The Walking Dead's third season was a supercharged frenzy of zombie dodging and killing, though some fans carped that because of all this action, not all the characters got their due. That changed the first half of this season in another of the show's course corrections: New showrunner Scott M. Gimple quickly made good on a promise to set up everyone with something substantial, from Tyreese (still looking to avenge his girlfriend’s murder) to Carol (training a grade-school army and killing sick inmates to protect the rest of the camp from their virus). In Sunday’s extra-bloody mid-season finale (stop here if you haven’t watched it yet), the Governor botched another prison takeover, but not before beheading the kindly Hershel, and sending Rick’s crew scurrying off in all different directions. On Monday afternoon, we checked in with Gimple to talk about the show’s continued transformation and why the season-three standout episode “Clear” (in which Rick, Carl, and Michonne find a paranoid Morgan's shelter, an episode Gimple wrote) is the model going forward. He also provided some insight as to why the Governor hung around as long as he did, and the challenges inherent in bringing characters into the spotlight right before they fall victim to a walker (or a lunatic).
Being able to (or not able to) come back from the awful things you’ve done was the big theme in these first eight episodes. Still, bringing back the Governor was a controversial choice. What made it interesting for you?
I believe in a lot of ways the choice was inspired by the comic. The Governor knocked on the prison’s door a few times there with different results. But as far as the story of the Governor this season, I just really wanted to dig into the character and who he was. I really wanted the mid-season finale to be the end of his story, to be the end of his struggle over who he was going to be. The decision of who he was going to be was made right there in front of the prison when Rick gave him a choice. I know there was a lot of talk about Rick being the only one with a choice — the Governor was given a choice between letting go of the monster he felt he needed to be to keep the people he loved safe, or embracing it.
Some of the write-ups about the episode said it felt repetitive, bringing him and Rick back to a head, even though the Governor’s motivation to take the prison was different this time.
It’s incredibly different. At the end of season three, the Governor was going there to kill everybody. You know, once an episode goes out, it becomes the audience’s. I can’t say if they’re right or wrong. But I’d say from my perspective, I believe the Governor didn’t want to kill anybody. In his best-case scenario, he shows up with a tank and Rick and company leave, including Hershel, including Michonne. They get on that bus and they all drive away. That’s a huge thing. The Governor could play it out in his head: Wow, they could come back and kill us. I should kill them all. No, no, I don’t want to. This is who I am. That’s a huge difference from who he was at the end of last season.
Had you been in charge of the show last season, do you think you would have killed him then?
I think there was more story to tell with the Governor. I think there was more definition as to who he was. So if you mean killing him in the finale, without anything different [in what led up to it], I don’t think I would have. I wanted to see more of him and frankly, I did quite like seeing how the events of that season changed him. They changed him more toward the person he was before he became the Governor. Those two episodes, it’s funny, I didn’t picture them being as polarizing as they were. I think a lot of people went nuts for them, loved them, but there were some people who didn’t. I really look upon them as a piece with the finale and the whole season.
I really liked “Indifference,” which felt a lot like “Clear,” in that it’s mostly a contained story where Rick and Carol go on a run together, she expounds on her new, whatever-it-takes survival philosophy, and Rick banishes her from the group. Carol had been a secondary character for a long time: When and why did you decide to bring her up into the spotlight?
In the beginning of the season, even before the writers came in, I was working on the structure of the season. It began with looking over each one of the characters and seeing what the story was for each one of them. The Carol story flowed very naturally from her evolution throughout the series. Even before this year, there’s been a big evolution for her. In my mind, it started with a little statement Rick made in the season premiere last year. He says to her, “You’ve become a good shot.” We saw that she had, and then I got to write her a little bit. In episode fifteen [“The Sorrowful Life”] especially, the scene with her and Merle [when she tells him to pick a side]. Just because all of the things that she had gone through, the way that she spoke to Merle as an equal, as someone also formidable, it seemed like her story this season should be a further evolution of what we did there. It seemed very natural that she would settle into the role that she did this season as a very determined protector of the prison, and especially the children of the prison. And though she wasn’t in the mid-season finale, we could feel her presence.
You mean when Lizzie shot Tara’s girlfriend in the face.
[Laughs] Yes. I like to say that scene, however sensational it is in the moment, was there to serve that Carol story. We’ll be addressing that in the future. It’s all part of a greater story. It’s important to know that that wasn’t just some big sensational moment.
It kind of seems like you’ve set it up so that we’re going to see more character-driven episodes like “Clear” and “Indifference” in the back half of the season, especially now that everyone’s splintered off into mini groups, so that you can focus on a few at a time.
I was planning to be much more oblique about all this stuff, but yes, the survivors are scattered at the end of this season, and that isn’t going to be remedied immediately, so you might just be very right. I love telling stories like that. Not only stories that really dig into the characters but also complete stories in a single episode that still serve a greater arc. That’s something that “Clear” did, and yeah, I wanna tell more stories like that, and you’re probably going to see more stories with that structure: a few characters, one story, a beginning, middle, and end.
