‘Walking Dead’ showruner reflects on the darker tone of Season 4, teases Season 5

(CBR) Courtesy of Jason from The Walking Dead 'Cast, CBR presents the transcript from his recent interview with “The Walking Dead” showrunner Scott Gimple. During the conversation, Gimple revisits his time as a fan before he became a writer on the series, explains how the second half of Season 4 was deliberately constructed to hew closer to the comic's stories than perhaps the previous season had and his happiness at swerving viewers by not giving them the big, main character death in the season finale so many had come to expect. Gimple also briefly looks ahead to the next season, explains his approach to pulling from and translating the comics to television, addresses the noticeably darker tone of the second half of last season and more.

Read the interview below, and download the podcast for free.

First off, I want to tell you this was my favorite season of “The Walking Dead” so far, and a bunch of our listeners have said the same thing. So I want to thank you for doing such an amazing job on the show. Scott Gimple:

Thank you! That's high praise from you guys. I would say you guys watch with an intensity unmatched. How's that?

A lot of our listeners do too, and we get lots of email, and people come up with things that we hadn't considered. So it's really fun to be able to chew on something like that, and this season, especially, has given us a lot! It felt deeper to me, and looking back over the season, a lot of the elements felt more connected and reverberated across individual episodes more than usual. Both big themes and little elements — pacifism versus brutality, down to the sunflowers appearing in a painting and again at Terminus. I almost picture you at home with a big cork-board with “Beautiful Mind”-style post-it notes connected by strings.


Was it especially important for you to connect things this season, and how did you manage to do that?

I think the thing that allows us to do it and gives us a chance to do that extra stuff is just planning. Knowing where we're going from the start. I came in with the season fairly well mapped out, especially the first eight [episodes], and provided that to the writers. So we had a really big basis for our conversations from the beginning. It gave us that opportunity in big ways and small ways.

So you sat alone before you ever talked to a writer and pretty much mapped out the first eight?

Well, yeah. I mean, I'm not saying every scene. You know, the virus storyline was going to go so many episodes, then we were going to go to the Governor, and then they were going to crash together. And there were certainly very fantastic adjustments to that that came out of the writer's room. 

But having that basis, it got us off and running quicker. I certainly knew what I wanted, and thus the writers were able to come up with stuff that spoke to that. And I knew that the back half was split apart and focusing on these groups. 

I think I might've even had the groups nailed down — I'm not sure, because even if I had them nailed down, I know they shifted from our conversations. We figured out the best sort of combinations to bring out the individual stories of the characters.

Did you know, when you were writing Rick as a “farmer-pacifist” in episode one, that he would end up brutally killing somebody at the end?

I knew that precisely. I knew that we were leading to the “Claimers” scene. So much of what we do — or that what I do, when I start talking to the writers, then we do together — is figuring out, what are the moments leading to The Moment? And, how does that serve the overall character and what is that character's journey and how do they change? Or how do they maintain themselves through everything they're going through? Which, I guess, Daryl's story is more an example of.

This season, a few of the moments that you're talking about, to comic readers' delight, have been some of the most intense moments pulled right out of the comic. Has it been fun to drive towards those?

Oh, yeah, and that absolutely became the way I thought about the show. I did the episode “Pretty Much Dead Already,” which in the comic book was powerful — and that was just Hershel's family and friends coming out of the barn. That was an example of all of us coming together and figuring out a way to make something that worked in the comic book hit even harder. Do all the stuff that Robert [Kirkman] was doing, and figure out ways to even turn it up more.

I guess that's how I look at the show, is finding those moments in the book that I loved or those moments that are just critical to the story, and [asking], how do we serve them in ways that turn it up that much more?

I think that moment in particular, in “Pretty Much Dead Already,” was really when the show exploded. Everybody was talking about it.

It's all there in the book. We have an opportunity, and also there's a necessity, to tie in our characters, because we have so many characters and we only have sixteen episodes. How do we tie in those character's stories as hard into those moments from the book as we can? 

I just love it when we're able to. With “The Grove,” the basis of that story is totally and completely from the comic book, but looking at that story, and looking at the story that I wanted to tell for Carol, I went to Kirkman and was like, “I know this is a huge Carl story, but this would really go well with the Carol story we're telling.”

Because of Sophia.

Well, I mean, the reason that Carol was trying to teach these kids how to protect themselves, yeah, that absolutely comes from Sophia. And for her to be the one that has to experience the Billy and Ben story — that just seemed like a powerful match-up.

Totally. And it seems like comics definitely are a powerful medium, but when we get to see flesh and blood people on screen, we get more attached to them, so that's one way that these powerful moments you're talking about can be even more impactful.

They're different mediums. In a lot of ways, the comic will always be more powerful, and in some ways, yes, the TV show can edge up on the comic in certain areas, because of people and music and cinematography and amazing actors.

And scares, too.

