'Walking Dead' Team Dissects (and Defends) the Negan Cliffhanger

The Walking Dead - Season 6, Episode 16 -Still 1-H 2016
Gene Page/AMC

No, we still don’t know who Negan killed with his baseball bat Lucille, and we won’t know for sure until The Walking Dead returns Oct. 23. But the cast and producers of AMC’s hit zombie drama are happy to discuss just about every other aspect of that crucial scene — including the backlash surrounding it.

Season six ended on an agonizing cliffhanger, with Negan murdering an unseen member of Rick’s gang, and many fans reacted with anger and frustration at being left dangling all summer. But TWD showrunner Scott M. Gimple insists that the writing staff can’t let fan reaction alter how they tell a story. “If you care about the fans… you have to respect the reaction, no matter what,” he told reporters during a press conference at San Diego Comic-Con. “But I think it’s important to not be afraid.”

And the passionate reaction from fans can be viewed as a positive, executive producer David Alpert says: “If a character is killed off the show and... it doesn’t upset somebody, obviously we weren’t doing our jobs making a show that people care about.”

The biggest challenge of resolving the cliffhanger in the season seven premiere, according to executive producer Greg Nicotero, “is, you know it’s coming. Ever since Issue 100 [of the Walking Dead comic]… I remember reading it and just thinking how brutal and how unexpected and senseless it felt. That’s the trickiest aspect of the first episode: living up to the expectation of that moment… and how that changes the direction of the survivors forever. It’s a fascinating exercise in emotion. Shock, denial… all these things play into it. It was a master class in acting from these people here. But it’s agonizing to think about the fact that we’re changing the landscape of our cast.”

Josh McDermitt, who plays the mullet-sporting Eugene, says fan response to the cliffhanger has been more supportive than anything: “It's kind of beautiful... everybody has their favorites, but really, they just don't want to see anybody go. The fan base is really rallying around everyone.”

Rick Grimes might not end up being the victim of Lucille’s wrath, but Andrew Lincoln (Rick) says he’ll be in terrible shape even if he survives. “He’s powerless for the first time since he woke up from the coma,” Lincoln says of Rick’s mental state. “He’s truly terrified for his child’s life, and for his fellow family. Everything that he’s fought and bled for, had family members die for... has been shattered in 24 hours. So yeah, he’s not in a good space. And I think if he makes it through the first episode, he will be a different man. He can't help but be.”

And don’t expect Carl to become all buddy-buddy with Negan if he survives the premiere, either, Chandler Riggs (Carl) hints. “He doesn't like this guy. At all. Just from him trying to kill his friends and his family... they kind of got off to a bad start.”

The man who plays Negan, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, might have charmed Walking Dead fans with his foul-mouthed bravado in the season six finale — but he isn’t expecting them to like him once they find out who Negan’s victim is. “Right now, this Comic-Con is going to be okay. I think next year, it could be a little different,” he says with a sly smile. “I think it's gonna be a salute of middle fingers and language when I come out onto the stage.”  

For more Walking Dead coverage, go to THR.com/WalkingDead.