“We’ve known for years that this moment would come eventually, and it didn’t feel right to wait past this season,” says "The Walking Dead" executive producer Angela Kang of the killing of 10 characters on the AMC series in Sunday’s Season 9 penultimate episode.
"TWD" has long let the blood and mayhem flow in the second to last episode of most season, but the massacre on tonight’s “The Calm Before” may be the most stridulous ever – at least in terms of sheer numbers.
While perhaps lacking the visceral impact of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan smashing in the heads of Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) at the beginning of Season 7, the vengeance of the Samantha Morton-led Whisperers recreated one of the most grueling scenes from the Robert Kirkman comics.
The characters may be different and are actually two less than died in Issue #144 of the comic. However, as Norman Reedus’ Daryl and Eleanor Matsuura’s Yumiko lead a group walking up almost disbelieving what they are seeing in front of them, the result is still chilling and gruesome with a row of heads on sticks laid out as a warning to the Survivors and their communities. Or as Avi Nash’s Siddiq says to a clearly devastated crowd at the end of the episode: “We need to honor them.”
As Khary Payton’s Ezekiel survives, Katelyn Nacon’s Enid, Carol and the Kingdom leader’s son Henry (Matt Lintz) and Hilltop leader Tara (Alanna Masterson) were among the 10 captured and killed by the ruthless Whisperers – as are Highwaymen Ozzy and DJ, despite a rescue attempt.
These cutting deaths come at the near end of Season 9 of the Kang run series that saw a fundamental reset as well as the exits of leads Andrew Lincoln and Lauren Cohan. Going into the recently announced Season 10, "TWD" will also find the presence of "Black Panther" alum Danai Gurira lessening as her Michonne character seems likely to show up in the Lincoln-led Rick Grimes movies. At the same time, a second "TWD" spinoff is in the pipeline to join the Mothershow and "Fear The Walking Dead" in the next year or so.
In anticipation of tonight’s penultimate episode and after this weekend’s TWDPaleyfest appearance, I chatted with Kang about how the transition of the decapitations were weaved from the comics to the small screen and what to expect for next week’s “The Storm” finale, that she penned and fellow EP Greg Nicotero directed.
DEADLINE: The heads on sticks scene is one of the most infamous and shocking of the comics, why did you think now was the time to bring it to the show?
KANG: We knew we wanted to start the Whisperers arc this season, and the heads on spikes scene is one of the most iconic moments in the comic. We don’t adapt every single moment in the books, but scenes like this one are an essential part of the canon.
We’ve known for years that this moment would come eventually, and it didn’t feel right to wait past this season. Alpha isn’t a character who talks a big game. If you cross her, she strikes and strikes hard, both to scare her opponents and satisfy her followers, who are all would-be opponents. That’s crucial to understanding who she is and the unique threat she poses.
DEADLINE: Clearly the heads of some different characters from the comics ended up on the Whisperers’ warning sticks, so to speak, in this episode. Why did you choose the characters you did and what was that like for the cast to see such a big loss?
KANG: In the 8 years I’ve been writing for "The Walking Dead," character deaths on the show have rarely matched their fates in the comic. There are many reasons for that: the divergences in story on the show may lead to different outcomes for characters, we want to keep things fresh and surprising for our fans who are readers of the books, and there are sometimes other special circumstances which we rarely discuss publicly.
Story-wise in this case, Alpha’s goal was to terrorize the communities and force them to comply with her rules. So there’s a mix of strategic murders, with Tara, random with Enid, and vengeance-driven with Henry.
In real life, it’s always painful to say goodbye to characters and actors we’ve grown to love. Even our guest actors who’ve been on the show in a more limited capacity were so lovely and talented.
I informed the entire cast at the beginning of the year that we’d be getting to the border spikes by the end of the season because I wanted everyone to be mentally prepared for those losses.
But everyone knows what they’re signing on for when they come onto a show with "Dead" in the title, so every single person was wonderful and professional when I called them about their final episode. The “death dinner” for our long-time series regulars Alanna and Katelyn was fun and full of laughter because they wanted it that way. And the wonderful thing is our "TWD" actors and alums see each other frequently at conventions and socially, and sometimes people come back for flashback guest appearances or in other capacities, so they remain a part of the family.
DEADLINE: The Whisperers story arc has been the major thrust of the second half of the season, how do you feel it has played out so far and what the reaction both among fans and on the show itself has been?
KANG: I’ve been thrilled with the work our cast, crew and directors have done to bring these stories to life. I think Samantha Morton, Ryan Hurst, and Cassady McClincy bring so much to the show and the rest of our cast has loved having them aboard. It seems that the reaction has been pretty positive so far, knock on wood, but no two fans of our show are alike, so I respect that one person’s favorite episode might not be another person’s cup of tea. This has never been a show that plays it safe, so you always run that risk!
DEADLINE: "Walking Dead" has often used its penultimate season episode for big deaths, so what can we expect for the finale and Season 10?
KANG: Since this was the year we’d meet the Whisperers — who have adopted an animalistic, anti-civilization, “survival of the fittest” philosophy — we paired that with seeing more stories about how environmental obstacles and the breakdown of man-made infrastructure have affected our characters. Then I wanted to push that past the limits of what we’ve done on the show before, so in the finale: winter is coming. And then in Season 10, the conflict with the Whisperers will amp up in terrifying and hopefully surprising ways, and we’ll also discover something related to the last scene of this season, which I won’t spoil, that will once again change everything for our heroes!