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Rick Grimes is gone — and now, The Walking Dead can truly begin again.
Six episodes into its creatively retooled ninth season (the first under the helm of showrunner Angela Kang, who has worked on the AMC drama since season two), and only one installment following star Andrew Lincoln’s heavily hyped exit, The Walking Dead has finally pulled off its mask and revealed its new post-Rick universe, in the appropriately titled episode, “Who Are You Now?”
The episode acts almost as a pilot for a new Walking Dead show featuring new and old characters alike — emphasis on “old,” or at least older, based on the six years of in-universe time that have elapsed since Rick Grimes’ presumed death. (In reality, Lincoln will continue the role in a trilogy of original films for AMC.) In his wake, Alexandria still stands, ruled by a council of elected officials including Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam), Aaron (Ross Marquand), Siddiq (Avi Nash) and Michonne (Danai Gurira). Michonne’s role is the only one specified, as she’s in charge of security, a job she takes very seriously as seen in the way she confronts Magna (Nadia Hilker), leader of the new group of survivors first introduced at the end of Rick’s swan song, “What Comes After.”
Within Alexandria, several other changes are afoot: Gabriel and Rosita (Christian Serratos) are now a pair, even as a newly courageous Eugene (Josh McDermitt) still harbors feelings for his old traveling companion; Michonne is not only parenting a 10-year-old Judith Grimes (Cailey Fleming), but also an approximately 5-year-old son in R.J. (Antony Azor), her child with the supposedly late Rick Grimes; and Judith has been building a secret friendship with Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), still imprisoned, now clocking in at roughly eight years inside his jail cell.
Outside of Alexandria, a litany of changes as well: the Hilltop’s current status is unknown (though it’s not likely to involve Maggie, as Lauren Cohan will not appear again in season nine), but the Kingdom is thriving under the leadership of married king and queen Ezekiel (Khary Payton) and Carol (Melissa McBride). In the episode, Carol takes her adopted son Henry (Matt Lintz, taking over the role from his younger brother, Macsen — and both related to Madison Lintz, who played Carl’s daughter Sophia) on a trip to the Hilltop where he can study to become a blacksmith (a storyline that originally belonged to the late Carl Grimes in the Walking Dead comic books), which leads to a fatal road encounter with the remnants of the Saviors. After wiping out Negan’s old disciples, Carol and Henry reconnect with Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), apparently living in exile, completely on his own save for his crossbow, some knives, a fishing spear, a tent and the occasional walker battle.
Finally, there’s the matter of two groups of newcomers: Magna and friends, all of whom are currently on their way to the Hilltop, as well as the deadly new enemies Eugene and Rosita encounter at the end of the episode. What’s the deal with those talking zombies? Let’s just say they aren’t exactly as they appear — or as they sound, more accurately.
Exiting his final episode, many Walking Dead fans wondered what the show would look like without Andrew Lincoln. The answer, as it turns out, is this: The Walking Dead looks older, wiser, and somehow fresher. Ahead, showrunner Angela Kang speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about the vast amount of changes that have occurred thanks to the time jump, what to expect next as the highly anticipated Whisperer arc begins and much more.
It’s a new beginning for The Walking Dead as we enter the post-Rick era. What were your main goals for this first full episode in the time-jumped version of the series, which we’re seeing largely through the eyes of Magna and her group?
It was like filming a new pilot. What was exciting for us was trying to delve into what a big time jump looks and feels like, and what that means for our characters. We wanted the sense that after all the events of the first five episodes of the season, there had been momentous shifts that happened with our characters and each community. There’s a sense that a lot of story has passed in between, which leaves people in a different place. There are so many great visual cues from the comic book that we wanted to pay homage to, and our production and VFX teams — as well as everyone working on special effects and make-up effects — all pulled together to create this brand new, fun look for the show. It’s a continuation of what we started, but amped up. We wanted to tell this story with this new group, Magna’s group, and explore what it means to have a group that’s been through a lot of similar stuff to our people, being consummate survivors. But they also have their own shorthand and way of doing things, and have a different vibe. We wanted to make sure we found moments of humor in this world as well, and we also wanted to make sure we showcased our new Judith.
How much time has passed since Rick blew up the bridge?
We’re saying it’s been six years. When Judith starts [season nine], she’s about four and a half years old. We loved the idea of jumping ahead to see her at 10 years old, much as Carl (Chandler Riggs) was at the start of the series as well as the books.
There are so many changes within and outside of Alexandria, it’s hard to track them all. We see Alexandria is run by committee; the Hilltop remains a mystery; Carol is now the reluctant queen of the Kingdom, married to Ezekiel; Daryl is alone outside of this world. How did you determine where to begin each of these stories in our first look at the time-jumped Walking Dead?
We talked a lot about the philosophies we have seen from these characters before, and the coping mechanisms we’ve seen them use in the past when going through trauma. How do you figure out what that’s going to become? For Alexandria, we see it’s ruled by a council of elected leaders. Michonne clearly has a big role in that. We felt like Alexandria was trying to create something like an American democracy, though it’s much more complicated than that, as we’ll see throughout the season. With Daryl, we’ve always known that he’s felt like a lone wolf, someone who is better off on his own. We thought it would be an interesting thing to see. If this man has been off on his own, what does that look like? What kind of impact has that had on people who care about him, such as Carol? We’ll learn a lot more about what’s going on at the Hilltop in the next episode. For Carol, as a person who was an abused housewife and has survived so much and grown so much and changed, she’s now someone who is looking for a spot of brightness and happiness in her life. The Kingdom is the most joyful community we have encountered thus far.