And scares, yeah. It's funny, when I started out ,one of my first jobs out of college, I desperately wanted to work in comics. One of the only comic companies in L.A. was Bongo Comics, which was the Simpsons comic book company that Matt Groening owns. I interned there and then I worked there and I was writing some Simpsons comics, and it was, in so many ways, such a hard thing to do because it's one of the greatest television shows of all time and you're trying to be as good as they are, without all of their tools. Without, you know, being on television. And now I'm on a TV show and I'm trying to be as good as the comic.

The opposite.

[Laughs] Can't win!

So, “Walking Dead,” the comic and the show, loves to confound expectations. When you guys decided not to kill any core characters in the finale, were you thinking about confounding expectations?

You shouldn't do a death to shock people. People shouldn't live to shock people, either. It's all just part of the story and it should serve the story. The Hershel death and the Governor death completely and totally served the story we were telling this season.

And really, looking at it and playing out the stories, death didn't really serve the story we were telling. And then it was like, “Whoa, well that means nobody's gonna die in fifteen or sixteen!” And then it was very much like, “Well that's — awesome.” Because that's what people expect, and at that point, yeah, it's pretty cool that you're laying out this story and you're like, “Uh oh, we're not having a death — ” And it's like, “That's — the greatest thing in the world.”

If people are setting their watches by deaths on “The Walking Dead,” that's not cool. That's a story failure. And it was wild, at the end of the season, to see all these articles, like, “Who's Gonna Die?”

We were! We were taking bets on it. [Laughs]

Yeah, and it's like, well, why are people dying, exactly? I mean, I guess people are like, “Well no one's died — ” but still it wasn't a primary objective at all to shock people that we “didn't kill.” But it was pretty cool to see people so surprised about it.

That episode was so shocking and disturbing that I didn't even realize no one had died until I thought about it later.

The thing is, the number one thing in this episode isn't who Rick loses. It's about who Rick kills.


And how he does it. That was the most important thing, and we didn't want anything to get in the way of that. That was this giant moment that we were moving towards. I co-wrote that episode with Angela Kang and [director] Michelle MacLaren — man, that sequence with the claimers and Rick was, I think, one of the best-directed sequences we've ever had. I mean, she did an astounding job.

Yeah, it was crazy.  One more thing on character deaths: I really hope that the show never gets to a point where the remaining core characters all feel too important to you guys to kill off. Do you think that would happen?

Well, that isn't this show. I mean, it's a bummer, but nobody's too important to kill off. I'm not thrilled to say that, but it's just the nature of this show. Anybody can die, anybody will die, and my goal is that it not just be for shock value and that it serve the story. People might last a good long time, or they might be taken tomorrow. And the speculation of all of it — I try not to pay too much attention to that, because it's really important that we just serve our story. People are thinking that we're killing too many people, that we're not killing enough people. I'm just trying to tell the story

Another thing about paying attention, keeping the characters apart this season had people longing for their favorites. But then they got to form stronger attachments to people like Beth that maybe they wouldn't have thought about before. Is it hard to weigh giving people what they say they want against giving them what you think ultimately would be the most satisfying? 

That's a great question. Sort of the eternal question, which is, do you just give the audience what you think they want? Which I think is a slippery slope. I think it really has to be you looking at something and weighing out, especially with something that's serialized, what serves the story best. Which ultimately serves the audience best by giving them what you think to be the best story. I mean, it's a subjective thing, of course. It's important that you both give the audience what they want, but also what they need for a good story. Like, say the audience hates a character, one of your main characters or something. That's a bad thing. No one in the audience should be cheering when one of your main characters dies. That's not a good thing. That doesn't symbolize a success in my mind. 

So just by its nature, they're going to be sad when that happens. 

Well, you hope! [Laughs] But in this back half, I was thrilled to do it this way. And I'm just putting me back on the couch, you know, on the Sunday nights when I watched the show [in the first season, before I started as a writer] and daydreaming about the kind of episodes I wanted to see in that they serve the greater story that I know from the comic, you know? Serving those moments from the comic, that story from the comic — I felt excited to dig into all of these characters and give every character a story and have every character have a point. And I hope that I did, that we did, turn around some of the audience who might have been kind of skeptical. Like, “Where's Rick?” If I had my way, I'd love to tell all of these stories, to the hilt. I would have loved to have had more Rick this season. I would have loved to have had more of every character this season. But I think it was an important set of stories that all crashed together in a certain way that served the greater story that we're telling and we're continuing to tell. 

You guys actually turned me around on Daryl. Because unlike most of the country, I was thinking he was seeming a little bit too cool for school. Kind of Fonzie-ish. 

[Laughs] Well, the motorcycle went away. 

And with his episode with Beth, I really got for the first time the pain of how it is to be Daryl. His limited experience. His having to fight for survival all the time. So I really appreciated you being able to focus in on characters like that. 

That is very cool. And God knows we need more Daryl fans. 

[Laughs] Right! It's essential.  Ok, so, we talked about dark moments and what Rick did this episode. In seasons past, some of the dark moments from the comic have been toned down a little bit. Like Carl killing zombie Shane instead of living Shane; the Governor didn't torture and rape Michonne. But this back half is more true to the comic — Lizzie killing Mica. Carl almost getting raped. Rick gutting that guy. Was that a deliberate decision to go more full bore into the darkness? 

