SPOILER ALERT: This post contains details of tonight’s finale for the first part of The Walking Dead‘s 11th & last season.
“There’s obviously just by virtue of the fact that this is a final season of a show that’s been running for a long time and has had so much attention on it and such a passionate fan base, you know, we definitely feel the pressure of wanting to land the plane well,” says The Walking Dead executive producer Angela Kang of the beginning of the end of the AMC series with tonight’s mid-season finale of a sort.
Directed by Sharat Raju and penned by Erik Mountain, the eighth episode in TWD’s supersized 11th and last season, finds the near starving Survivors in a dilapidated Alexandria under attack from a walker horde as the Heavens open up on them. Simultaneously, Norman Reedus’ Daryl Dixon’s infiltration of the ruthless and religious Reapers goes off the rails as his former significant other Leah Shaw (Lynn Collins) kills leader Pope (Ritchie Coster) and turns out to even more of a bloodthirsty true believer in her own right — to the immediate peril of a hooded Negan, Maggie, sharpshooter Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) and others.
Even though it is not a proper ender in a 24-episode season chopped up into three blocks, there were certainly cliffhangers galore, though no prominent deaths (besides Pope).To that, showrunner Kang spoke to Deadline about how the zombie apocalypse series got where it is so far, how it is getting to the end and the challenges and landmines getting there – oh yeah, and who may or may not return.
DEADLINE: You’ve done mid-season finales before, but this is a whole different ball game in a finale season made up of three parts. How does that work on the show in this last season?
KANG: Well, it’s definitely been a challenge because we’ve never done this many episodes in a row clearly. So, in some ways, we’ve just tried to think of it in terms of each thing is a block, which is kind of how we structure our seasons anyway. We tend to ask what are we doing with the whole arc, but then really, we dive in and go like this block is more about this, and this block is more like this vibe, and so, that’s kind of how we tend to think of our episodes
DEADLINE: Is that how tonight’s For Blood episode came together, as part of a larger whole?
KANG: When we started this season, I don’t remember if I’ve told you this, but the plan was not for this season to be the last, like when we were first breaking everything.
So, the first block, when we went into it, even though we had to change some story due to pandemic stuff, and pivoting to doing the Season 10-episode extensions and things like that, you know, we kept the basic larger arc for the first block. So, in some ways, it’s almost like this is its own mini-season, and like 9 through 24 are more like a 16 – and even within that, we had to sort of subdivide. We had ideas of “we want to get to this by 16,’ and then ‘like this by 24,” so it’s been an interesting challenge for us,
DEADLINE: Sounds relentless…
KANG: As far as filming goes, we just kind of film straight through, then there’s like a week and a half that the crew gets off. The writers keep working in between each block of eight.
DEADLINE: So, you know I have to ask, tying your main storylines together, do Judith, Maggie and Negan make it?
KANG: (LAUGHS) Dominic, I can’t get into things like that.
DEADLINE: OK, second verse, same as the first, and especially based on Judith’s heartfelt conversation about Danai Gurira’s Michonne, her Mom in the episode, are we going to see any of the former stars come back for this final season?
KANG: (LAUGHS) That is another outstanding question that I cannot get into.
DEADLINE: I know, I know, but there is a method to my kamikaze madness, in so far that season finales in a cycle so extended as the last TWD one is requires more cliffhangers and twists. Then add in the fact that a spinoff with Norman Reedus and Melissa McBride has already been announced, so we know that they make it — so, to put it mildly, you have parameters. How do you work within those?
KANG: There are definitely parameters, and I think we just work within them. It’s hard to describe what it is. I think for every season we do, but this season in particular, there’s a lot that is a puzzle.
So, for example, not everybody gets the same number of episodes guaranteed to be on the show. So, it’s like whenever we’re making decisions about storylines, we’re like okay well, if we use this person in this storyline, we’ve got to drop them out of this other storyline, and so, we’re always doing kind of math, and then, of course, we’ve had actors who…for example, Lauren Ridloff really wanted to go off and do The Eternals. That was important to her, and we felt like that was amazing for her, and so, we wanted to try to make all that work, so we had to kind of like bend the story a certain way to make that work. We promised to give her a big re-entry into it.
Look, this is true for every season, but this season in particular, there are a number of just logistical things and mandates and things that we’re always trying to kind of juggle while trying to keep the tension alive. I also think also this is a show where even when there’s stretches where there’s not a lot of deaths, hopefully, we’re still able to keep up the tension by way of asking questions about what are the decisions you’re going to make here, and who are the villains we have to overcome. So, I think we’ve been leaning a lot into that as we’re trying to kind of play out a lot of these stories as we keep on going.
