The Walking Dead Season Eight showrunner Scott M. Gimple thinks of the long-running series in eight episode chunks: the writer and producer has aimed for the show to evolve every eight episodes, with its season premieres, midseason finales, midseason premieres, and season finales usually serving as the major turning points of each 16-episode season.
Gimple, since elevated to Chief Creative Officer for The Walking Dead brand on AMC, will be vacating his position as showrunner for Season Nine — but before he exits, the series will be irrevocably changed Sunday night when longtime survivor Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) also makes his teary departure.
The Walking Dead is known for burying its cast members six-feet deep, but the loss of Carl is arguably the biggest death to date; not only is it a major deviation from creator Robert Kirkman's ongoing comic book series, it's the axing of a character that, before December, was presumed to be hands off.
Carl's death will shake The Walking Dead to its core, but it's not the only major change in the series' future as we head into the back half of Season Eight.
18-year-old actor Chandler Riggs, who has been with the series since its pilot episode in 2010, admitted to The Hollywood Reporter in December he "didn't ever expect for Carl to ever get killed off."
The decision to axe Carl, handed down to the teen by Gimple, "made sense story-wise," Riggs said, explaining his death "serves a good purpose in the story."
"There's still a little more left in Carl's story — in episode nine — and that impacts Rick, Michonne and everyone."
That impact will drive Rick Grimes for the rest of the season, at least, as the father tries to move forward despite suffering his biggest loss yet.
“As soon as it happened, all bets were off,” Rick Grimes actor Andrew Lincoln told EW.
We've seen Rick driven by loss and grief before — first losing Lori back at the prison, and later witnessing Judith's supposed remains in an empty, bloodied car seat — but now the series is headed into "unchartered waters," as Lincoln put it:
“Because there had been a certain sense, I think, over the last couple of years, that people would go, ‘Oh, we are much more associated with the comic book,'" Lincoln said. "I think that the general thrust of the story was always going to be based upon that with a couple of deviations or inversions or twists or replacements in one character taking that story and this one taking that."
Killing Carl made for "a much more challenging and more dangerous back eight [episodes]," according to Lincoln. "I think what they’re having to do is shake it up, in a profoundly new way.”
The first eight episodes of the season, Gimple told EW, "were about Rick just lunging forward with a point of view and a plan, and the danger inherent in that plan. And the world ultimately reminding him that there are things outside of his control and that there are things even beyond the conflict that he finds himself in. There are things just beyond that."
"The next eight," Gimple said, "are about who he is going to be."
Also leaving The Walking Dead behind is Lennie James, who plays bō-wielding Morgan.
Rick Grimes' oldest friend, the first he made after waking up in a world gone bye, is headed for Texas. It's unknown what drives Morgan to leave and link up with the cast of Fear The Walking Dead season 4, but James told ComicBook.com season 8 of Walking Dead will "springboard" Morgan over to Fear.
"The things that the writers are doing with Morgan and the way that they're navigating, it's not really a spoiler alert, but the way that Morgan transitions through the crossover is really, really interesting," James said.
"He goes with some kind of trajectory. It is a full, well-thought out journey that Morgan goes on. A lot of it is tied to his relationship with Rick. A lot of it is tied to his relationship to this group of people that he feels conflicted about caring for and wanting to protect."
Kirkman hinted that Fear season 4, debuting immediately after The Walking Dead season 8 finale, will undergo a time jump — bringing Fear closer in step with Walking Dead.
The loss of yet another longtime survivor — now the only other surviving Walking Dead character to have appeared alongside Rick in the pilot — isn't just yet another big change for the flagship series, it comes as a big shake-up for Fear The Walking Dead.
Lincoln feels its not the end for Rick and Morgan, who believes they'll reunite — sometime, somewhere down the line.
"There was a sort of sense, certainly, with Lennie, that it’s until we meet again," he told EW. "It’s always been that way with Rick and Morgan. I don’t know, there’s something in the air, that I feel that it’s not quite the end yet for Rick and Morgan.”
