Warning: Don’t open, spoilers inside. Stop here if you haven’t yet watched “The Walking Dead” series finale, which aired Sunday night on AMC.
“The Walking Dead” ended its 11-season and 177-episode AMC run on Sunday night with a hopeful note, as the Commonwealth had entered a period of peace and the show’s stars prepared to go their own ways. But it also closed with a glimpse at what series favorites Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) — who haven’t been seen in a few years — have been up to.
That surprise scene, which sets up the upcoming “The Walking Dead” spinoff starring Lincoln and Gurira, was filmed under complete secrecy on the program’s Georgia studio lot this past summer, after the rest of the show had already wrapped.
“We did a secret shoot, and my whole thing was, can we please keep this one secret from the audience?” executive producer Angela Kang says. “Because things were leaking left and right. We had to hide this. So, we filmed it when nobody was expecting.”
The series ender, “Rest in Peace,” serves as closure while also preparing fans for the multitude of spin-offs (including one featuring Rick and Michonne) that are coming. But just as the Rick and Michonne scene almost didn’t happen, some of the tie-ups might have also looked a bit different, Kang and executive producer Scott Gimple tell Variety — including how Daryl (Norman Reedus) sped off into the sunset.
Variety spoke with Gimple and Kang, as well as stars Lauren Cohan and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, to answer some of the burning questions about the wrap up of “The Walking Dead” and what comes next.
“We’re the ones that live” — that chant, from the survivors (and particularly, the children) is how “The Walking Dead” concludes. It’s a hopeful note, with Ezekiel (Khary Payton) named governor of the Commonwealth and a sense of stability and calm in the air following one final showdown with governor Pamela Milton (Laila Robins).
“Commonwealth had such an example of doing it the wrong way,” Gimple says. “And we had people that were so hungry for an opportunity to do it the right way. I think that’s what enabled this story to have a happy-ish ending. That these characters had been through so much. And there was a point to it. The point was, they figured out to a degree how to live and that beyond staying fed, staying clothed and staying warm, that decency and fairness has to be part of the equation. Pamela’s system was rotten. They finally found a place where applying fairness and decency to a population that was very hungry for it, could create a sustainable situation.”
The finale, directed by Greg Nicotero and written by Corey Reed and Jim Barnes, is meant to evoke a feeling “like we’ve closed a chapter here,” Kang says.
“What really worked in our advantage is that from the source material itself, [‘The Walking Dead’ creator Robert] Kirkman’s vision of the comic is it closes a chapter and then another door opens. Because in some ways, it’s the zombie story that never ends. That sense of things are still happening in the background, and not everything has been fixed. But neither is it just sort of a nihilistic view of the world, where all these people try to survive for years and then fail. The intent is to close the chapter, but then, let people feel like there’s another turn to the story.”
Morgan, who plays Negan, jokes that he was disappointed that “we didn’t kill everything,” but then adds, “There was two ways to go. One we could have just wiped out everybody and given zero hope for this world and what was to come and the other was to give a little bit of hope. I think we had to end on with some levity and a nice little thing. Otherwise, nobody would have showed up for the last few days of filming!”
Says Cohan (who has played Maggie since the show’s second season): “I thought that it was just nourishing and honoring of the people and was honoring of the 11 years. I think we addressed the thing that has made the show so resonant for people. I felt really moved and really comforted and reminded of why it’s been such a good experience to do it.”
There’s a lot to unpack from the finale. Here are more things we learned about how “The Walking Dead” ends.
Rick’s and Michonne’s finale scene will make sense once you see their spinoff.
“Andy and Danai and I’ve been working on that story for so long, we knew it inside and out,” Gimple says. “And we were just choosing the right place within that story, to get to the thematics that we needed to conclude the Walking Dead. What is the point of their circumstances, that shows them needing the strength that they draw from each other. We weren’t vamping. People will learn all about everything they see there. All will be revealed. The story behind the armor that Michonne is wearing is important. What Rick is doing is critical to his story and what he hears from the helicopter. There’s a real world that we got to peek into that people will have to live in several months.”
Bringing back Rick and Michonne for the finale was a priority — but it wasn’t easy.
“As we were preparing a pitch for what the season could be, I had all the AMC execs and our producers in the room, and I was like, ‘listen, in my opinion, the show’s not complete without bringing back Rick and Michonne,’” Kang says. “Because we know they’re out there. And I had an ideal story version of what I’d like to happen.”
