'Walking Dead' Boss Forecasts the Future for Lauren Cohan, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and the Franchise

[This story contains spoilers from the season eight finale of AMC's The Walking Dead, "Wrath," as well as the comics from Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard on which the show is based.]

"There was a war. We won."

From the open road of a different show, Morgan Jones (Lennie James) encapsulates the final takeaway from season eight of The Walking Dead, "Wrath," which brought about an end to the ongoing war between Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). In the finale, Rick thwarted Negan and the Saviors (with an explosive assist from Josh McDermitt's Eugene), and rather than crushing them completely under his heel, Rick offered his enemies a seat at the table.

Where does the series go from here? It's a wide open question given a number of uncertainties in the air. For one, season eight marks the end of Scott M. Gimple's role as showrunner, as Angela King takes over those responsibilities while Gimple becomes chief content officer of the greater franchise at AMC. For another, one of the show's most prominent series regulars' fate is in doubt: Lauren Cohan, in the midst of ongoing contract negotiations with AMC, all while booked for a starring role in the ABC pilot Whiskey Cavalier. 

Cohan's uncertain future with the series comes right as her character, Maggie Rhee, begins a new arc with an eye toward vengeance against Negan. He, at least, is someone with a locked-in fate for the time being, as a locked-up prisoner within Alexandria. During his post-finale appearance on Talking Dead, Morgan was armed with a massive beard, one that speaks to two major turns from the Walking Dead comics on which the show is based: Negan spends the next stretch of time behind bars, and "the next stretch of time" is a period that spans years following the end of "All-Out War."

With Negan incarcerated, and with years standing between the war's final battle and a much more idyllic Alexandria, Robert Kirkman's comics take some time before launching into the next new conflict: the Whisperer War, which sees Rick and his community squaring off against a group of survivors who wear the flesh of the dead in order to blend in with the walkers. The season eight finale seemingly featured a big tease for that coming conflict, but speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Gimple is quick to downplay the connection.

In the conversation ahead, Gimple speaks with THR about the road ahead for Walking Dead, including what's next for Negan, the show's handling of the Maggie situation, what the Whisperers could bring to the table, and a greater view of the franchise as it seeks to expand beyond Fear the Walking Dead.

Season eight serves as the end of one chapter and season nine is the beginning of another. Likewise, season eight acts as the end of your reign as showrunner and the beginning of Angela Kang's reign as showrunner. Why did you feel it was important to do a larger reset as Angela steps into this role? Was it always part of the plan?

It was always part of the plan. Story-wise, we knew we were going to be here. We knew what season nine was going to be during season seven, probably even before. It's really how the timing worked out. It worked out in a very cool way. It allows for a new voice to be telling new stories, and really resets the show in a lot of ways. The narrative was planned for that. All of the meta stuff behind it just ended up sussing really well.

Tonally, how will season nine differ from what's come before? 

I think it's the nature of the situations they're going to face: the problems, the triumphs. They're all so different that there's a maturity there, an evolution there. A lot of the things they have dealt with in the past eight seasons aren't as much of an issue for them. But the issues they face will be bigger and more complex in a lot of ways. There are a lot of gray areas to deal with.

Digging into the events of the finale, there seemed to be a big tease of the Whisperers, with the herd of walkers out in the distance and the wide open field with the fence post. Was that an intentional nod to fans of the comics who know what's coming up?

I would be a liar if I said those fence posts were an intentional nod. (Laughs.) It's a location where we even talked about pulling them down. But it's a real field with a real fence. I would love to say we're geniuses in that regard, but it was reality that did the foreshadowing there.

Regardless, comic readers are hoping the Whisperers are coming up down the line, as such an iconic part of the comics' future. What was your reaction to meeting the Whisperers in the comic for the first time? And what do you remember thinking about getting the chance to transpose them to television some day?

When I read it, Robert got me. Robert did an amazing job at playing with the audience's expectations, and teasing the possibilities of the whole world, and then fulfilling it in a really surprising way. There were lots of twists that were really surprising. And Robert is right there with me: I could ply him for spoilers and he would have spilled, but I was so happy to neither ask nor let him spoil, either by accident or on purpose, which he has before! So I dare not do that to potential viewers of that tale — if, in fact, we do it. But it's a big story from the comics, so ...

Juxtaposing the Whisperers against some of the antagonists Rick's group has come up against — the Governor and Woodbury, the Hunters who became Terminus for the show, Negan and the Saviors — what makes the Whisperers stand apart in terms of the threat they pose? How would they be a different threat for Rick moving forward?

