, Lori Grimes]. This child, who had no business surviving pregnancy, has made it and is thriving in this world. I hope viewers take away some of the excitement of the story that will continue as we dive into the next chapter of the comic book stories, where there's a lot of great story ahead.

Will the gap between Rick's helicopter rescue and the time jump be explored on the show or is that strictly reserved for the TV movies?

We do sometimes go back a little bit. The show tends to live pretty radically in the present except for the selected moments of flashbacks. For the most part, it's a story that continues rocketing forward. But there are opportunities to sometimes go back into it.

Viewers don't get a chance to see how Michonne or anyone grieves for Rick before the time jump. Was the decision to skip over all that largely because that story is going to be told in the TV movies?

I don't know what story they're going to tell in the movies. That was a creative decision. We've seen characters grieve. We know what the immediate aftermath can feel like. We wanted to tell the story of grief in a different way. Those scars last for years. It has affected definitely who Michonne has become; it has affected Daryl; it has had an effect on the way the communities work. It turns out that Rick was very wise about foreseeing what the failure of this bridge would mean to all of them. We felt that that was an interesting way to explore grief in a different and hopefully unexpected way because people tend to know our rhythms pretty well after all these seasons.

How much of the Jadis and the A and B recruitment storyline will be revealed? Will Pollyanna McIntosh be back at all this season?

This is it for Jadis this season on the show. She goes off with Rick and then we're in the time jump storyline. The story of the helicopter people, I believe, continues very strongly in the universe. The helicopter stuff and what happens in that storyline is very much part of what is planned for the [movie] universe that Scott is working on.

Maggie (Lauren Cohan) opted to spare Negan's (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) life, knowing that he's already, as she said, "worse than dead." Is this the last that viewers will see of Lauren Cohan?

That's the last of her for this season. But we've been talking to Lauren and hopefully we'll get to tell more story for her. We have some things up our sleeve that we'd love to do. A lot of that is a scheduling conversation [as she balances ABC's midseason series Whiskey Cavalier]. Hopefully that will work out because everyone at The Walking Dead and Lauren would like to continue with Maggie's story.

Several years have gone by after the time jump. Will all the characters played by series regulars have survived? Is there anyone else who is not coming back, besides Lauren, Pollyanna and Andy?

All the regulars have survived. They are off doing different things but they are all there one way or another.

Is there a larger theme for the remainder of the season, post-Rick?

We start diving a lot into what has happened with these different communities as our other leaders, such as Michonne (Danai Gurira), Carol (Melissa McBride) and Daryl (Norman Reedus), in his own way, are still rocked by the aftermath of [Rick's presumed death]. Many years have passed and many things have changed and we're diving more into ideas like what is civilization and how they grapple with each other and what are the decisions that they make about dealing with different kinds of people and different kinds of threats. We have stories that touch on what it means to be a refugee without it being a direct parallel to our world. People who are out there are trying to figure out where to find shelter and there are people who completely renounce the ideas of civilization. That is a lot of what we grapple with in the season going forward.

Daryl could wind up blaming himself for Rick's death. How will he navigate all this?

That's very much a part of the story as we go into the final few episodes of the season. In the next episode, we'll get some glimpses of where he might seem to be at and then we'll gradually reveal what that story is. Daryl feels a lot of guilt. Rick is somebody he loved like a brother and he feels like things didn't end exactly as he would have wanted, although they did have a moment of togetherness in episode four. For Daryl, a lot of things are emotionally unresolved and that's part of what drives his story and where he's at. But we'll also see him coming to terms with people from the group in different ways. And we'll definitely see some interesting aspects of that story and find out some mystery having to do with the past through Daryl's story.