This was back in 2020, when the original plan was to produce a series of Rick Grimes movies. (The plan shifted to a limited series with Lincoln and Gurira later.) “For a while, it didn’t look like it was going to be able to happen,” she says. “It took a lot of conversations, a lot of shifting circumstances and conversations with both Andy and Danai that Scott and I had.”
Andrew Lincoln had a main request for his return: That the finale of “The Walking Dead” didn’t end on Rick.
“For Andy and Danai it was important to them what this appearance was going to be and that it wouldn’t overshadow anything that was happening in the main story,” Kang says. “Andy was really clear, he did not want to be the last thing that the show ended on. He felt like that was not correct, because he had left. There were a lot of people working on it for a long time with different angles with good intentions and good faith.”
For the Rick and Michonne scene, Gimple handled the writing duties.
“We were really excited when it came together,” Kang says. “Scott was gracious enough to write that section of it. I would have been happy to write it. But he was already working with Andy and Danai at that point to try to figure out the spin off. And I was like, ‘Do you want to just write it and then we can make sure that you get what you need out of it for the next show?’ He worked very closely with the actors. I worked a lot with him. I haven’t had this level of direct collaboration with Scott since he was running the show. He and I are always talking about the show, but we actually got to work on something really closely together, which was fun. And that’s how it came together. Both (Lincoln and Gurira) were there at the same time. But their pieces are so separate since they’re not in the same space. But they were there on the same days and everything.”
Gimple says he wanted to make sure the Rick and Michonne scene didn’t overshadow the plan on how they wanted to tie up “The Walking Dead.”
“There were ways that we played around with showing less, showing more,” he says. “I think we found the right cocktail of being legit about, OK, this is where these people are. We’re not making a trailer for the new show. But if we’re going to include them, we got to be legit about where they are. That will create a lot of questions. But we’re hoping that with what they’re saying and the relationship of what each other is saying, that audiences, their emotional reaction of the thematics coming together complete with those peeks into this new world.”
Negan and Maggie seem to have a new, peaceful understanding. But that won’t last, as we will see in their spinoff, “Dead City.”
“’Détente’ is kind of a good word for it,” Gimple says of the truce between the two, after Negan apologies for brutally killing Glenn, the love of Maggie’s life. “It’s not completely settled with a bow. In fact, there’s an invocation that it will never be settled.”
Adds Kang: “They’ve kind of gotten to a place where they’ve said all the right things to try to patch things up. But it’s not resolved. Because I think for Maggie, she just can’t bring herself to forgive him. It’s a big ask. And I think for Negan, the true growth that he has shown is that it’s not just that he tries to do things to help her. He had to own up to his own actions, say the words and also accept that she’s not ready. And when he walks away as the rest of the group is in the house, that’s him kind of recognizing, ‘I should be with my wife right now. And I’m not going to cause her more pain.’ Negan had the furthest to go. And I think that it leaves them in an interesting place, because their relationship could tip in any direction. It’s volatile, you know?”
“Dead City,” which features Negan and Maggie in Manhattan, will take place a few years after the end of “The Walking Dead.”
“’The Walking Dead,’ the original that we’re talking about here, I thought it ended maybe with a lot more hope than what the new show starts with,” Morgan says. “As far as the two of them. I thought there was like a little understanding there with Maggie and Negan there at the end. And then the way that new show starts, it’s maybe not so much as Negan had hoped for… The new show doesn’t start immediately following what we see happen on Sunday night. A couple of years have passed and when you catch up back to these two characters and yeah, it’s probably not as hopeful as maybe what Negan had hoped when they’re sitting around the campfire, there together.”
Has Negan truly changed? “I like to think that he is a better man, because of all of it and sees the error in his ways,” Morgan says. “That being said, I don’t know that Negan will ever completely change his stripes. I think in this world, he has found a way to survive. And though he has tried hard to be part of this group of ours, left to his own devices, I wonder how easily it will be to slip into some old habits.”
Cohan also notes that this Negan/Maggie peace we see in the finale does not hold over to the new show — even though they’re clearly in whatever this new setup is together. “The thing she tries to do in the finale doesn’t work,” Cohan says. “She’s mad at him all over again. Yeah, Negan does remain what Maggie sees as the main source of her [grief]. ‘This thing is insurmountable, this hope I have seems impossible, but I’m gonna put on a brave face and I’m deciding this is how I’m gonna feel.’ Things don’t really maybe work out if I’m not going to give any spoilers, but she’s thrown back into sort of a less than ideal situation and it does seem to be a pattern. You can try and things inevitably don’t work out too easily.”
