7:04pm PT by Josh Wigler
'Walking Dead' Boss Defends Controversial Character Death, Previews LGBTQ Representation Ahead
[This story contains spoilers for season nine, episode eight of AMC's The Walking Dead, "Evolution."]
Wilco's Jeff Tweedy once sang: "Jesus, don't cry." The dry eyes are few and far between for The Walking Dead viewers, however, given the death of a fan-favorite character in Sunday's midseason finale: Paul "Jesus" Monroe, played by Tom Payne since season six.
Season nine's eighth episode, called "Evolution," centered on Jesus, Aaron (Ross Marquand) and Daryl (Norman Reedus) searching for Eugene (Josh McDermitt), all while dealing with a herd of walkers. It quickly becomes clear that the group has bitten off more than they can chew, as the herd is relentless and tactical in their pursuit. All parties eventually converge on a graveyard, including Michonne (Danai Gurira), Magna (Nadia Hilker) and Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura). They arrive too late, as both Aaron and Jesus fight tooth and nail against the walkers — only for Jesus to end up stabbed through the back by one of the "zombies," who turns out to be a human being wearing a suit carefully made of rotting flesh.
"You're where you're not supposed to be," he whispers in the dying Jesus' ear, mere moments before he himself is killed and subsequently unmasked. Sunday's midseason finale ends with the group gathered in the graveyard, surrounded at all sides by more ominous whispers. It's a clear signal of the next major threat facing the Walking Dead universe: the Whisperers, an army of survivors who blend in with and walk among the dead, adopting their likeness and culture with deadly consequences.
In the comics, Jesus plays a critical role in discovering the Whisperers. Unlike the comics, however, Jesus very much survives his encounter; indeed, he's still alive through 185 issues and counting of the comic book series from Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard. Jesus' death on the AMC drama marks a huge surprise as a result, one that not only removes one of the show's most iconic characters from the playing field, but also one of the most recognizable active LGBTQ heroes in genre television.
Why did Jesus have to die? Was it a story-based decision, or due to a request on actor Tom Payne's part? Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Payne describes the exit as a "mutual" decision. For her part, season nine showrunner Angela Kang is more coy about the behind-the-scenes details leading to the death, opting instead to focus on how the loss of Jesus will impact the creatively retooled Walking Dead as it moves into the back half of the season next year. Read on for Kang's take on Jesus' death, the Whisperers' arrival and where it's all leading next.
The midseason finale culminates in the full reveal of the Whisperers, and the death of Jesus. Was his exit a writers' room decision or Tom's decision?
There are so many things that go into character write-outs, and we don't talk about them too much. Even the Andy thing was revealed in a way we didn't [control]. We talked about this from a story standpoint. Other than that, I'm not going to get into anything. We knew something epic had to mark the real arrival of the Whisperers into the story. There's a character death that happens in the comic books when it happens, but we've often deviated from the comics, and this was something we felt needed to be a surprise. It's a character whose life really matters to everybody in this group and the people who are left behind. It's going to have a big impact on them. It has a big impact on the story. I think Tom did an amazing job in this midseason finale. He really got to show off his skills. We wanted to make sure he had a hero's death, and he did. He went out fighting, and could never have imagined what was coming. I know there will be fans who are upset, because they love Jesus. He's certainly a fan favorite for many people. I think it was a worthy end, helping his fellow survivors.
Even beyond The Walking Dead, Jesus is one of the most iconic gay characters on genre television. How much was that and the Bury Your Gays trope — which the show has fallen into before — on your mind?
We're proud we had this wonderful character. He's one of my favorite characters from the comic books as well. For our writers who are LGBTQ, it's something that mattered to them as well. We have a lot of wonderful diversity and representation on the show, and that's something we're very proud of. For a show that deals with issues of life and death and people who have heroic and surprising ends, it's hard because almost anyone you kill on our show or write out is going to be part of some underrepresented group on TV. I wish all of TV would step up as well. We just tend to get a lot of attention for it.
Was the Bury Your Gays trope discussed in the writers' room as you prepared to write out Jesus?
We talk about all of that stuff. We have a very diverse room. It's hard. I'm Korean, and we wrote out our one Korean character [Steven Yeun's Glenn Rhee]. We still have multiple series regulars who are LGBTQ characters. It's hard, because we love representation. It's important to us, both in front of and behind the camera. We can't carry the entire load of representation for all of entertainment. We have to be able to tell our stories as well. It's part of the story, that everyone's impacted by these characters.
What about the viewers who are going to be upset that Jesus dies before realizing the relationship he had with Aaron from the comics?
Everybody wants relationships, but they're never happy with the ones we show or don't show. The most flack I get is about relationships that have or haven't happened on the show. Every single relationship is either loved or hated, even the ones that never happened. But even our actors didn't see [a relationship between Jesus and Aaron]. Tom Payne went and said in the press that he didn't feel these characters were justified to be together at this point in the show. The story we were telling on the show is there's a friendship and a kinship between them. We didn't want to automatically hook these characters up. They have a shared philosophy. It's something we thought was an interesting story to tell. Friendships on this show are some of the deepest relationships we have. With these two characters, it's the direction we were going in: two people who were really trying to continue their roles as the recruiters and connectors of their communities. There was a relationship based in that, more than anything.
