'Walking Dead' Showrunner Explains How the Finale Sets Up "Cold War" Conflict for Season 10

Showrunner Angela Kang joins The Hollywood Reporter to break down the season nine finale and its impact on the coming Whisperer War.
Gene Page/AMC

[This story contains spoilers from the season nine finale of AMC's The Walking Dead, "The Storm."]

Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is gone, and still, AMC's The Walking Dead survivors endure. Jesus (Tom Payne) died, and still, they endure. Henry (Matt Lintz), Enid (Katelyn Nacon) and Tara (Alanna Masterson) all lost their heads, and the people they left behind continue onward. Even the massive snow storm in Sunday's season-ender isn't enough to crush the spirits of the men and women stranded in the zombie apocalypse, a shattered status quo or two notwithstanding.

Despite a vast array of hardships, new friends and foes, leaps forward in time and other innumerable changes, the ninth season of The Walking Dead not only endured but thrived, delivering a pronounced creative vision the likes of which hasn't been seen since at least season five. Credit where it's due: showrunner Angela Kang served up a story filled with huge twists and turns, from catapulting the narrative forward several years into the future to dealing with Lincoln's narratively complicated departure, all while introducing a deadly new nemesis: the Whisperers.

Much like the rest of the year, Sunday's season nine finale trades on the unexpected. After the mass murders of the penultimate episode, "The Storm" plays out as an emotional crusade through a harsh winter, one that reflects the hardened hearts of those who survived Alpha's (Samantha Morton) attack on the three communities. Months have passed since the beheadings. The Kingdom has fallen into decay, forcing a relocation effort to the Hilltop, leaderless in the wake of Tara's death. The journey exacts a toll on the survivors, including Ezekiel (Khary Payton) and Carol (Melissa McBride) — who break up in the episode — but it also forges renewed strength within the greater communities. Jerry (Cooper Andrews) even suggests "Kingtop" as a new name for the hybridized Kingdom and Hilltop; we'll see if it sticks.

Filmed largely on soundstages in Pinewood Atlanta Studios, "The Storm" honors one of the earliest story arcs in Robert Kirkman's Walking Dead comic book series, in which Rick and friends forge forward through the snow. While the finale's events came together organically after surveying the scope of the season, Kang tells The Hollywood Reporter her desire to bring about the "snowpocalypse" dates back as far as her initial involvement with the AMC drama.

"When I interviewed for the show, I asked Frank Darabont if there's any chance we were doing snow in the next season," says Kang, who first joined the Walking Dead writing staff in season two. "Now, in the ninth year, I'm running the show. If I get fired after this year? At least I did a snow episode!"

Her comment is tongue-in-cheek, but it speaks to Kang's vision for how to revitalize one of the single most enduring genre shows on television: by executing a specific vision and straying from expectations. Ahead, Kang talks about the decision to deliver the series' most brutal moment since the arrival of Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) a full episode earlier than expected, how the wintry finale came together, and what lies ahead when The Walking Dead returns in the fall for its landmark 10th season.

What went into structuring the end of the season — specifically, the decision to serve up the heads on spikes in the penultimate episode rather than the season finale?

When we started working on the season, the expectation internally for myself and the writers was to [put the heads on spikes] in the finale. At the same time, if that's the expectation, is that interesting, if everybody feels that coming? As we got deeper into it and started laying out the story, we kind of got to a point where I wondered if we were treading water for an episode. So we pulled it up. I wanted things to keep feeling propulsive, for things to feel like they were moving toward an inevitable conclusion. I would rather put it where it feels like it should fall naturally, rather than artificially wait for what's the last episode. I think it's interesting for the audience, to have [an event of that magnitude] happen in a different place.

How were the three key victims settled upon: Henry, Enid and Tara?

Everybody was up for discussion at some point. We knew pretty early on that we weren't necessarily going to kill the same people from the comic books. The interesting thing is, we have rarely killed the same people from the comic books in the same iconic [manner]. Glenn (Steven Yeun) is one of the exceptions. Because of that, all of the timelines and the character stories have changed around in ways that don't always work the same way. We wanted to tell a leadership story with Tara, and in some ways, we felt like the mass murder Alpha commits is an ultimate act of terror. She's trying to terrorize all of these communities. There's some design to who she picks, and there's also some randomness. Unfortunately, we knew there were going to be some victims who felt random; in some ways, Enid fits that category. We knew Henry had to go, because the one person Alpha is humanly tied to is her daughter, and this kid came in the middle of that; Henry's death is a punishment. She also wanted to terrorize the leaders, so she had to pick one of the leaders; Hilltop was in the center of the conflict, so she picked Tara. 

We also wanted to tell a story of heroism, so there were some people who came in and tried to save the people who were taken, and they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's a mix that makes Alpha's actions so terrorizing. You can go, "OK, it makes sense why she killed this person, but what about this person? Why did Frankie have to die?" That really speaks a lot to who Alpha is as a leader of her community. She knows how to manipulate people and how to strike fear into people's hearts. It's The Walking Dead, and it's really hard to say goodbye to anybody, but there's nothing personal about it. Everyone was wonderful and professional, and we celebrated their time on the show with great love. I look forward to seeing what they all do next, because I know they'll all have amazing lives going forward.