“Dead City” will indeed give “The Walking Dead” more of a sense of where things wind up in the post-apocalyptic big cities. “We’ve done the woods,” Morgan says. “So being in an urban setting and seeing how the survivors have survived and what they’ve turned into. Not to mention the zombie of it all.”
Daryl and Carol were originally set to head out together — until Melissa McBride bowed out of the show, set to be filmed in Europe.
“This is something that changed a little bit towards the end because of shifts that happened with the spin off,” Kang says. “Originally those who were going to ride off together on the motorcycle. But when we got to the version where we have to split them, what felt like it needed to be is that it is exactly what it is in real life, which is that there is a temporary split between these two. And then a lot of circumstances are going to take over in the spin off. But they don’t think that this is a goodbye forever. Because it’s not, they’re always going to find a way back to each other. Norman and Melissa had some specific asks that they had for what they wanted their final big scene to feel like. I had drafted a different version of it before. And they were like, well, we’d love it to feel a little more like this. And so I did a rewrite on it. And I think that they really brought a lot of just really real beautiful emotion to what they did.”
That “I love you” exchange between Daryl and Carol was inspired by the real-life bond among the cast and crew behind “The Walking Dead.”
“It was important to all of us that they express to each other, ‘I love you,’” Kang says. “This is a cast and a show family where we all tell each other ‘I love you’ all the time, behind the scenes. Norman and Melissa will say ‘I love you,’ like we say ‘I love you’ to each other. That’s just what ‘The Walking Dead’ family is like. And I think because this show is so much about those found families, it felt like that was a really important moment that not just between them, but about the whole thing. It’s about how these two people, who are complete strangers, have come to a point where they mean so much to each other, and they would do anything for each other.”
Christian Serratos, who plays Rosita, made a special request that her character die in the finale.
One of the more emotional moments is when Rosita, a character first introduced in Season 4, dies after saving her baby. “She felt that the end of her story should be that she sacrifices herself or dies in the pursuit of trying to save her child and the next generation,” Kang says. “We try to take those sort of things into account, if actors come to us and go, ‘I think it’s important that the end of my story feels like this’ and that’s kind of the collaborative part of what we do. We gave that a lot of thought and talked about it with various people who get to approve or not approve certain decisions. I think Christian did an amazing job in the episode. I cried the whole time, as she was doing her scenes. It was really cool to see just the friendship that Christian and Josh [McDermitt, who plays Eugene] have in real life. It wound up working really beautifully.”
Jeffrey Dean Morgan says he’d love to see a reunion show of sorts one day, as the characters heading off to the various spin-offs perhaps get back together.
“I wouldn’t hate that idea,” he says. “All sorts of ideas are be bantered about. But I don’t know. That’s above my paygrade. But I think it would be cool. I don’t know what all the timelines are. It seems to me matching up timelines seems to be a bigger problem than anything else in this universe. Whether it’s ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ or us, everybody’s timeline doesn’t always match up. I mean, you know, everybody could die. I could die in this spinoff!”
Meanwhile, the “memory lane” look back at characters and actors who have left “The Walking Dead” over the 11 years was also a tribute to the show’s constant evolution.
“I think that the story that we’ve always been telling is one that is reaching for hope,” Kang says. “Even when the show had its saddest moments, it was always about the people who are trying to pull themselves out of that and try to reach for something more and try to create a world that is going to work for their children. So, humanity doesn’t end with them.
“I’ve always felt this story is trying to tell you is that this found family is really powerful. And by bonding together over these years, there’s a lot that they can accomplish and the sacrifices that everybody has made from the past. So going back to this idea of these images from the past —all of those memories, all of those things they’ve learned, all the people they’ve lost. If you think about horror movies, they almost always end up on a note of hope. So that’s kind of what we’re going for.”
Adds Gimple: “Making the show, there really is just this continuum of the people who worked on it over the years. The relationships that were formed, the handing off of the show from one person to others, it turns into this thing. This one long line. And that’s what we decided to put up on the screen. That’s what we decided to put our final argument for ‘The Walking Dead.’”