The Sapphire Ballroom at San Diego’s Hilton Bayfront Hotel has been silent for a the last few minutes. Handheld digital recorders have been placed on the long table at the front of the room, a small sea of blinking red lights, ready to soak up every word our incoming guests are ready to offer up. There are around 40 of us in the room, in rows of chairs facing the long table, staring at placards with the following names written on them: Scott M. Gimple, Greg Nicotero, Andrew Lincoln, Danai Gurira, Norman Reedus, Angela Kang, Lauren Cohan and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. No one is talking, but there is a nervous rustling sound around the room, because we all know, that in a moment, we are all going to be front-and-center to the beginning of the end of Rick Grimes. We are here at Comic-Con San International San Diego 2018, and we’ve been invited to speak to the cast of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” as they prepare for season 9 of the zombie-filled apocalypse.
Executive Producer Scott M. Gimple, Director and Special Effects Make-Up Supervisor Greg Nicotero and Rick Grimes himself, Andrew Lincoln, enter the room first. We are informed that the rest of the cast has been held up at their panel in Hall H, but will arrive shortly. Comic-Con attendees have just been treated to the newest trailer for the upcoming season, which has created an anxious swell in the room.
We learn that season 9 will begin with a 2-year time jump from the end of last season, and that the survivors have taken serious steps towards bringing civilization back from the brink. Old enemies have become productive pieces of a new, flourishing community, bent on fulfilling a vision of a better future for everyone left alive. Leaders have been chosen. New relationships have been established. New faces and new stories have emerged from the wastelands.
As it so often is, however, things aren’t always what they seem. Long-standing friendships are being tested. The citizens of The Kingdom, Alexandria and The Hilltop are still dealing with unresolved tragedies. Carl is gone. Morgan has left, and is headed west, joining the cast of “Fear the Walking Dead”. Rick has been holding Negan in a cell for the last two years, which has drawn a hard line between him and the rest of his extended family. And to top it all off, it has been publicly confirmed that Andrew Lincoln is leaving the show this season, and that Rick Grimes is going to die.
Then, like a swift, barbed wire wrapped baseball bat to the head, we begin.
ANDREW LINCOLN: "Hello, hello."
When asked about the new trailer and the upcoming season, secrets are held close to the vest, but cast and creators are able to share a few things about the tone and direction or the show moving forward.
GREG NICOTERO: "It’s a slightly new timeline. It’s new, interpersonal kind of issues that lead not only to different kinds of conflicts, but seeing new character combinations so deeply tied up with each other. Even though we’ve seen these characters for years and years, we just haven’t seen this."
SCOTT GIMPLE: "We really wanted to come out of the gate this year, showing you guys the show has been reinvented. We get to see Washington D.C., and that great shot of Rick on horseback, riding through and bashing the head in of a walker. Also, with the new characters that you saw in the trailer, and that little tease at the end. For me personally, I think it’s one of the most exciting times there has been on the show in a long time, because we have this new threat that was really well introduced in the comic book, and it’s something really exciting. So, knowing that we get that little bit of a tease, I love that that’s where the show is headed. It’s just different. It’s something we’ve never done before."
We are then joined by the rest of the cast, to a raucous applause that brings the throwing of chairs, group hugs, and sharing of a single, chocolate lollipop between Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus. When pressed about the upcoming season, the rest of the cast joins in.
ANDREW LINCOLN: "I think we’re just telling a story, and trying to tell the best story we can."
JEFFREY DEAN MORGAN: " I think we’re going to find out a very different side of Negan. Quickly as season 9 starts. There has been a growing period in trying to figure out how he got to the position he’s been in. Is that a good thing or bad thing? I don’t know. But I think there is redemption to be had for Negan."
DANAI GURIRA: " It’s people who love each other, and it’s people who want to be on the same page, but really, really aren’t. It’s a family feud that’s actually much scarier, and feels much more volatile and dangerous. Much deeper."
LAUREN COHAN: "Honestly, it’s a whole new world. Even at the beginning of the season, and how we all interact, and how things have changed after the time jump, and how things have progressed with all these new characters, it’s like, ‘It’s still the show you know.’ We’re definitely going to see us in disagreement, but we are still a family."
ANGELA KANG: " Its huge. Its epic. Just even the art direction alone, it blows me away."