Um, that's amazing. No, no it wasn't. I wasn't thinking so much about — yeah, no one has ever put it to me that way. I've never really thought about it that way. I mean, people have said it's been super dark this season — but it wasn't a conscious turn into darkness, because I'm just realizing that now. No, it was just taking moments from the comic and playing them up as hard as we can and tying them to characters. It wasn't like, “Oh, let's make things darker.” In fact, it's funny — I don't think many people look upon me as that dark a person, but some people have looked upon me a little differently this year. Like, “Damn — didn't know you had that in you!” And I was like, “Well, a lot of this is coming from Mr. Kirkman.” I like it, and yes, I think we've done things to even make it darker, but I'm drawing inspiration from some dark material. I will say, though, that the comic has also been much lighter than the show has been. I did episode 15 last year, and I personally don't think that we could ever do a wedding on this show like they had at the prison in the comic when Hershel married Maggie and Glen. I thought it would have to be much more like how it was in 15, where it was quick but also a very intimate thing between two people, and recognizing that the ceremony of it would never fit in. That it was more this intimate thing between two people. I think the comic has actually been much lighter than the show at parts, and I kind of admire it being able to have that broader palette. 

Yeah, they do a lot more practical things, too, where they're opening peaches and things like that. The show is more “emotion, emotion, emotion” all the time. 

I think it's a question of having 16 episodes and a number of characters and 42 minutes, you know? It's the difference between the mediums. But my goal always is to capture the spirit of the comic and put it on the TV, turning up all the stuff that I love so much in reading it. 

Speaking of time limits, we're running up on ours, so I want to get to some of the listener questions. Marci Brinker wanted to know, “I'd like to know how you felt about your first season as show runner. Was it what you expected? And now that you have a season under your belt, how will it affect your approach to next season?”

I'm very lucky to have worked on the show since Season 2, so it wasn't jumping into the unknown. I knew everybody, I loved working with everybody. There was a lot of brilliance there and a lot of support there. I'd just done episode 15 with Greg [Nicotero], who I'd worked with throughout the seasons I worked on the show, but it was just such a cool experience. Also, there was so much to do because I got started a little late, just because of the transition and everything. It was kind of like jumping out of an airplane, but with a parachute that I had a lot of faith in.

As far as going into this season, I feel a little more prepared, just because I have a little more knowledge of how we did it. I'm really excited by it. You just wanna keep going with the story and I'm just so excited to do that. 

You're such a hard worker. It's been really hard for me to set up this interview with you. 

Yeah, I don't do a whole lot of these. Mostly because it's a morning till night kind of job, and there are little windows that open, but you just never know when they are. 

But can you keep up this pace? 

[Laughs] I'm only laughing because you're the first person in an interview that's asked me that, but everybody outside asks me that all the time. I would say that this year, I worked with my number two, Seth Hoffman, who's an amazing writer, and my production associate, Alex Colie-Brown, and Tom Loose, and Denise Huth, on figuring out ways to take a little more off my plate. It is a very consuming job, and certain things are easier to delegate than other things. I'm trying to shift away from some of the things, like working with promo. Things that aren't specific to scripts and cuts and preps for episodes. But I don't know. I'm trying to find time when I can. It is a crazy job, but I'm very lucky that I love it so much. 

I'll leave you alone for another year, but Season 6 — I might be back again. [Laughs]

Couple more questions really quick. Will there be any news about the spinoff any time soon? I know you probably can't say, but I have to ask.

You know what, just shift to another question. Just because I'm totally ignorant about it. I get little drips and drabs from Kirkman, but really I'm not involved in it. I'm excited to watch it. 

Raelynn Zappula wants to know, “Are you the writer that Kirkman alluded to when he said Milton was modeled after a writer that drinks tea all the time?”

[Groans] I have no comment on that one. 

[Laughs] That answers that question! Finally, can you give us any kind of hint about what's going to come next? 

Hmm — I guess I can say, from a vibe point of view, the first eight of Season 4 were one thing, the second eight were something very different. These next eight are going to be something very different again. Things are just going to have a much different tone and a much different practical reality moving forward. The season has a number of shifts of location, and even of the tone. But the tone for most of the season is very, very, very intense. [It's] going to be very different from the last half-season, and I loved the last half season, but it was always planned out in my head that there would be these big shifts, and we're about to have one of those big shifts. 

You do shifts formally, too. Like, you have Beth reading from her diary, you have this dream flashback. You like to mix it up. 

We're never going to become “Lost” with flashbacks, but we always want to play around with things, whether it be time or structure or perspective. We have an opportunity to do that, we have a great variety of characters and types of stories that we tell. So why not use all the tools to do so to make it fun? 

Great. One thing we ask all our guests is to do a zombie sound. 

Oh, no — really? Oh, boy. Oh, man. Doing a zombie sound. You've no idea how much time I've spent in mixes with such respect for the people that do this, and I don't mean to bring down their amazing work. I will say I do like a breathier one sometimes. Like when Amy reanimated. Just sort of the [breathy zombie sound.] That's my favorite. 

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