The Walking Dead showrunner answers season finale burning questions

SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s season 9 finale of The Walking Dead.

Those that survived last week’s stealth ambush of the multi-community fair that left 10 zombified heads on pikes had to survive a winter blizzard on Sunday’s season finale of The Walking Dead. We saw King Ezekiel lead his followers out of a now-decrepit Kingdom for good — having to cross through Whisperers territory to reach the Hilltop. We also saw the Alexandria contingent struggling against snow and wind to get to safety, which included Negan rescuing Judith and Dog.

How did the show stage these epic snowstorms? We asked showrunner Angela Kang how they pulled it off. And that’s not all we asked her. What about that mystery voice on the radio at the end of the episode? Why did they choose to say goodbye to the Kingdom? What are we to make of Carol breaking up with Ezekiel and what the future holds for those two? And what’s Alpha having Beta whip her arm all about? We inquired on all those topics. Plus: Kang also shares a tribute to comic-book Carol’s death that some fans may have missed. Read on for all the intel as the showrunner answers our season finale burning questions. (Also be sure to check out our interview with finale director Greg Nicotero, who reveals some hidden Easter eggs and homages.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You finally did it and brought winter to the show. Walk us through how you were able to pull this blizzard off, and the biggest hurdles you faced in doing so?
ANGELA KANG: There were definitely a lot of logistical hurdles. The interesting thing about filming in Georgia is it does get really cold at the end of our year, but it doesn’t snow very much. And the type of snow that Georgia gets, it tends to be very light. It melts off right away and the environment doesn’t look quite the same as a place where it fully snows at the time of year we’re filming. The thing that gave me hope was that when I’m usually out there in November, everybody’s freezing their ass off. You see breath in the air. They all want giant jackets, so at the very least we could fake a certain amount of coldness outside pretty easily.

And then, beyond that, I was like okay, I think a lot of it has to be done on stage. And I thought back to other movies and TV shows that I know have done snow on stage, and I’m like, it’s possible. It’s just not easy. So and we got this snow company that does a ton of the snow in various movies and TV shows. They’re working on NOSA4A2 for AMC. I think they might have done Band of Brothers. They work on Star Wars stuff. So they are experts in making non-snowy environments and sets look like they’re snowed over.

And they use a variety of techniques. So every time you see snow in the episode, it might be a different kind of material. They use a particular type of material to have the really soft snowfall. They use something else for when you’ve got the blizzard conditions. They’re using a mix of things to have the stuff that people are walking through. The ice is with paraffin wax, which is amazing. So when they’re crossing the frozen river, all of that’s covered with wax. And then beyond that, there are the hurdles of the trees are not the right color for that time of year, so that was all VFX had to go in after the fact and color and de-saturate trees or put snow on the trees and things like that, so the images you’re seeing don’t break the illusion for you.

What was the actual weather for you all as you were filming this in Georgia in November?
The hilarious thing is, we had like the warmest November we’ve had in the entire time I’ve been on the show. So the actors are bundled up and they’re like, “We’re hot, we’re hot.” And I’m like, this is literally the only time this has ever happened. But our production design team built this amazing stage set on Pinewood Studios stage, so when we’re in the blizzard in Alexandria, and when we’re doing that kind of crossing through Whisperers’ territory at night, all of that’s on a stage. It’s all part of pieces of the same set. We faked Alexandria on a stage that was nowhere near Alexandria. So it’s just a testament to everybody’s really amazing hard work.

Do you have a favorite snow scene or stunt or moment?
As Matt Negrete and I were writing the script, he was like, “Wouldn’t it be fun to kill a zombie with an icicle?” I’m really happy that we were able to do that gag, and [director Greg Nicotero] did a great job making up that zombie and filming that moment. And the VFX team obviously came in and put the icicle in and all of that. I just loved seeing all of the frozen zombies, and I love it when Lydia comes upon that frozen walker in the lake.

The interesting thing that comic book fans may or may not pick up on, is we’re actually doing an homage to Carol’s death in the comic book. She basically commits suicide by zombie, and we have Carol from the show — who’s well outlasted Carol from comic books — she’s watching this moment play out between Lydia and the zombie. And I just think that the production design of that scene, the way that Greg directed it, the way the zombie looks, all of that was very evocative. And then of course, Cassady who plays Lydia, and Melissa, they’re so wonderful and emotional. There’s so much rawness that they bring to their performance that I think it ended up being this really special scene that I really love.