The conversation then switches to how the story of our survivors is going to move on without Rick Grimes. When asked how they will carry on, the cast hints that the upcoming season is sort-of a throwback to the series’ first episode, 8 seasons prior:
DANAI GURIRA: "I think the best way to honor Rick and Andy is to stay true to telling a really honest story, and not to go to some big bold place that’s out of the realm of that tone that we’ve been trying to connect to since he set the tone in the pilot. We were able to do that, to find those connections through characters being connected in very different ways this year than we’ve experienced in the past, and got to that very key example that he and Lennie (TWD alum, Lennie James) set in that first episode."
NORMAN REEDUS: " To stay true to Andy and to Rick, we are telling the truth. We’ve had a season or two of two guys chest bumping and shooting each other, but no one ever really killed each other. This is a very female-driven season, and it’s nice to have that happen. The stories are told in a different way. It’s less bravado and more real depth. It’s like were shooting a western with feeling. I’m loving this season."
On how long it took to decide to leave the show, and how it’s eventually going to happen, Andrew Lincoln weighs in:
ANDREW LINCOLN: " I think Lennie James is a perfect example of leaving without dying and doing rather well on it. I just saw him about 5 minutes ago and he looks terrific. (LAUGHTER) So yes, there is that way. And then there’s obviously the other way, which we’ve done quite a lot. And I’m not going to tell you which way. I mean, I’d prefer the Lennie James of it all, but I think what we have in store this season is truly remarkable, and I’m very, very proud of the work that we’ve done.
9 years I was thinking about it. I suppose it was a lot to do with a conversation that Scott and I had a few years ago. Maybe season 4, about a ‘shape’, and finding some way to complete something that was never going to be completed, and then not obviously disturbing the mothership. There was a certain sense that the story has been: 'a man waking up, so you experience this world through this one man’s eyes, and it opens up into the extended family'. Now the narrative is being freed up, and it has already been freed up from the beginning of this season. You’ll see from the trailer, it’s a different tone. It feels like the show that I always felt we would head toward when we wrapped the pilot. In short, it was something I started to think about as my children got older and less portable."
Everyone in the ballroom, actors, creators and press included, sense the end is drawing near, so the conversation swings away from the story of Rick Grimes, and towards the void that Andrew Lincoln’s inevitable departure is going to leave with his fellow castmates and crew.
NORMAN REEDUS: "You can’t take Rick’s place in the show. That’s not even possible. Everyone is branching off and doing different things, but everyone’s playing the same characters. No one is, like, “the lead now”. I don’t think we talk like that on this show."
DANAI GURIRA: " I always say this, and I truly mean I, and I say it to him as well, I truly believe this (to Lincoln) is the best leading man in television. He has made us all better. His leadership, his character, his discipline, his heart, his generosity, and his kindness have really paved a path for all of us to understand how to carry on without him, even though it’s extremely painful to. The death of the relationships that happen when Rick exits are very real, but at the same time, he has so equipped us to carry on, which is what a great leader does. So, I can’t be thankful enough for the time I’ve gotten to work with him, and learn from him, and understand him. It’s been a true joy to get to explore my character’s growth. She’s grown, basically in connection with him, since the second she meets him, and saves his ass a bunch, but because she can see the goodness and the strength and the power in this man, and how he takes on what he HAS to take on from a place of understanding of what he must do, versus any sort of ego or pride.
It’s all heartbreaking, as ‘The Walking Dead’ always is. But this is a special kind of heartbreak. The biggest yet, really. But it’s been an honor, sir (to Lincoln)."
ANDREW LINCOLN: "I’ve loved this season, and I don’t think there’s any desire to try and make it anything but telling the best story possible, and to continue the story.
I’ve loved this season so far, and I love working with all my buddies. I got to do scenes with all of my favorite people this season. And as a farewell, it was the greatest present I could’ve got. The reason I became an actor is to work with these people here. I love this relationship. After 9 years, these guys still want it to be great for you.
At the end of the panel, it sort of hit me a little bit. I got kind of choked up. It’s been 9 years of coming here (to Comic-Con). I love this place and I love seeing the fans. And you’ve been such a vital part of this experience. As I’ve said, my relationship with Mr. Grimes is far from over."
Looks like there’s hope for the future yet. Even in the apocalypse. Long live Rick Grimes.
AMC’s “The Walking Dead” returns for season 9 on Sunday, October 7, 2018. Check your providers for time and channel.