'Walking Dead' Team Previews Season 9 Evolution: It Takes a "Quantum Leap Forward"

Executive producers Robert Kirkman and Scott M. Gimple, as well as stars Andrew Lincoln (Rick) and Lennie James (Morgan), weigh in on what's ahead in the AMC zombie franchise: "It just takes this quantum leap forward."
Gene Page/AMC

[This story contains spoilers from the season eight finale of AMC's The Walking Dead, "Wrath," as well as the season four premiere of Fear the Walking Dead, "What's Your Story?"]

The dust has barely settled on "All-Out War," and already, outgoing Walking Dead showrunner Scott M. Gimple is ready to spill the beans on how the next season of the series will begin. 

According to Gimple, who has handed off showrunning duties to Angela Kang while he moves onto a larger role overseeing the greater franchise (including freshly relaunched Fear the Walking Dead), the upcoming ninth season of the AMC zombie drama will open on Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the since-dethroned King of the Saviors, learning some very bad news about the side effects of his newly slit open throat.

"It starts with a doctor: 'You shan't monologue again,'" jokes Gimple. "Cue: the montage."

"A monotage," comes a chorus of other voices, including star Andrew Lincoln (Rick), delirious laughter not too far behind. 

Forgive the creative minds behind Walking Dead if they're acting a little loopy on the night of the season finale, which doubles as the Fear season four premiere. Speaking with a small handful of press, including The Hollywood Reporter, moments before their live appearance on AMC's Talking Dead, the likes of Gimple, Lincoln, Lennie James (Morgan) and executive producer and comic book creator Robert Kirkman are not only on the cusp of revealing the final notes of season eight to the world, but are also just days away from commencing production on season nine. Indeed, in Lincoln's case, he's set to jet back to Atlanta in the morning; for his part, James remains firmly entrenched in the apocalypse thanks to his new role on spinoff Fear. Gimple and Kirkman, meanwhile, have been plugging away at plans for season nine since December. In other words, while Rick and his allies in Alexandria are about to pause to focus on their future, the Walking Dead train never stopped chugging.

As the locomotive leaves the station, Gimple looks back on the season eight finale, "Wrath," and how it brings an end to "All-Out War," pulling a page straight out of the comic books with Rick's decision to not kill Negan; instead, he greatly injures his old foe, then sentences him to life imprisonment, with the hopes of setting an example for a new world order.

"When I read it in the book, it was shocking to me," says Gimple. "It was something that resounded with me. It's as pithy as: I really liked it. It was unexpected. It was the right thing for the character and the right thing for the world. For what Rick wants, and what Carl (Chandler Riggs) wanted for him? It really was the only way forward. The fact that it's nice to see a story like that in an age when everything is so combative and so aggressive ... it was the frosting on the cake."

Consider the cake well and fully served, as Gimple describes the season eight finale as the end of the first chapter of The Walking Dead — a chapter that's lasted more than 100 episodes.

"It provides a defined, hard closure to that story," he reiterates. "The show will evolve in a huge way. They'll be dealing with things we haven't seen them deal with before, and dealing with each other in ways that we haven't seen before. What [the writers] have planned ... it just feels new. It feels like an evolved show. [The past eight seasons] very much lived in the world that Rick began with. It was so informed by the pilot. It just takes this quantum leap forward in the stories we're telling."

Should the savvy Walking Dead comic book reader take Gimple's mention of a "quantum leap" as a time jump tease? He remains coy: "A time jump tease," he allows, "but it wouldn't be exactly as we expect." It's an idea that falls in line with how season eight played out: close to the comic book script, albeit with a few major changes, most notably the death of Carl Grimes, easily the biggest departure from the comics through eight seasons.

While nobody involved with the series is prepared to commit to the words "time jump," the way in which they discuss the show's future all but confirms the next season will at least partly follow the road paved by the comics. (Spoilers ahead, for those who don't want to know what's ahead based on the source material.)

In the comics, following the end of "All-Out War," the action skips forward a number of years in time. Rick has achieved his dream of turning Alexandria and the surrounding areas into a flourishing network of communities. Negan remains imprisoned, with a massive beard to boot. ("It's possible that Jeffrey Dean Morgan is growing a massive beard right now," Kirkman teased before the actor appeared on the Talking Dead couch with a massive one.) It's a peaceful time, even with dark designs bubbling beneath the surface, including the Whisperers, a group of wild survivors who wear human skin suits in order to blend in with the dead; their future involvement was teased in the season eight finale, when Rick and his army look out into the distance at a huge horde of walkers.

