'Walking Dead' Showrunner Promises a "Joyful Rebellion" to Close Season 7

Scott M. Gimple talks with THR about the parallels between Negan and Donald Trump as well as what to expect from the second half of the zombie drama's seventh season.
Gene Page/AMC
Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes on 'The Walking Dead'

AMC's The Walking Dead returns for the second half of its seventh season with a plan to make viewers — and the zombie drama's central hero Rick Grimes — smile again.

Following a brutal first half of the season that featured bat-swinging villain Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) whacking a number of Rick's (Andrew Lincoln) people, showrunner Scott M. Gimple tells The Hollywood Reporter that the following eight episodes are a direct response to the horrors the survivors have gone through.

Indeed. The first half introduced a number of new communities — the Hilltop, overseen by coward Gregory; the Kingdom, ruled by King Ezekiel and his pet tiger, Shiva; and the all-female community of the Oceansiders — all of whom could be the missing piece to help Rick and company take down Negan and his savage group of Saviors. The second half will set up the All-Out War arc from Robert Kirkman's comic book series that serves as source material for the AMC series. And in doing just that, Gimple says Rick will actually smile again as he seeks a hopeful future after witnessing the violent deaths of some of his closest friends (RIP, Glenn and Abraham).

Below, Gimple talks with THR about what to expect thematically and structurally in the second half of season seven as well as the future of two core cast members with the series.

Sonequa Martin-Green (Sasha) has been cast in Star Trek: Discovery. The last time a Walking Dead star booked another leading role (Jon Bernthal, TNT's Mob City), they were killed off. How worried should viewers be about Sasha? What was your conversation like with her when this came up?

I'm a pretty big Star Trek fan. My first thought was, "Am I allowed to go to set? Can I see stuff before it's out?!" I was genuinely thinking about if I can work this to possibly get a Star Fleet uniform (laughing). We have a series [approaching] season eight and a cast who are amazingly talented and now super recognizable. This stuff comes up more and more — Danai Gurira (Michonne) is doing Black Panther. The struggle is tough but luckily I plan ahead quite a bit. There are turns in the story that help with it, some that are recognizable from the comics. We do live in a different world [from the comics] but on The Walking Dead, you should genuinely always worry for all of the characters. Side gigs or no side gigs that people don't even know about, there's always reason to worry.

Chandler Riggs is going to college. How will that impact his future with The Walking Dead? Can he maintain his status as a series regular? What's your plan to accommodate his schedule?

College is easier than high school. Chandler went to high school, it wasn't on-set school. That was much harder than college. I'm confident college will be more flexible. He'll be close by — within two hours — and he [currently] lives more than an hour from set.

The first half of the season was dark and violent as everyone struggled in the wake of Negan's brutality. Is there a theme to the second half?

The first half of the season was everyone fighting through trauma and getting to a place where they can be themselves again. Obviously they're now getting ready for the fight [against Negan]. It's not an easy situation where it's like, "Let's get them!" We've seen the Saviors' numbers and it isn't simply that they're going to dive in against them; they need to come up with a way to do it. Rick's group doesn't have the numbers, but there are other folks out there. Season 7A was tough stuff to feel, by design. But getting to the other side and not forgetting what was lost and being able to take action, there will be this joyful rebellion. There's evil with everything they lost but happiness that they're alive to fight against what took so much from them. These characters are coming alive again. Remarkably through the trauma they've gone through, they can smile again.

So it won't be as violent?

Violence is a part of it, but it's also straight up trauma and loss and pain. The arc of the last half of the season was, can these characters find their way through this with the help of each other? So in the season-six finale, we see characters in Negan's lineup and they're devastated at the terrible things that he's done. At end of the first half of season seven, they're hopeful. That parallel was always planned. The end of 708 is reflective of the second half of this season. There was a plan, storytelling-wise for the audience and characters to earn this joyful rebellion. By no means do I want to inflict pain on our audience. That said, I wanted them to share the experience of the characters and I wanted them to be able to smile again, too, and go through a journey. We're at that point now with [Rick and company] as they start preparing for the fight to not be just frozen from everything and to be alive again. You can't help but see that as a positive and that there is love, friendship and humor. I'm not going to say everyone is bright and shiny across the board but the characters and the audience are allowed to be and I hope they are.

The show second half is about the masses rallying to unite against a lunatic, and I can't help but feel comparisons to our current political landscape. How does Trump's election impact how you write Negan given the parallels there? Have you softened anything?

There's absolutely no relationship there because so much of Negan is taken out of the comic, which was written years ago. There are diametric points of view at play here and a lot of separation. It's both bringing people together and tearing them apart on both sides. There is no planning with current the political climate and there's nothing connected there. There's a theory about this thing called Ideas Space that [comic book legend] Alan Moore talks about — that there's a collective unconscious that we all in some ways share this big huge meta story — and there's also this projection where you have groups of people fighting and a world in conflict — and there's a lot of conflict in this country right now. We're trying to give people a departure from reality; we want to explore very general themes about life and being a human being. But we don't draw specifically in the moment from the world; we really can't because we're not South Park. South Park can make episodes in real time but we're months ahead.

What kind of structure will the second half take? Will you focus on more characters per episode or will it be one group per episode like the first half? 

For the most part, I like reinventing the show every half season. Season 7B is very different from the last half-season. There are a lot of characters together with multiple stories per episode and there are a couple that are more focused. But it isn't like the first half.

What will surprise us about the second half? Who has the most surprising arc?

Eugene (Josh McDermitt) has a surprising arc and a lot of left turns.  

How would you describe the season finale?

It is big and satisfying, I hope. It's a lot of story strands coming together.

So it won't be a cliffhanger like last season?

We're telling a serialized story but it's not a traditional cliffhanger, not like the end of season four. There's a bit more of an ending. There's definitely a promise of the next turn of the story.

The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC. For more Walking Dead coverage, bookmark THR.com/WalkingDead.