Also, there are some unusual structures coming up, too. In episode ten [airing Febuary 16] — I know it’s a structure that must have been done on television before but I can’t remember off the top of my head when it’s been done, and I’m sure someone will immediately point out to me that some of my favorite shows have done it — but episode ten has a really cool structure that I’m really excited to put in front of people. This second half of the season in and of itself is so wildly different from the first eight in every way: in its environment, in its structure, in the roll call.
Carol, Hershel, and the Governor had the meatiest stories this season. Now Carol’s gone and Hershel and the Governor are dead. How do you prevent that from becoming the pattern of sending people off as you continue to develop the secondary characters?
I think that’s a great question, and it’s a tricky thing to fall into. Regardless of what happened in the mid-season finale, I would have loved to tell that Hershel story with the outbreak. With Carol, that was all part of the same story. She was on a track for that to happen. With Hershel, he didn’t necessarily have to die because of the events in “Internment,” but I want to say that we will be seeing all these characters play out their stories. It’d be great if people were like, “Oh no, they’re playing out this character’s story. They’re totally gonna die.” I won’t mind that. Hopefully, we can play against that by telling big meaty stories for all the characters. Hopefully, people will be worried about them all dying. But that is a pattern I don’t want to fall into. I am cognizant of it. It’s also a bit of a real estate issue with how many episodes we have. I hope after the next half of this season it will be a little less of an issue, because we are trying to serve all these characters and hopefully they will all feel served.
Will we continue to follow the Governor’s surrogate family, Lilly and Tara, or did we see the last of them alongside the end of his story?
Definitely don’t want to answer that. But maybe sorta!
Michael Cudlitz and Josh McDermitt have also been announced as new series regulars this season. For those unfamiliar with the comics, what can you say about how their characters, Abraham and Dr. Eugene Porter, fit in?
We get to know them a little bit. They affect the characters’ stories a great deal, but we’re not going to get into their stories in a deep way until next season.
The Walking Dead seems like a difficult show to pull off: You have to have the big action and zombie scenes, every now and then you have to kill someone off, you have to spin story after story of survival in ways that feel distinct and new. I’m curious if the latter ever feels limiting to you as a storyteller. Because every situation, sooner or later, will end badly. Everyone is ultimately screwed.
As a reader of the comic, I’m still excited to read it every month. Mr. Kirkman's made it work. That gives me hope [laughs]. We do different things. I think portraying human beings trying to hold on to their humanity against pretty much certain odds that they’ll die horribly in some way someday, and that they’ll face horrible things along the way, I don’t know, I think that’s a beautiful thing. It’s a wonderful thing. It’s an incredibly difficult challenge, but to me that does reflect life, that human beings do try to hold on to their humanity. Not all of them. Not everybody can. But certainly some. That we do have this force within us that does at the very least know that there are right things and there are wrong things, and that we’re cognizant of, that they play into our behavior in even the most pronounced circumstances. That’s an exciting place to be, story-wise, and then on top of that, the insanity of zombies and the apocalypse and all the cool sci-fi, horror, and even adventure stuff that I love. And I do love it all.
But how much darker can you go? You’ve got one kid eaten by a mud zombie in front of her mom. Lizzie, like Carl, has become a killer. Baby Judith is potentially dead. That’s just the kids.
Yes, rough stuff. We’re not actively trying to get darker. It’s part of the story, it’s part of the world. This season has a lot to do with growing up in a lot of ways, both kids and adults. Things actually do get darker in a lot of ways, but it’s very much part of the whole story. There’s very much a point to it. All of this stuff is serving an ending of sorts.
How do you feel about having the season air in two eight-episode halves? Just when you get going — hiatus!
It’s cool to have something to look forward to. It makes it sort of an event. It’s gonna be weird how there are going to be new Star Wars movies every year starting in 2015. I don’t know what that’s going to be like having one every year. Maybe it’ll be perfect. Maybe it’ll be just the right amount of time to have something to look forward to. Maybe it’ll be too many at once. I think we have a very cool thing where we have these eight-hour movies that come out intermittently throughout the year.
Some viewers I’m sure noticed Clara (Kerry Condon), the Irish woman who kills herself after unsuccessfully trying to feed Rick to her zombie husband in the season premiere, in the final moments of Sunday’s episode. Of course, she’s a walker now.
Yeah, we were talking about closing the circle. We had the chess piece in the end, which closes the Governor’s story, and then we were talking about one of the zombies the kids were naming in the season premiere. That “Nick” zombie. Nick wound up getting killed. So then one of the writers, Curtis Gwinn, was like, "What about Clara?" I was like, “There we go. Winner.” There’s a whole lot of sad in that episode.