Tara is the second major LGBT character to die this season, following Jesus. What was the discussion like in the writers' room to kill two main gay characters in the same season?

It's like the discussion we have about any character. For season nine, in our writers' room itself, the LGBTQ perspective has been represented very strongly throughout the years, and this year was no exception. Our cast of series regulars, as well as many major recurring characters, the majority of the people are from historically underrepresented groups. They're often from two or three of those groups at one time. Any one death on this show will always hit somebody who will feel, "There's not enough of me represented on screen." At the same time, when so many of us come from these underrepresented groups too, we don't want to engage in tokenism. We want every single person to have the same full story that anyone would have. Taking death off the table for any group for any reason limits the types of stories we can tell for them, as well as our casting abilities. We have a really unique perspective as a room because of our own status as outsiders, for the most part. 

How did the finale's winter setting develop? Why was this the right note to end the season on?

Part of it is I always wanted to bring snow onto the show. I literally asked Frank Darabont when I first interviewed for the show in season two, "Is there any chance we're doing snow this season? It's so iconic from the comic books!" We hadn't done it yet, so I kind of felt like this was my chance! (Laughs) But I also think that thematically it really works with where everyone's at. There's a feeling of a long, cold, lonely and difficult winter. It mirrors the way your heart can feel frozen, or how it feels like it's thawing. We wanted to show the effects of nature on the world around them as time has passed. The environment itself is a character in the story of this season. They dealt with bridges falling down, they dealt with fog, they dealt with the migration of birds…all of this stuff is part of their landscape. It felt really right and interesting to go forward into the snow, showing the obstacles that come with that, like the amazing frozen walkers who are part of that landscape.

How difficult was it to accomplish winter in the apocalypse?

It required so much work from every department involved. So much of it is practical that I think it would shock people. The special effects group did an amazing job creating a lot of the snow and the wind. I would guarantee most of what we showed in the episode, you wouldn't be able to tell what was done practically and what was done to extend and enhance everything. The makeup effects group did an amazing job with these walkers, too, making them look beautiful and frozen. From a production design standpoint, a lot of this was built on a stage at Pinewood Studios, and you would never know. It was really satisfying to see it happen. It was very, very fun for everyone involved. People were like kids in a candy store: "We're standing in snow! This is so much fun!" It was a really great note for us to end the season on, as we were working. I'm really excited we got to share it with the fans.

The finale tees up the Whisperer War for next season, with Alpha talking about the difficulties of what lies ahead. What can you say about what lies ahead?

We're hoping to leave the audience with the notion that the Whisperers are unlike other groups we have encountered. They weren't where we expected them to be [in the finale], because they don't have a home address. That definitely has its own challenges and intricacies that our characters will have to navigate. Alpha is a pretty screwed-up character. She has this giant guy in a half-mask with her because she thinks that makes her strong. Her mind is very interesting. It allows us to play with a lot of stories moving forward.

The season ends on a strange radio transmission. What is that setting up for season 10?

We always like to have a little bit of mystery for the audience. The radio voice falls in that mold. Any time we have a mysterious moment like this, whenever we have different entities and people come into our characters' world, it's something that's going to turn the story in a new direction. Hopefully it's all something you'll enjoy seeing in the next season.

What can you say about the themes you're exploring in season 10?

Thematically, I'll give you an early hint: we're talking about the idea of the Whisperers. There's some stuff from the comic books that has to do with the idea of Whisperers and whispering and propaganda. We're very interested in what a war with people like the Whisperers looks like. What is a cold war like in The Walking Dead? We're looking forward to exploring that next year.

What should we expect from Michonne's story next year as Danai Gurira prepares to end her series regular commitment?

We love Danai. We're so happy for her and the incredible moment in her life and her career that she's having, both in terms of writing and acting. We're hoping to treat fans to a lot of very cool, meaty stories for Michonne. We have seen her character go through an evolution this year. We want to continue having her reflect on the ways to handle leadership in this world. What legacy is she going to leave behind for the other leaders and for her family? Michonne started off as such an isolated individual. She's become someone who has had a giant impact on the other people in the Walking Dead story. That's a story we're continuing to build as we speak. I'm thrilled we get to continue to work with Danai next year, because she's been an amazing part of the show, and such a rock for our group. 

Season nine has drawn critical praise for its bold storytelling. How much attention have you paid to how the stories are resonating, and what would you attribute the success to?

To be honest, I'm not paying too much attention, but people do fill me in. It's not a function of anything other than the days being so full, because of how much post-production hangs over into the times where we're writing. I have to focus my time on what's not going to distract me. I don't want to get too comfortable, if I'm reading too many positive [reactions], and also, we're all human; a stray mean comment on social media can really set you back. I have to go through my day, and this is something that can distract me, so I try not to pay too much attention. But I've heard a lot of this feedback from my cast and my crew. They're really happy when they read good reviews or good critical responses. It really does lift their spirits — or depress them. For me, I want the show to be great, so the hundreds of people working on the show who are part of this big, wonderful, raucous and happy family can be proud of what's going out there in the world. To me, that's the most important part of having a good critical response. For them, it really gives them an extra bounce in their step when they come to work on making this incredibly difficult show to make.

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