Since we won't see Aaron and Jesus as a couple, can you share any insight into how you plan on showing LGBTQ relationships moving forward?
Magna and Yumiko are definitely a couple in the show. [They haven't been outspoken about it yet] because of their personalities and their sense of safety. You see them leaning on each other and we'll see them kiss this season. They are survivors who are going through life. They're a couple. We opted to show it in the most real way possible. We don't start by saying, "They're a couple." Regardless of if they are gay or straight, they're just trying to feel out the other group — but they are absolutely a couple. That's one of the stories we have going on in [season nine].
Any romantic plans for Aaron?
We'll see what happens with Aaron. He's in a particular emotional place. Part of his story is he's thinking a lot about leadership. He's a father to his adopted daughter, Gracie. That's the place he's in right now. It's not precluding the idea of a relationship in the future. We're trying to tell a story of where he's at at a particular moment in his life. Certainly, the death of Jesus, who was such a treasured relationship for him, is something that's going to effect his mindset.
Were there any other characters you considered killing, other than Jesus?
I don't want to get into how that sausage gets made. This was the right call for a multitude of reasons.
We meet the Whisperers in earnest in the finale, with the harrowing final scene in the graveyard and all the action leading up to it. What were your goals in crafting their first true arrival as a group?
It was fun to have this idea of people whispering, and the mystery of that. Our writer, David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, is a very seasoned horror writer. He had this idea of it taking place in the fog, and hearing those whispers in the fog. It's how they talk, because they need to blend in with the herd, and the herds growl and have breathy intakes of air. You could hide human whispers within the sounds of a herd, moving among the walkers. That was a fun device we came up with early on to highlight that aspect of this strange mystery. The Whisperers walk among the walkers. They try to act like walkers and look like walkers — until they can very quickly slip out of that disguise. Our costumes and props teams constructed the costumes in a way where knifes and weapons slip into sleeves, or behind somebody, so that you never see it coming. All you have to do is this little hand movement and suddenly you have a weapon in your hand. Unfortunately, it's something Jesus could not possibly have expected to happen. He thinks he's fighting a couple of zombies. That's all he knows. We really wanted to play up the terror. Our people are very good at fighting zombies. It's always dangerous, but in a lot of ways, they aren't afraid of them in the same ways. Zombies have certain weaknesses. They're slow. They behave in ways that are predictable. When you have humans hidden within them, then suddenly, even two zombies are a lot scarier. You don't know if you can fight them the same way you have fought them for years.
The final words Jesus ever hears comes from the Whisperer: "You are where you don't belong." What does that mean? You can imagine how it connects to Jesus' story and how he kept straying from Hilltop, but there are some comic book connotations as well…
He's left with this very strange thing that this Whisperer says. For Jesus, he's been thinking about where he belongs and what his place is within this community as a whole. The loss of Jesus is going to have a big impact on our people, because he really did belong with them. We're going to start getting into what the Whisperers believe about territory, too. We'll learn a lot more about their ideas in the back half of the season [airing in 2019]. Much like animals, they certainly believe there's certain territory that belongs to them, and our people are now up against a foe with specific notions about what belongs to who. It sets up a lot of conflict going forward.
Eugene delivers a speech about "evolution," and how perhaps the walkers are changing. Of course, viewers and comic readers know these walkers are behaving oddly because they aren't all walkers at all; many of them are humans. With that said, can you envision the day where Eugene's theory comes true, and the zombies evolve into a place where they're thinking and even speaking?
I can't discount anything, because Robert Kirkman is still writing the comic books. Who knows what he's going to cook up! We were trying to show Eugene, who is the most rigidly logical guy: "The world is a certain way, and I have to rely on facts, not fiction or fairytales." He's trying to make sense of something that seems nonsensical. He jumps to what might be a scientific explanation. There's a certain amount of magic involved with zombies, so who knows? The show tends not to delve too much into that side of things with the zombies. It's a world populated with zombies, and it's always been a story about how our people survive. But you never know. Stranger things have happened!
Negan is free from his cell, and our heroes have just suffered a big loss in Jesus — and they remain surrounded by Whisperers. What's next when The Walking Dead returns next year for its midseason premiere?
We will pick up pretty quickly upon the heels of this episode's ending. We'll see what happens now that Negan is out of his cell. Jeffrey Dean Morgan has been cooped up in a cell all season, and even though he's doing an amazing job in there, we're going to get to see him out and about in the world. We'll see the start of a larger story for Negan as a result of that. We're also going to see our people getting themselves out of peril, or trying to, and dealing with the aftermath of Jesus' death. There's also a startling discovery they make along the way. There's a lot of action and excitement coming up, as well as some really great new characters in the form of Samantha Morton and Ryan Hurst as Alpha and Beta, and others as well.
Follow THR.com/WalkingDead for more coverage.