In the book — and as a viewer, I would not expect we're jumping right to that; as a viewer, I wouldn't expect that we're necessarily jumping to anything, but if you're just asking me as a comic book reader ... they were a very unique style of survivors that felt that the world had told them the way, and that they listened. There was a great deal to do with nature, and even the nature of man as an animal. That sort of hard philosophy they bought so hard into was incredible to see our people come up against. 

Looking ahead to Negan's future ... Jeffrey Dean Morgan is indeed sporting a ferocious beard right now. Can you confirm if he's returning as a series regular for season nine?

I don't know if it's appropriate if I confirm or deny any of that! (Laughs.) But he looked pretty comfortable on that couch [on Talking Dead] last night, didn't he? I don't know if I have confirmed it elsewhere, but I think it's a damn good bet. 

What excites you about the possibilities of a declawed Negan, or at least a version of the character where he's very much not in control over his situation?

It's just what you said, and going again to an impression of the book ... it was so fascinating to read in the book. He's always been in control, to a degree. He's had some moments where he wasn't. But you get to see in the book what Negan is really made of. I'm excited to see that come to life.

Negan tells Rick that he killed Glenn and Abraham on purpose, because he couldn't kill a father in front of his son. But he killed Glenn in front of his pregnant wife. With that said, do you think the viewer will ever be able to see Negan as a redeemed character?

I don't know. For what he did, and how he did it? It's an incredible thing to surmount. There are defenses and justifications that can be said. It can go in either direction. But it was interesting. I did see a couple of things last night: "Maggie and Daryl and Jesus to an extent are villains!" I was surprised to see people categorize it like that. I think where Rick was very justified in his philosophy and why he did what he did, it would seem that Maggie would be very justified in her philosophy of wanting to see Negan dead. They both have their justifications for it. They both have their very deep-seated reasons. Somebody like Maggie? I can't imagine they'll be having a beer anytime soon.

Speaking of Maggie, there's clearly a big story brewing for her. When can we expect some news on how the show plans to handle that story, given the situation surrounding Lauren Cohan right now?

I would imagine relatively soon. We're talking: dotting i's, crossing t's, that sort of thing. But no real news on it just yet.

Have you envisioned ways for the story you want to tell with Maggie being told over a limited number of episodes, if Lauren can't return as a series regular? Is her story possible to wrap up in three episodes, for example?

Like I said, we're still talking about certain aspects of it. But we know what we're doing, given the parameters under which we're operating. There's a wide possibility of parameters. 

Could The Walking Dead ever recast Maggie? 

Oh, lord. Lauren Cohan is Maggie. We're talking about this stuff now. That isn't something we're discussing. We're figuring it out. That isn't really on the table.

Shifting to your new role overseeing the franchise, you're going to be carving a path forward for new iterations of Walking Dead. How closely are you working with Kirkman on the spinoffs? Does he ultimately have to sign off?

I've been in this role for a while now. This role started when I started working on Fear the Walking Dead, which was deep into last year. I've been doing this for a while now. I talk to Robert all the time about stuff. Right now, getting Fear and Walking Dead going — working on the back-half of the Fear season and with season nine of The Walking Dead starting up — I worked with Angela a great deal in December and January, and now it's a regular thing. It's taking up a lot of time as I shift into new stuff. 

You have mentioned that the Walking Dead and Fear crossover was a twinkle in the eye for many years before it became a reality. Does that mean the next crossover is already in mind, whether or not you feel ready to share the specific details? The question is more, how far down the road are you thinking when it comes to your new role? Do you already have an inkling for how these shows, and a potential third or fourth or fifth show, could intersect at a future point?

The No. 1 priority isn't how these shows and the stuff we do intersects. The No. 1 thing, in my mind, is about how it compliments, and how distinct they are. How do they hit different stories and feature different situations? There's a great deal of variety between the shows in whatever we do. They should all live in the same universe, but they should also very much be their own thing. A twinkle is but a notion: "Maybe we can do this, maybe we can do that, maybe this will work this way or that way." Those sort of things are definitely buzzing in the brain. But the entirety of it isn't crossover-driven. The possibilities of that are intriguing, but it's really about telling different stories in the same universe, featuring different corners and voices and people and formats. That's the drive: telling every different story in the Walking Dead universe that we can. 

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