Another potential exit is on the horizon for series veteran Lauren Cohan, who joined as Maggie Greene in season 2. The farmer's daughter turned de facto Hilltop leader is among the series' most popular characters, but contract negotiations could keep Cohan out of season 9.
Cohan, without a Walking Dead season 9 contract in place, boarded an ABC pilot earlier this week — leaving her Walking Dead future in doubt.
Said to be have been actively seeking her next role while battling AMC over her season 9 salary, Cohan joined Whiskey Cavalier — which, like many pilots, may never make it to series — leaving several possibilities for Cohan.
As The Hollywood Reporter puts it:
The situation could play out in several ways: Cohan leaves The Walking Dead after season eight; she re-signs to return for season nine as a regular; Whiskey Cavalier moves forward and Cohan either returns for a handful of TWD episodes or walks away from the zombie franchise entirely; or the pilot doesn't go to series and the actress opts to leave or return in either a full-time or limited capacity.
Gimple is "incredibly hopeful" Cohan returns for season 9, telling TV Line "these things do happen in TV," but adding that the two camps are "still talking."
Maggie has since taken the lead of the Hilltop community following the murder of Glenn, her husband and father of her to-be-born-eventually child.
The character plays an important role in The Walking Dead comics following All Out War against Negan and the Saviors, and fans are similarly hoping fan-favorite Cohan continues on in the role.
Could The Walking Dead continue to bear the loss of three major characters, and their respective actors, in one fell swoop? Losing Carl and Morgan in the span of a handful of episodes is bad enough — adding Maggie to that pile could lead to decreased viewership amid recent rating drops.
AMC announced in January Gimple would be elevated to a new position with the company — overseeing The Walking Dead brand for the network, including tackling a hands-on creative role on Fear The Walking Dead — with his seat as showrunner being passed down to longtime series writer and producer Angela Kang, who has been with the series since season 2 in 2011.
Kang, the fourth showrunner to take the helm of the series following turns by Frank Darabont, Glen Mazzara and Gimple, will fulfill Gimple's duties on season 9 and beyond. Before the series can change hands, Gimple told EW he has set the stage for next season with a "very big" season 8 finale.
“Probably currently a little too big. It was pretty amazing the scope of some of the things that we got to do," he said. "And yet the emotional intensity was insane. And it very much sets up the start of the next story.”
Gimple admitted there is "some" set up in the finale, just two months away, but explained it "certainly is not all setup. But the seeds to the next turn of the story are planted. And some of them are not. Some are subtly planted in as much that we know in many ways the next turn of the story.”
The overarching story of Kirkman's comics will be kept mostly in tact for the resolution of All Out War, Gimple said, but certain events will force deviations.
“I think emotionally we’re aspiring to evoke the same feeling that [Kirkman] achieved in the book,” Gimple explained.
“But from the butterfly effect and different characters around that weren’t and vice versa, and even just the thrust of the story, how things play out are quite different in a lot of ways. There are some big changes that change the very outcome of certain aspects of the story — still trying to be true to the emotions of the story, but changing some big parts of it. It plays out very differently.”
Lincoln, who told ComicBook.com the news of Carl's looming death left him speechless, promised Carl's death would irrevocably change The Walking Dead — and leading man Rick Grimes — forever.
"This is bigger than any other death that we've ever had and we realize that as it plays out in the back eight," Lincoln said. "The back eight is completely different from the front eight. This episode happens and everything changes. We spin off into a completely different new world."
Carl is dead. Alexandria lies in ruins. His army, the alliance between Alexandria, Hilltop and the Kingdom, is once again on the defense.
"He's lost the things that he's fighting this war for," Lincoln explained. "That has a huge effect on him and it changes him irrevocably."
Producer Greg Nicotero, who directs Carl's sendoff, revealed in a new featurette the loss of his son will be "a defining moment that redirects Rick."0comments
“They’re in no way willing to back down," added co-producer Denise Huth, "but they’re recognizing by the time it’s over, they may lose a lot more than anticipated."
The Walking Dead returns to AMC with its mid-season premiere Sunday, February 25 at 9/8c.