The Kingdom is no more, fallen into disrepair and rot. What made you want to shut down this pivotal location?
I thought that it was interesting to do a twist that doesn’t exist in the books, and I think in some ways we wanted to have what was happening physically at the Kingdom, as well as on a very personal level with Ezekiel and Carol, all kind of mirror each other. I also really love having scenes with our characters together and having them be on adventures together. Having them so spread out in order to play the difficulty of getting from one place to the other, the people end up getting stuck in their communities, and so I thought, well here’s an interesting obstacle to play.

An entire community shuts down at a time when there’s a certain lack of resources because of the state of the world, and also here is this new enemy that is saying, “All of this land is mine. Who cares if that’s your hunting land or your way to travel to each other? Who cares? This is all mine.” I thought it created these really interesting obstacles for the final episode. But going forward, I think having them unified but also dealing with what happens when basically an entire community is now refugees to your community and the strain that that can put on you, but also the help that you get from that, it just seemed like there was some really interesting areas for us to play with.

We see later in the episode Negan putting himself at big risk to save Judith and giving her his coat and carrying her to safety, but what I found even more interesting was the scene earlier where he’s really needling Gabriel and company in the house about the Rosita and Siddiq situation. And what I liked about that is we’ve seen this new kinder, gentler Negan, but you put that scene in there to show that this guy does indeed still have rough edges, right? He’s certainly not a saint.
No, he’s not a saint. Here’s something that I’ve been saying internally all along, and it’s something that Jeffrey and I have talked about. We’re playing this arc for Negan because so much time has passed. How can he be exactly the same person that he was at the end of All-Out War? He’s trying to become a part of this community now. So what does that mean? But Negan is Negan. The fun of Negan is that he has elements of him that are a little unpredictable. He’s a little raw, he’s a little inappropriate, he definitely has an edge. To me, you can’t strip away those things that are the defining characteristics of him, because otherwise what you’re really doing is creating a new character.

For me, Negan always will have an edge. There are times where he’s suppressing the worst thoughts that he has in his head, ’cause I do think that that’s a part of him. He knows how to put on a show. He’s a showman, right? But that doesn’t mean that the person that he was for however many years before the apocalypse started just disappeared. I think that that’s a really important thing for the audience and for us as writers to keep in mind going forward. This is a person who has a really dangerous streak and kind of an a–hole streak. He can also be really darkly funny. That’s the core of who he is, and he’s never really gonna lose that. He can’t. That’s what makes him Negan.

But we still have the leeway to play different kinds of stories for him and show the moments where there are more redeemable aspects of him, because I think that’s always been important to us on the show. Nobody is arch. You have to understand who they are as people. There are definitely people who are more indiscriminately brutal. But Negan is complicated: there’s the dangerous Negan, the jerk Negan, the really smart and strategic Negan. All of that is part of who he is.

Carol tells Ezekiel at the end she’s going to Alexandria with Daryl and the others and tries to give him his ring back. Why does Carol break up with the King?
We came at it from a perspective of Carol has had these chapters in her life. In a lot of ways, when Sophia died, that catapulted her into another chapter of her life. She had to question this abusive relationship she had, her feelings of inadequacy, her feelings of weakness. And she eventually became the badass, you can’t mess with me Carol that we know and love. But that all came at a cost. Having to kill and kill and kill and kill, it really took a toll on her.

So she got to live out the fairytale chapter of her life. When we knew that Alpha would strike against Henry, we really talked about that in real life, it’s very common for couples that lose a child to break up. The grief can be overwhelming. It can reveal cracks in a relationship that maybe were there all along, or can create new cracks. So we wanted to play the emotional truth of that and the fact that, for Carol, part of that fairytale of being at the Kingdom, it was a package deal. It was Ezekiel. It was Henry. It was the place. It was all the people. And so when all of that falls apart, what she refers to as the thing that is always the thing that she kind of wants to revert to, which is, I just want to run away from it —  it becomes a big part of her story going forward.

