What do the zombie apocalypse survivors of The Walking Dead have in common with Jack Bauer? Like that erstwhile CTU agent, they’re running low on time.
The iconic AMC horror franchise is staring down the barrel of its final 24-episode season, to bring that number back again — although six bonus episodes remain in season 10 before the final countdown gets underway. In “A Certain Doom,” the episode originally intended to be the season 10 finale but now serving as a breakpoint before an additional six episodes in 2021, the intrepid quartet of Eugene (Josh McDermitt), Ezekiel (Khary Payton), Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura) and Princess (Paola Lazaro) close out the hour surrounded by soldiers in white suits with red trim and sophisticated weaponry — soldiers who are torn straight from the pages of Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s comic books of the same name.
As Doctor Strange would say: “We’re in the endgame now.” These soldiers mark the introduction of the Commonwealth, the most advanced civilization in the Walking Dead universe yet, and the setting for the final arc from Kirkman and Adlard’s comic series. According to showrunner Angela Kang, the Commonwealth’s introduction was always on the menu for the season 10 ending — “ending,” rather.
“Just referencing 24, we always like those big twists at the end of an episode and end of the season,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It was something that we really had a lot of fun bringing to life and Greg Nicotero’s his team at KNB helped manufacture those costumes and everything. We’d been thinking about the story leading there for a long time. Obviously it’s sort of a sign of things to come in the future. We’ll get deeper into that story. Although, there’ll be some turns in it that are unique to the [television] series as there always are, but we’re having a good time planning that out and talking about it because there are a lot of really interesting themes in the story to come about class and about what is the makeup of a society? We’re having a good time diving into it.”
Indeed, expect some major changes from the comic books and the show’s version of events as Walking Dead moves into its final arc. In the comics, the Commonwealth stands as the final battleground for The Walking Dead, although it’s more of a metaphoric minefield than a literal one. (For what it’s worth, the literal minefield is in the rearview now, back in Princess’ debut episode.) The survivors led by Rick Grimes have trouble fitting in with the Commonwealth’s old world class system, leading to a battle for the soul of the future. It’s a battle Rick ultimately wins, but at the expense of his own life. Considering Andrew Lincoln’s season nine exit from The Walking Dead and future with the franchise leading a series of films (the fate of which feels uncertain in light of the global pandemic’s impact on theaters), Kang’s The Walking Dead writers room will absolutely have to swerve from the comic book’s specific blueprints.
Before that happens, however, there’s a more pressing matter on the table: the six additional season 10 episodes, set to air in 2021. Should these be viewed as their own form of bridge story between seasons 10 and 11, or as a continuation of season 10’s themes? According to Kang, it’s both.
“It’s being treated as an extension of season 10, however, it came about because of the pandemic and we had already started writing season 11 proper,” says Kang. “There’s just no way we could have shot the premiere that we were planning during this time. And people felt we can get back to work safely, but just not doing that [episode] right now. There’s 300 zombie extras and people crammed in spaces. And so rather than just not do anything at all, the studio asked us, ‘Hey, can we do some episodes that pick up off of the end of season 10 and kind of continue the story and lead right into season 11?’ In a way, creatively, it’s a way to bridge, but it kind of came about because of the needs of the pandemic, and it’s given us this great opportunity to dive into characters and do some experiments with the storytelling out of the box that we were in, in terms of production limitations and the parameters of what we had to do. I hope that these episodes end up being really satisfying stories for the fans, because I think you get to really dive into some of these characters in fun ways.”
With these six episodes on the table, there are 30 episodes total before The Walking Dead signs off for good. Even then, “for good” is relative, both for the franchise and for Kang; she’s on board to showrun a spinoff series about Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) and Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride). Still, it’s new ground for the television version of the franchise, as Kang and her team must now rise to the same challenge facing Kirkman and Adlard in 2019: how to end one of the most popular stories on the planet.
“It’s 30 episodes, which is a blessing because we have some runway and we know in advance that we’re building towards this end,” says Kang. “It’s definitely something that we’re all kind of keeping an eye on, but it’s relatively new news for all of us. And so we’re just in the process of shifting it. But in some ways we were always trying to design the stories with high stakes and with a sense of drive and purpose and we do our best for that. If we actually achieve it, that’s up to the viewers to judge for themselves. But in some ways there’s an element of we have to take it block by block because thinking of a chunk of 30 episodes … it’s just very difficult to structure a story that way. So we’re always keeping an eye on, ‘Okay, here’s where we think we need to land some people, but what’s the arc within that arc?’ And then we subdivide. It’s absolutely something that’s on all our minds, that we’re driving towards an ending. But we’re also simultaneously trying to look at a block of six, a block of eight, et cetera.”
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