'Walking Dead' Dissection: Scott Gimple on Michonne's Surprising Past, Rick and Carl's New Bond

The showrunner breaks down season four's midseason return and looks ahead to next week's episode, which he says contains a lot of big answers and new pairings for the ragtag group.
Gene Page/AMC
"The Walking Dead"

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from The Walking Dead's season four midseason premiere, "After."]

AMC's The Walking Dead returned with the first of its final eight season four episodes Sunday with "After," the first of several stand-alone installments as the series focuses on character exploration now that the group is divided.

This week's episode centered on Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Carl (Chandler Riggs), who were both still reeling from the loss of the prison and Hershel's death. A battered and bruised Rick is constantly trailing behind his son, who is still furious with his father for his role in Hershel's death and the apparent loss of his baby sister, Judith.

The duo finds salvation in an abandoned home, and it's not long before Rick passes out. With his dad out of commission, Carl hits the road in search of food -- and in an effort to prove that he can take care of himself. What he finds, however, is that his father's lessons have proven invaluable and, following several close calls, makes his way back to the house. After several jabs at his father -- including a Shane nod! -- Rick, unaware that his son had just wished for his death, declares Carl a man.  

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Meanwhile, Michonne (Danai Gurira) is fending for herself and taking down walkers left and right. She uses new "pets" -- walkers without their jaws and arms -- to make her way through the hordes. Exhausted and alone, Michonne has a flashback to before the outbreak and her backstory is finally revealed! The episode, written by comics creator/EP Robert Kirkman, takes a page directly from The Walking Dead's Michonne Story, a special one-shot first published in 2012 that portrayed the katana-wielding warrior's boyfriend, Mike, and his best friend, Terry. Only this time, Michonne has a son. It fills in a major blank in the character's background and explains why Michonne began to cry while holding baby Judith in the first half of the season.

The episode ends when Michonne decides to track two sets of footprints and winds up at the door of the home where Rick and Carl are staying. The Hollywood Reporter caught up with showrunner Scott M. Gimple to break down the episode and preview what's to come.

You're a longtime fan of the comics, and this episode -- more than any other yet -- contained so many key moments from them. Was this something you've wanted to do for a long time?

It's largely issue 50 -- with aspects of 49 -- of the comics. That was a very tight issue with a beginning, middle and an end. It was always in the back of my head, even before I moved to [showrunner]; we were just waiting to pitch in the room. Going into this season, I knew what the structure would be, and I knew I wanted this to be the midseason opener. I knew what the story was with Rick and Carl in the first five episodes, and though there are lots of iconic moments from comics, there also is invention in the show as well. I knew this would be really a cool way to circle back to those issues of the comics. That was one of those examples of story moving in a different direction to get back to the comic.

Rick didn't seem like he was going to make it at one point during this episode -- a direct nod to the comics. Can we expect more of these pivotal moments from the comics in the back half of the season?

Absolutely, but in different contexts. Kirkman wrote it and even though he wrote these issues of the comics many years ago, there were lots of brand new aspects he added this year. When Greg Nicotero was directing it, he was using a lot of panels from the books for his shots. There are other panels that will be coming to life this season.

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Rick has now declared that Carl is a man. How can we expect to see their relationship change going forward? Will Rick treat his son as an equal?

Not only have they gotten to that place emotionally but where they are in the world, without any protection, he has to treat him as an equal. The way they went into that barbecue joint together, they were equals there. In some ways, Carl was a bit ahead of his father because of the bad shape that Rick is in. Moving forward, they're much more partners than father and son now.

Carl had an epic outburst at Rick while he was unconscious. Did Rick hear Carl saying he wished his father was dead?

There was so much that was being said between the things that were said leading up to that. There was so much tension that I think Rick could feel the resentment. Even when Carl says, "I'd be fine if you were dead," he didn't mean that, but that was said out of anger and resentment. And that was radiating off his son. Rick knew about it before he was passed out.

At this point, Rick and Carl are behaving as if Judith didn't survive the prison attack and he's largely to blame for Hershel's death. How will Rick's grieving process this time be different?

That's it right there -- for all these characters in fact. It's a very different situation -- they don't have the luxury of grief. They don't get to feel it all the way through because of the very fraught situation they've found themselves in. The prison was a place of safety that allowed them to be real people and to have a moment to feel. There will be moments in these back eight but these are so much about survival. It makes those moments of grief that much more concentrated. It also makes sweeter moments that much more sweet -- like when Rick smiles when he sees Michonne at the end.

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We also learned why Michonne cried when she held baby Judith in the first half of the season: Michonne was a mother and had a son.

This, in some ways, is completing a story from last season. Last season, we saw Michonne, with help from Daryl, Rick and Tyreese, figured out that she was running away. She was going off looking for The Governor even though she knew she wouldn't find him. She was doing it to step away from people and to avoid getting close. The moment she decided to get close, that's when all those people were torn away from her -- not in the least Hershel. In this episode, we start her with that loss of Hershel and the prison and all the closeness she'd achieved. She took that as a message from the universe that, "I was right, you can't get close to people; that's how you get hurt. I lost Andrea and I lost all these people so forget it. I had the right idea. Let me get some new walker pets and walk the earth alone because that's how you stay safe emotionally." She's haunted by her dreams but, more importantly, she finds that her plan leads her to become a dead person. She's walking among the dead and basically dead inside and she can't do it. She knows she can't go back to being a dead person and isolating herself. In this wonderful moment, she rejects death and she chooses life. It's this very cathartic action moment and that's one of my favorite things from the show -- when you see action and emotion explode at the same time and feed each other and have meaning.

How will having temporarily lost her new family change her going forward now that we know how valuable family is to her?

We'll see her open up that much more. We're going to hear more about Michonne, and she's going to be bound to Rick and Carl like family.

Now that Rick and Carl have reunited with Michonne, where do they go from here? Rick will heal. Will they look for the remainder of the group? Try to live as a family in the house? 

That would be giving too much away, but we will answer that quickly.

How would you describe the remainder of the season? Who else may be getting more of a back story?

There's more flashback stuff but not a lot. That said, these characters are separated from one another, and it will be focusing on each character in different ways. Some will be more deeply though they're not all like this episode. By the end of this half-season, people will know these characters that much more and have a very good idea of who they were at the beginning after that.

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What can you say about next week's episode? Who is the central focus?

Next week's episode has a really cool structure that affords us to not really have a central focus. There are a lot of answers next week -- at least a few major ones. You get other big answers next week and different pairings we haven't seen yet we will as stories that fold into each other. The deck gets shuffled. This week's episode was one of those moments in the show where we've told stories that have departed from the comics just to arrive exactly where the comic is and that was a great deal of fun to do. I love the amount of story in next week's episode. I love structure and variety of story in next week's episode. There really are a lot of answers in next week's episode -- not all of them, but there's a few big ones!

What did you think of the midseason premiere? Where do you see Rick and company going next? Sound off in the comments below. The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC. 

E-mail: Lesley.Goldberg@THR.com
Twitter: @Snoodit