The Walking Dead Showrunner Scott Gimple on This Week’s Loss and the One Grisly Death That Got Cut

Photo: AMC

Spoilers for this week’s mid-season finale of The Walking Dead follow.

Last night’s crushing mid-season finale of The Walking Dead saw the welcome demise of Dawn, the tragic demise of Beth, and left Rick and Company in a state of hopelessness. In the wake of all that misery, we spoke with showrunner Scott Gimple, who’s remarkably pleasant and upbeat despite all the carnage he’s orchestrated. Gimple looked back on what’s made the first half of season five so entertaining (and gory), Rick’s new attitude, Daryl’s relationship with Beth, and what the future may hold for the survivors. (Hint: more Michonne.)

Season five has been especially strong. Why do you think it’s been so successful?
Man, all I know is that we’re working super-hard to push stories about characters that are emotional and exciting, and [to] take my favorite stuff from the comic and put it up there on the screen.

It didn’t seem possible to take the show to a darker place, but you’ve done it. Was that your intention all along?
It wasn’t like, Let’s make it darker. I did know that the story and the way it’s going to twist, things would get very dark before they get lighter. We’re sort of in the dark portion. I don’t know if penumbra is the right word — I’ll have to look that up. But yeah, last night’s story was devastating to the characters, devastating to portions of the audience, devastating to us on the production. But it’s something that these characters are going through on their journey.

Is that to suggest there’s some light on the horizon?
It’s absolutely on the horizon, but it’s not immediate. And things get worse before they get weird. Gonna be a little more darkness. But the fact that these characters are struggling against that darkness is a function of humanity and a function of light. Things will start to get brighter, but weirder, for this group into the next season.

The show seems at its best when there’s a balance between human drama and the right amount of zombie mayhem. Is there a recipe to cooking up each episode?
Just keeping mind of those elements, because it can’t be the same recipe every time. I will say looking at the halves as an entire story — there might be quieter episodes and louder episodes, and there might be some that have a balance within them. And taking an eye towards how those eight episodes all add up. We’re lucky, because it’s a popular show, that we can look into the future a little bit and plan things out even further. It’s also how we want to tell the story from the comic — augment, mix it up, sometimes tell it super-literally.

You’ve really pushed the gore factor this season, from Daryl grabbing a zombie head like a bowling ball to the Terminus bloodletting scene. Did that grow organically from the material?
I think it grew organically from the material. The trough scene was very much about the particular type of evil that Rick was bearing witness to, being a victim of. It was a very almost industrial evil — an evil that was made non-personal. The Daryl bowling-ball hit, that was the brainchild of [co-executive producer] Seth Hoffman and just a uniquely horrific crazy thing that Greg [Nicotero] and our amazing VFX team worked on together. It was incredible. I will say one factor is just not wanting to do the same things.

The kills have been particularly creative — the fire-engine water hose was great.
Yeah, it was insane. We’re trying to see things we haven’t seen before and have these characters come at things from different angles.

Is there anything you shot that was too graphic to air?
Hmm. There was a walker being sort of cheese-gratered through a fence. Portions of that did not make the cut. [Laughs.] In general, I think we’ve found the sweet spot between totally awful and abhorrent but acceptable.

Speaking of, the cannibalism story line struck a nerve among viewers. Do think that’s because of the horrifying visual aspect, or the depths to which the Terminus survivors sunk?
I would say both. We tried to present Gareth before he became what he became — as a victim. And then he responded by victimizing people in a ghastly way. I think that made it more awful, that he was a person. It made him more monstrous. To me, that’s that much more frightening — that we could become that, or that the characters we dig so much could become that. And then just, y’know, he’s eating Bob’s leg.

That has a special impact all its own.
It’s just terrible. Which is absolutely from the comic. A lot of the dialogue he said to Bob was from the comic. That’s something as a reader — and I did read it when it came out — it just freaked me out.

Last night Rick had a callback to Gareth’s line: “You can’t go back, Bob.” Was that designed to tell us about where Rick’s head is at now and how his survival philosophy has evolved?
Absolutely. Though I will say he said that and he meant it; it was appropriate for the situation. But right after, he takes a moment, and you can tell that the words don’t taste too good in his mouth. And yet it doesn’t stop him. He knows what needs to be done. And through his perspective, he’s not wrong. He is angst-free now. He’s not wringing his hands over the things he’s doing. But he is recognizing that it ain’t too pretty. The reason he’s doing these things is to keep his family and the people he loves, who aren’t even his relation, alive.

Rick seems more willing to go to extremes since he defended Carl against the gang and his would-be rapist. He’s let go of those moral quandaries and does what he needs to do in the moment.
Oh, yeah. And the way things bore out, one can say it may even push Rick further down that road.

So what made Beth’s death particularly tragic last night was that her character just seemed to be finding herself.
Absolutely. She was a character that didn’t think she was strong but found out she was strong all along. And she was taken out by someone [Dawn] who thought she was strong, but was actually weak. There were more stories to tell with Beth. There were more stories to tell with Bob and with Hershel and with Shane. Something was taken away from the group, from the viewer, from us as creators on the show. But Beth could not stand by and watch Dawn take Noah back into the hospital basically for appearances — to not look weak. It was a moment of passion, but she had to do it. It was almost what strength costs you, not weakness. But it’s been hard doing it, it was hard shooting it, it was hard knowing that the audience would be heartbroken. It’s a bummer to see how pained some parts of the audience are. But that at least makes me glad they appreciated her and got something from her as a character. It was painful to lose her, but I want characters I want to keep writing for [like Beth]. I don’t want them to die because we don’t want to write for them. That isn’t how it works.

There’s been a lot of speculation about Daryl’s relationship with Beth. I saw him as a big brother to her, but some think he had more romantic feelings. What’s your take on their connection?
I think it was very intimate and very, very close. They helped each other in these beautiful moments of grace, where the only two people who could possibly help each other helped each other and learned from each other. I think its beyond platonic and romantic. Those are really binary terms. All I know is they were two people who meant a lot to each other, and her loss is going to help shape who Daryl is. She’s already shaped who Daryl is. She helped Daryl put away some of the bitterness and believe there is light in the world. And yet her light being snuffed out brought out a ferocity in him. We saw that anger before the anguish last night.

With Beth gone and no hope for a cure in D.C., where does that leave the survivors now?
That’s it right there — a very dark place, a very devastated place. And without a direction to go in. Things are going to get harder for this group. But they will change. Who they become from all this is going to put them in a mental state, a physical state that’s very interesting, because they’ll be dealing with very different circumstances. Will they be whole-hearted human beings at that point?

In the previews for the rest of the season, Michonne is seen lobbying for a move to someplace “100 miles” away. Both Washington and Alexandria, a key locale in comic, are much farther. Any clues as to where they’re headed next?
Ah, not any more than you’re giving. But they will chose a direction, and Michonne is going to be a very big part of that. Michonne is a big part of this upcoming half-season.

Walking Dead Showrunner on the Too-Grisly Death