Season four of AMC’s The Walking Dead was far and away the best the zombie drama has ever been, especially the final eight episodes. Between that momentum, and the grim, intense trailer for season five that debuted at San Diego Comic-Con over the weekend, it’s a good time to be a fan. Last season ended on a cliffhanger, and we’ve been promised time and again that the new episodes will “hit the ground running.” Now thanks to showrunner Scott Gimple, director/producer/special effects guru Greg Nicotero, and some of the cast, we have a better idea of what that “running” will look like, and it is going to be rough.
We weren’t able to be at Comic-Con, but our big sister Cinema Blend was all over that mess, and they had a chance to sit down with Gimple, Nicotero, and others to chat about the upcoming season. According to their talk, the first six minutes of the premiere episode is going to be totally bonkers. Star Andrew Lincoln, who plays Rick Grimes, the leader of a rag tag group of survivors trying to navigate a zombie apocalypse, says the cast and crew were all shocked by what goes down. He says, “All of us were just dumbstruck and said, ‘We’re not going to be able to show this. We’re not going to be able to show this.’…We are showing it.”
This could mean any number of things. Security has been tight on the Georgia-based set, but there have been whispers of a major character death coming early, perhaps very early. Season four ended at a place called Terminus, where there are hints of cannibalism going on (also, near this point in the Robert Kirkman-scripted comics, they encounter a group of cannibals, and this could be a reworking of that arc), which could figure into the story. Eating people is rather shocking after all. Whatever goes down, it sounds like it’s going to be brutal and a stunner. Gimple even admits that he’s a little uneasy knowing that families are going to be sitting down together to watch this moment unfold. If he’s not entirely comfortable knowing what he helped create, they must be doing something right.
There obviously aren’t any details on the opening, but don’t feel bad, it doesn’t like the actors even knew exactly what was going on when they were filming it. Gimple pitched the idea to Nicotero, and the two laid it out, shooting it in such a way as to keep the an air of mystery over the proceedings. Nicotero says, “I remember when we were filming it, the other actors had no idea how I choreographed things…So when certain events occur during those first few minutes, everyone’s reaction was ‘Holy shit, did I just see what I think I just saw?’”
Nicotero has a long, illustrious career working in Hollywood special effects, and the secretive nature of this shoot was inspired by the infamous chest-burster scene in Ridley Scott’s classic Alien, where the actors were left in the dark in order to get more authentic, natural reactions. He says, “I kind of stole a little of that…Because I didn’t want these guys to know what was coming up, and it worked really well.”
If you’re like me, and hear talk about all this gore and violence, you may have concerns. I’m all for blood and guts and viscera, and The Walking Dead has certainly pushed the boundaries of what you can and can’t show on TV. But one of the issues I’ve had with the show over the years is that the focus is more on the gore than the characters and story, like they care more about showing an arm get ripped off than with developing the characters. Violence is so much more effective if you have an emotional investment in the people it’s happening to.
Talking about this, Nicotero and Gimple assure fans that all of this is all in service of the story; that we’re not just talking about gore for the sake of gore, that there is more to it than that. Gimple goes on to talk about the positivity of the show, saying he thinks it is “One of the most humanistic shows on television. A show that is about people trying to stay together, trying to not just stay alive but keep their humanity alive. There’s a lot of nihilism on TV. Like ‘nihilism is super cool,’ the antihero and everything. I grew up at a time when Megadeth and Metallica was like the music. I dig the music, but I kind of had my fill of nihilism when I was a kid.”
More than anything, what I appreciate about Gimple’s turn as showrunner—he took over between season three and four—is that he has introduced an element of hope into the series. Before there were times when The Walking Dead was so bogged down in the bleakness and desperation that it was just such a stone cold bummer it wasn’t enjoyable to watch. In the second half of season four, the characters grow and change and develop in a way that they hadn’t in the three and a half years prior. And yeah, they’re in dire straights, but there’s not the crushing, all consuming hopelessness that there has been in the past. Gimple and company really have introduced a humanity that the group was missing.
He says, “To see a couple be able to feel that faith and that love, and then in the next episode see a guy tear another guy’s neck out with his teeth out of just blind rage and survival to protect his children, that’s the whole of human experience. We’re not just saying it’s one way or another. Love definitely exists on The Walking Dead. It’s the thing that keeps them going. It’s also an incredibly dangerous thing.”
I’m all for zombies and violence, but it has to have a purpose and can’t be the main focus. Too many other movies and shows have done that, and The Walking Dead works best when the main concern is the people, the characters, and their stories. The undead threat is always there, looming, but in the background, coloring everything else, is where it does the most work. That’s when the show is strongest, and that’s what Gimple has done best in his time at the helm, find a strong balance between those two elements.
That doesn’t mean The Walking Dead isn’t going to get dark and grim when it returns for season five on Sunday, October 12. As Norman Reedus (Daryl) says, “You haven’t seen nothin’ yet.”