Walking Dead Boss Scott Gimple on Defending Carl and Michonne’s Dreamland

Carl and Rick’s man-to-man in The Walking Dead Photo: Gene Page/AMC

Think trigger-happy teen cowboy Carl is the worst? Want Michonne to stop scowling? The Walking Dead seemed to take critics head-on in “After,” Sunday’s mid-season premiere, which was reminiscent of last season’s “Clear,” focusing on the two characters who’ve been met with more grumbling than any of the other remaining survivors. Since the fall of the prison, Carl’s been resenting Rick for making him farm, giving up the Ricktatorship, losing Judith, getting Hershel killed, and basically everything that’s gone wrong since the world was overrun by the undead — but after a day on his own and 112 ounces of pudding, he realizes he needs his dad. Michonne also tries to go it alone, reverting back to life with a pair of armless and jawless pets, until a dream (featuring Michonne as a mom and art critic!) shakes her out of zombie mode. Vulture checked in with series boss Scott Gimple to talk about giving Carl his own episode and Danai Gurira’s wordless feat.

Ballsy choice kicking things off with a Carl episode. I don’t find him annoying, but there are others, including some of my colleagues, who do. Why go that way?
I had a very good idea of the structure of this whole season from the outset, and I knew I wanted to do this as the episode coming back from the hiatus. The Carl story is pulled directly from issue 50 of the comic, which is one of my favorites. It just fit really well with where we’ve been headed. The first part of this season was about Carl and Rick’s relationship: Rick pulling back from brutality, pulling back from going out in the world, pulling back from leadership, principally for Carl and Judith. Now he’s lost Judith and the prison. All this stuff he did to bring Carl back from being such a brutal child soldier eventuated in this. It seemed organic to emulate what was in the comic and other than maybe the pilot, it’s the closest to an issue we’ve done. Executive producer Greg Nicotero, who directed it, even recreated some of the really iconic panels, like Rick’s bandaged hand reaching out from the darkness like he might be a walker.

It still seems like a tricky thing to pull off, devoting an episode to a polarizing character like Carl. People are still mad he wouldn’t stay in the house! And for most of this episode, he’s acting cocky, trying to prove he’s a man.
There have been times that almost every character on this show has been sort of polarizing. People go, Oh, I’m annoyed with them, and then they’re psyched about them. I’m not going to mention any of those characters, but I will say whenever I’ve been on set and whenever I’ve talked to Chandler Riggs, who plays Carl, I see him growing up. I think he does an amazing job, and he’s got amazing poise for his age. I knew this story was coming down the line for him, and I knew that he was ready for it. This was his graduation into being a young man on the show and not being a kid.

Has it been challenging to write the character though? Carl’s young and trying to be taken seriously, which can be tough on a TV show where misbehaving can get other characters killed.
I’ve actually always enjoyed writing for him [laughs]. It’s a pretty overwhelming world, and growing up isn’t always pretty. Carl is definitely much tougher than I am, so writing for him is like writing for the hero I’d like to be. I think even in the first half of this season you’ve seen him grow up quite a bit. He recognizes what his father was doing for him. I wrote “Pretty Much Dead Already,” the season-two mid-season finale, and in that episode I had Carl confront Shane about looking for Sophia. I remember I had him swear, which was a whole standards and practices thing, when he told Shane that giving up on looking for Sophia was bullshit. I remember being there that day and talking to Chandler, and he was maybe 11 or 12, and I remember thinking, This kid is pretty mature. I think he’s handled all of this really well.

Michonne’s on her own in this episode, and she goes through this significant transformation over the course of the hour almost entirely without dialogue. How did that come together? Was it also something you pulled from the comic?
Michonne’s story was not from the comic, and I was so psyched that it came together. Initially we were just doing Issue 50, but we knew we wanted to do this story for Michonne, and we knew we wanted her to wind up with Rick and Carl because of stuff coming up later. In the first half of this season, she was essentially running away from the prison, running away from being close to people again. She was still gun-shy. Then the moment she decides to be all in is the moment it all falls apart. The message from the universe was: Be with people. Get hurt. So at the beginning of the episode, she’s decided to go back to how things were before she met Andrea, and we get to tell this basically wordless story.

Except, of course, for her dream. Or rather, her nightmare.
Right, and even the words in the dream aren’t really important. They’re just part of this sort of surreal mish-mosh of memories illustrating the relationship she has to these guys. Although their final exchange is hugely important.

Michonne’s boyfriend Mike asks what the point of living is.
Something awful obviously happened there. I will say Danai Gurira, who plays Michonne, was so excited about doing that scene. Things get very horrible very quickly, but she got to wear a dress. She got to wear makeup. She was holding a bottle of wine and a cheese plate. She had a good thing going for awhile.

Michonne goes on another walker-killing bender, and I loved how it felt entirely different from the time she went to town on a cage of zombies in Woodbury. This time it wasn’t bloodlust.
That’s all Danai. Without words, she goes from Okay, I’m going to reject people. I’m going to go back to how it was to Oh my god, I’m living like a dead person. No, I’m going to be alive. To see her arrive there in such an explosive and cathartic way is the exact kind of moment I love on the show — the height of action meeting the height of emotion. That’s how it was in “Pretty Much Dead Already” when Sophia came out of the barn. When Michonne is taking down those walkers, it’s the climax really of a character change.

When we last spoke, you said this half of the season would involve experimenting with the structure of the episodes. The teaser for next week’s episode looks like it will involve a lot more characters than this week’s. What else can you say about it?
Next episode has a really cool structure, which is just something that came out of the writers room when we were talking about how we were going to tell all these stories at once. It allows for a lot of information and a lot of different stories to happen at once. We’ll see a lot of people in different pairings. It’s very different from this episode, which went deep with two stories. It was maybe one of the quietest episodes since the pilot. I’d say next Sunday’s episode ain’t so quiet. There’s a lot of loud in it.

Walking Dead Boss Defends Carl, Talks Michonne