Another cloud in the horizon: Maggie Rhee (Lauren Cohan) and her simmering vengeance against Negan. The finale made a meal out of Maggie's rage, with Gimple describing her turn as akin to a mobster: "She's like Michael Corleone," he says, speaking toward the scene in which Maggie, Jesus (Tom Payne) and Daryl (Norman Reedus) all agree about biding their time and waiting for the chance to kill Negan behind Rick's back.

Maggie's dark turn comes straight from the comic books, even if it's happening on the show a bit ahead of schedule — but will we actually see it come to pass? That question is worth asking given the ongoing contract disputes between AMC and Lauren Cohan, leading the actress to book a starring role in ABC's pilot Whiskey Cavalier opposite Scott Foley. How does Cohan's potential departure impact the show's planned descent into darkness for Maggie?

"We're talking about that," is all Gimple will allow for now. "We'll be talking about it soon. But it's in the episode, and we plan to tell that story." 

One departure that's already come to pass: Lennie James, off to meet the Clarks on Fear the Walking Dead. For James, Morgan's exit from the flagship series was a logical conclusion given everything the character experienced in season eight.

"There's a line Morgan says to Rick early on in the episode: 'We're worse than we are,'" says James. "I think that's fundamental to who they are and the position they find themselves in, and the toll the war has taken on them. Morgan doesn't have the benefit of Carl's letters. He doesn't have the benefit of hope. All he can be focused on is getting through this war, having some sense about which head he has to put on in order to keep moving forward. When he comes up for air, what he sees is he's gone further than even he thought he could have gone. I think that realization, that he could go so far without noticing for the people he cares about and the people he's connected to, is the reason why he leaves."

But Morgan doesn't leave without one last moment with Rick, his oldest friend in the apocalypse. The two share some final words with one another early on in the Fear premiere, and for his part, Lincoln certainly hopes they're not the last.

"Rick is this new man who believes in civilization and believes in a way forward," says the Walking Dead star. "There's a way where everybody can carry out his son's wishes. He wants his twin, the oldest friend he has left on the planet, to be a part of it. He knows what they've shared. They've both been in the abyss. Of course, he wants him to be a part of this new world. But this show has always been about farewells. It's been about the odd hello from time to time. I'd like to think there might be one more meeting before the show is over. I have hope for that."

Such an encounter isn't likely to occur any time soon, as Kirkman dashes any hopes for recurring crossovers between the two Walking Dead shows. "It won't be a Buffy and Angel situation," he says. For now, when it comes to Rick Grimes, the journey forward will transpire on the flagship series. While he's careful not to spoil the character's future, Lincoln makes it clear that the hopeful Rick we see at the end of the season finale is likely to return in the next new episode.

"I think he's a man who has changed. Very late in the day, he realized that if he doesn't refrain from killing [Negan], he'll get lost," says Lincoln. "He's a changed man who is going to go into the future. Everything that Deanna (Tovah Feldshuh) told him that he didn't fully believe, about the potential of a new civilization, has come to fruition through honoring his dying son's wishes. When someone loses someone so important to them, they perhaps set up a charitable organization or have a fervent desire to let their death not be in vain. I think that's possibly going to be the place he goes to."

Even if Carl doesn't die in order for this vision to be fulfilled in the comics, it sounds like Walking Dead will walk a similar path as the comics all the same. For someone who never imagined seeing the day when "All-Out War" would spring from his mind and onto the paneled page, let alone a TV screen, Kirkman remains enthusiastic about all the new comic book milestones the Walking Dead adaptation will tackle next.

"'All-Out War' is such a huge milestone, both for the comic book series and for the show," he says. "Everybody who reads the comics knows that it's a real pivot point. Everything that comes afterward is almost completely different. To have the show reach that point? It's pretty gratifying. It's weird, but the people who have read the comics know the road map to a certain extent. They can feel some of the excitement we feel, knowing things behind the scenes and knowing how different the show is about to be. There are possibilities for what the arc for Negan is, and what the arc for Rick is, and knowing that there's so much life left in the show after reaching an eighth season ... we feel like we're in a really great place. It's a feeling I'll probably never get used to."

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