There’s even this new romance between Gabriel and Rosita…
That’s been fun for us, playing with Father Gabriel and showing this new side of him. He has come a long way, and so has Rosita. A lot of the conversations Christian and I had about Rosita centered on how she feels she needs to be with a man she feels challenged by, and someone she has respect for. We felt it was a really interesting pairing. We’re going to have a very interesting story with them moving forward as well.
What we’re really seeing here is characters who are in varying stages of wish fulfillment, or are retreating into themselves. They’re taking ideas they’ve had in different ways and sometimes going extreme with them. We wanted to push all of our characters into new situations so that when we come in, we do get that sense that they’ve been through things. They’ve continued to change and grow. That’s really fun to work with on the writers’ side, and also it’s produced some great conversations with the actors about their thoughts on these characters and some of the stuff they’re excited to try playing.
Throughout the episode, we see Michonne still speaks with Rick, if only the memory of him. Who is she now, all these years after his loss?
The Michonne of the new world is confident in who she is. She’s extremely focused on safety and security. She’s figured out a way to close off her heart in some ways to avoid hurt. It’s not that she doesn’t care about people. It’s just what she’s decided needs to be done in order to protect her children and her community. She’s a very different person than we saw at the start of the season.
And that’s children, plural! Not only Judith, but also her new son, “R.J.” Sounds like her plan with Rick worked!
It did! (Laughs.) We talked at the beginning of the season about what happens after war. One of the things you often see is baby booms. It’s a sign of hopefulness. We wanted to show that Rick and Michonne were committed to each other, fully. They hadn’t gotten married the way others had; there was no proposal, no ring. And yet, they’re the couple who are completely committed to each other. It seemed like a sign of their commitment, and their optimism for the future. They believed they could bring a new child into this world and they could make the world better for that child. It’s very different from when Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) was pregnant at a very different time in the apocalypse. Back then, they were worried that the baby wouldn’t even survive. It made sense, because it was all so fresh and new. If their baby cries, what happens to her, or to us? Michonne and Rick lived in a very different time, and we wanted to show that. We were very excited to do our [casting] search for our sweet little R.J. I think Antony, who plays the role, is absolutely adorable. Danai loves him. It was a fun process for us, imagining what a world with more children would look like, but also the tragedy that Rick never got to meet this child they were so excited about.
Given that this is our first full episode with 10-year-old Judith, what did you feel you needed to set up about the character?
This is really our first apocalypse-native child whose story we’re telling on the show. She carries none of the baggage that Carl carried, because he remembered life before all of this. She’s been raised in this world. What I think is so great about Cailey is she’s a real spitfire. She’s spunky. She’s fun. She’s hilarious. When I met her at her audition, and we had called her back as one of the final candidates, I couldn’t stop saying, “She’s hysterical.” She really has a wisdom beyond her years, and she’s so kind. That’s what we were looking for with this character: a child who, in spite of the fact she grew up in these horrible circumstances that’s already so scary and traumatic for the adults, she has an optimism just in the way she approaches the world. Part of that may be genetics. Part of that is she’s been raised with love, surrounded by a community of people who are invested in her and raised by Michonne, who has taught her how to be tough. Even when we were doing episode three [of season nine], when we see the “family fun day,” eagle-eyed viewers will have noticed that all of the games [Rick, Michonne and Judith] played are all survival-based. (Laughs.) There’s some sword-fighting, there’s a crawling race, she’s playing hide-and-seek … all games that would help a child grow up in the apocalypse in the long run. It’s been really fun for us to work with Cailey, who is absolutely fantastic. I’m really excited for the audience to see more stuff with her.
One of the great Judith scenes of the episode involves Negan, who’s still behind bars, but also helping her out with some math word problems — in his very Negan way, mind you. He was already imprisoned for a year and a half when we last saw him in “What Comes After,” and now, six years have passed since then. With eight years of imprisonment under his belt, do you feel you’re at a point where you can realistically begin a Negan redemption arc?
We’re really interested in telling a very different story for Negan, since we’re dealing with a different kind of passage of time than we saw in the comics. We thought hard about how prison might affect this character, and the confinement that he’s had, and the limited access he’s had to the community and the world beyond. It’s a big part of his story, going forward: exploring Negan and where he’s at in his journey in things, and the kinds of complex relationships he has with the various people in Alexandria — including this sort of secret relationship he has with Judith. We all internally [in the writers’ room] love the relationship between Negan and Carl in the comic book. This gave us an opportunity to tell a very different sort of story, because Judith is a different kind of child than Carl. It’s really fun to put those two together. They get to have some very interesting scenes together this season.
The episode ends with Eugene and Rosita hiding from walkers — including some walkers who can apparently speak. Exciting stuff for comic book fans, certainly very perplexing material for show-only viewers. How much are you willing to share about the episode’s closing twist, and what to expect next?
This is part of the mystery of the story of the Whisperers that we’re starting this season. What I’ll say is there are some twists and turns to this story, but there will be some answers by the time we get to the midseason finale. It opens up a Pandora’s box of other things. Hang on: it’s a really cool ride. This is one of my absolute favorite moments from the comic book. These issues were coming up while we were working on a prior season of the show. As we were reading the issue in the office, everybody was like, “Oh my god. What just happened? What is Robert Kirkman even doing here? What could possibly be next?” The answers were so satisfying and fascinating to us. I hope the audience gets to experience it the way readers experienced reading it.
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