DEADLINE: In that, how far along are you guys in terms of the writing of the final season? Is it done?
KANG: It is not done.
DEADLINE: You’re still working towards that?
KANG: Still writing.
DEADLINE: In coming to that conclusion next year, with the next eight episodes debuting in February 2022, the painful and perhaps vengeful relationship between Negan and Maggie still remains unresolved, even with the Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Lauren Cohan portrayed characters effectively teaming up in the last few episodes …still a lot of, for lack of a better expression, psychological, and romantic tensions built into them, no?
KANG: We were just really interested from the beginning of the season in telling the story of Maggie and Negan, particularly because when you have two people that have the kind of history that they do.
It just makes for fascinating interactions when you’re forced to work with somebody that you don’t entirely trust. I just think it gives us like different story telling opportunities, and I think that Negan…he’s a character that I really personally have enjoyed writing for, and Jeffrey does an amazing job with the character. He’s just one of the characters that you’ve seen in a variety of places along his journey, but Maggie has changed too. So, I think that by nature it lends itself to kind of…they are on like a very particular fraught emotional arc across many episodes, and that just felt organically right if we’re bringing Lauren Cohan back into the fold because there is something so unresolved there, as you said.
DEADLINE: Flipped around, we see that in episode 8 with Norman’s Daryl and Lynn Collins’ Leah Shaw, a trust and a betrayal all in mere moments as the latter takes over the Reapers after killing Pope over his willingness to kill his own people for God …
KANG: I think for Daryl and Leah, that evolved over time as we were working on the season. We knew that we wanted to kind of do almost like this, I suppose, like a villain’s origin story with Leah. I think with Daryl, it’s really like there is this romantic aspect once, but we always felt that the story was more about what happens in grief when you cling to somebody, but that moment is gone, and you realize, looking in the rear-view mirror, that there was like always something that was broken or toxic about it.
How do you navigate that when you also hope that somebody has something redeemable, and in some ways, the Maggie, Negan, Daryl, Leah stories bounces off of each other because Negan is our number one example of a villain who all of our people hated, who has come around to sort of be integral to our group in his own way, and Leah is somebody that we started off as like maybe she’s not a villain, but can she come back? So, we felt like that was an interesting way to touch on the questions of is redemption really possible in this world? Are there foregone conclusions? Like if you cut somebody’s story off at just the right place, do you just feel good about that and move on, or should you have given them a couple more turns to get somewhere else? So, that was just something that thematically we were thinking about a lot as we were building this first block.
DEADLINE: In building further and going into the final 16 episodes of the mothershow, what have been some of the unexpected challenges to sticking the landing, knowing that there is at least one spinoff coming and you need to build the bridge to that?
KANG: Well, I think that there’s a lot of challenges. In terms specific to the pandemic, there’s just different limitations than we usually have, so that’s one type of box that we’re in. We try to hide the scenes of that as much as we can, but there are pandemic limitations in every episode we’ve produced since last year.
DEADLINE: So, to stop you for a second, can you give me an example of that with this eighth episode? Because there’s a lot of bodies in this episode.
KANG: There’s a lot going on, but I think, for example, if you really pay attention to some of the stuff that’s in Alexandria, you’ll get it.
For example, you’re never seeing more than like kind of a handful of people, and the way they shoot it is very like smart, so that you’re not crowding too many people into a space at any one time. There’s room for crew. You know, we’re always like very safe about that, but it’s like in our original version of this, when we were breaking it, like all the way back in January, February of 2020 before the pandemic hit, we had a much more huge epic version of what happened in Alexandria.
Like we would have had like dozens of extras in like any given frame, you know, fighting, and tons of zombies, and all of that, so there are limitations that are there, but we try to like frame carefully. We use digital extensions and things like that, but there’s always things that are like at the edges of everything we’ve been doing. So, that’s like one aspect of your question.
DEADLINE: And the less technical POV?
KANG: There’s obviously just by virtue of the fact that this is a final season of a show that’s been running for a long time and has had so much attention on it and such a passionate fan base, you know, we definitely feel the pressure of wanting to land the plane well.
We feel that internally very strongly. We also feel that externally from our studio partners and from fans. In some ways, we know that not everybody is going to be happy with every decision we make because that’s true of anything.
So we’re just trying to make what we think is our best set of choices for who we think these people have become, and where we think that they might land, and other than that, like we’ll just have to see how it goes. And, before you ask, no, I don’t think anybody sets out to write a bad final season. You do your best creatively, but definitely we’re feeling the weight of having been writing for so long consecutively, and we’re right now filming Episode 16, which would normally be our final episode of the season, but we’re only two-thirds of the way through, so we’re just still cranking away.
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