There’s definitely a lot of fertile ground for Ezekiel, because the interesting thing with our show is we rarely kill a person the same way on the show that Kirkman did in the comic. Glenn is a notable exception. We definitely have a story that I’m really excited about telling for Ezekiel in season 10. I’ve talked to Khary about it. It opens a door to do something that’s different and really hopefully interesting for people to see with Ezekiel in the next chapter of dealing with the breakup of his home and his family and the loss of his child. Hopefully good character stuff can come out of it all.

What’s up with this scene at the end of Alpha making a switch and then giving it Beta to whip her arm?
We wanted to tell sort of an unexpected story for the Whisperers, which is, we generally know what happens with our characters when there’s a big loss from an opposing force. They gear up and go to war. But the Whisperers don’t exactly have a home address. You can’t go knock on their door with a bunch of machine guns. That’s not their deal. So they’re nomadic. When we start talking about, what’s the reality, what do these guys do during winter? They don’t live in standing structures. They probably migrate South for the winter like birds. But then what does that mean and how are they going about unseen when they’ve got this giant herd?

That’s actually something that plays into the story going forward. The thing with the Whisperers that really is interesting for us is — because their entire philosophy of life, the way that they go about the world and navigate the world, would be herds — it changes the way that a conflict with them versus any other group they come across, has to play out. We definitely wanted to introduce that idea in the winter episode, which is: We’re afraid they’re gonna catch us, turns out they’re not even there. What does that mean for us going forward?

And also you see that Alpha has this very particular trust with her lieutenant Beta, who’s definitely physically stronger than her. She, in some ways, her screwed up way of thinking, it’s what is clearly abuse with her daughter Lydia. The strange thing is, though, in her mind, the switching, all of that, that actually is a thing that’s okay, you’ve got to toughen up. So it tells you a little bit of something if she feels like she needs to toughen up even further in order to face whatever is next. Because we just saw somebody who cut off the heads of ten people. Alpha’s a little terrifying, because she’s probably the most openly brutal of the various villains we’ve had on the show.

How does that make her different from Negan?
If anything brought Negan down, it’s that he was willing to give people too many chances in some ways. He was so seduced by people who are strong and badass and whatever, he was always trying to turn them to his side. And it would fail. So we’re excited to have these stories that are very complex and strange and interesting for the Whisperers going forward. Obviously we also get into a mysterious radio voice, so whenever we have those sorts of things, expect the unexpected. There will be an interesting turn that goes with that.

Alright, you brought up the radio voice. You knew I was going to ask you about that. It’s the last shot. We hear someone on that Hilltop radio breaking in and out? What do you want to say about that voice?
It’s looking ahead like the post-credits thing for a Marvel movie or something. But it’s definitely something that I’m sure people will speculate about. We welcome that speculation. It’s a story that we will tell in season 10, and like I said, the world of The Walking Dead, it keeps opening up, so who’s out there? What do they want? How will they interact? Whatever it is, it is something that will turn the story in hopefully a satisfying and interesting way.

You know I’m going ask you if this is someone from the Commonwealth, which is a community we meet later in the comic books.? So how do you want to answer that one, Angela?
[Laughs] I think I’m gonna answer that one and say people are free to speculate.

You all are going start filming season 10 in about a month. What can you tell us about where things are going to pick up and what we can expect as you continue the story moving forward?
Things are going to pick up with a little bit more of a time passage, not a giant one like we’ve had, but winter will be over and people will be going to be in a different emotional space. I’m working on the premiere, and we’re gonna, I don’t know… I’m crazy. I was like, “Let’s just do snow” which is actually impossible to do. So so there’s other stuff in [the season 10 premiere] where I’m like, I must be psychotic, because let’s just do more stuff we’ve never done on this show that feels impossible. That’s part of the fun of the show.

Obviously, there are some problems to be worked out with the Whisperers, these crazy neighbors that come in and out and cause chaos in their world. That’s something to play out, and obviously there will be other storylines that are kind of intersecting with all of this. It’s always fun to have more than one thing going on at once. We’ll find out how this radio voice, what they have to do with our people and their world. We’re having fun working on the pieces of this season, so hopefully it will go well. I’m knocking on a lot of wood.

Also check out Walking Dead director Greg Nicotero revealing hidden Easter eggs and homages in the finale. And for more TWD scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

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