Exclusive: Greg Nicotero walks us through the midseason premiere of The Walking Dead

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Feb 25, 2018

Spoiler Alert! The following interview contains plenty of spoilers for the midseason premiere of The Walking Dead. If you need to catch up, you can check out our "Honor" recap here.

Are you done crying yet? The midseason premiere of The Walking Dead was a rough one -- but a beautiful one. It was the first time audiences really got a chance to mourn the loss of a character on The Walking Dead. We found out Carl was bitten by a walker in December's episode, "How It's Gotta Be." Tonight we see his last day on Earth, and ultimately Carl proved himself to be the most mature person in Alexandria.

We spoke with executive producer and director of "Honor" Greg Nicotero about working with Chandler Riggs, his final scenes, and the long-lasting effects Carl's death would have on the rest of the characters.

Gene Page/AMC

​​​​​​Can you talk about the decision to kill off Carl?

If you go back and look at "All Out War" in the comics, it's over relatively quickly. Something we wanted to make sure of creatively was that we had a really good opportunity to tell this story and what the stakes are. So we used this episode to really remind people of what they've gone through, what they've sacrificed, and what the stakes are. The flash-forwards and the visions that we have been seeing since the beginning of the season, we realize now that they were Carl's visions of the future. By Carl describing Woodbury and the Governor, and the fact that Rick is capable of bringing other people in -- he's done it in the past -- it is critical to ground this conflict in reality so they can look forward and realize if they don't find a resolution to this conflict, there's not going to be anybody left to fight. 

Carl has a lot of wisdom in this episode!

Yeah, I know! If you really think about it, Carl didn't participate in the war. Carl was charged with the safety of Alexandria. He did fight, when he needed to, in Episode 8. From that standpoint, he spends a lot of the first eight episodes looking to expand their community. When he meets Siddiq and he goes out and leaves food for him, Carl is the one person who seems to understand that if they don't start bringing other people in, and changing the way they look at the world, and being able to change other people's view of the world, there's not going to be anything left.

I will admit, I shed a couple tears when I watched the episode. And I have no soul!

I'll tell you, in the 25 episodes of The Walking Dead that I've directed to date, I feel like this is Chandler's best episode. Performance-wise, he just took it to a whole other level. The moment that really got to me, the first time I watched the episode, is when Daryl steps up and says, "We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you. This was all you." When he said that, the first time I watched the cut, that's when I really felt it. I really wanted to keep that moment -- and all the moments with Carl -- they're so intimate. Then, of course, with Michonne and Rick, it was important that I played up our sort-of new version of what a family would look like in this world. The intimacy of those moments between Carl and Rick and Michonne were so important. Then when Daryl steps up to take Judith and take her to safety, it really reminds you of everything Daryl and Carl and Rick and Michonne and everyone in that tunnel has been through from the beginning. The fact is that Carl went out of his way to save people, while everyone else has basically been on a rampage to kill people. Daryl, in the previous two episodes, drives to the Sanctuary to kill everybody there. Everyone else is so wrapped up in killing, and you have this one kid who is looking at everybody and saying, "It doesn't have to be this way."

Was it difficult to direct those emotional scenes, or was the sadness already there because of Chandler leaving?

It's always difficult. Chandler really, really poured his heart out there. I think a lot of times, in the moment, it's almost harder for the other actors. I don't know, I'm not an actor, so I can't speak for them specifically. When Carl is laying there on the cot and he is having these conversations and we see everyone else, I think it is the multitude of people that are experiencing that grief. That exponentially grows. The bigger those scenes are, the more people there are, everyone has empathy for Chandler, empathy for Carl. My impression is that it is usually the other actors in that moment who share that grief a little more. For the actors who are leaving the show, they go through it with that immediate gut reaction. Some of the other actors, it becomes real when we are physically shooting it. With Sonequa [Martin Green] and [Michael] Cudlitz and Steven [Yeun] and all the other people I had to kill -- I'm like the Grim Reaper -- it's always very different. But this one, I think, is different because Chandler has been with the show since he was so young, and we all watched him grow up. It made it harder.

My relationship with Chandler has been very unique because I have a son who is a year younger than he is. So I learned how to direct Chandler as a young actor by relating to my experiences with my son, Deven. That really gave Chandler and I a fantastic bond and a great opportunity to do some great work together.

Gene Page/AMC

What was the last scene you shot with Chandler?

The last thing we shot with him was when the candles start going out in the tunnel and Rick realizes he can't let Carl die there. That was the last scene. We shot all that tunnel stuff in like a day and a half. It was kind of ridiculous, how much work we had to do. Actually, we did shoot Judith's close-ups with Carl a week or two later because she is a baby, which is always challenging, and I know Chandler was there for that, off-screen, because I wanted him to be there. So that might have been the last piece I shot with him for that episode.

What kind of long-lasting effects will Carl's death have on the group?

In my opinion, he basically leaves us, and Rick and Michonne, with the opportunity to realize his last wishes. We have the dying wishes of a boy. When he's saying to them in the church, "There's got to be something after," he's basically challenging Rick and Michonne to look towards the future. How can you not take those words into account? How can you not be so moved by them? It has to affect you in some capacity. Clearly Carl's death is going to drive us into a very different direction. The first half of the season is everyone dead-set on killing. Except for Carl. 

Will the group rethink their motivation towards the Saviors?

Well, you'll have to wait and see. His death will have a differing effect on everyone. I think it is safe to say that each person, knowing how important Carl was to them, will have varying degrees of reaction. Carol isn't there; Maggie isn't there. There are people who don't know, or haven't been part of this discovery. We have Rosita and Tara and Daryl in the tunnels with the other Alexandrians, but the people he did have relationships with -- like Maggie, like Enid, like Carol -- their reactions, because they weren't there for his last moments, could potentially be very, very different.

I loved how we saw Carl recognizing that he was bitten, and he seemed to spend his last day in a very peaceful, appreciative way.

I refer to that as the "best day ever" montage. It is. He showers and he plays with his sister and plays cards. There is even that moment where Michonne drives by, and he takes his hat off and lets the sun shine on his face. It really is moving. Then, of course, in that moment, the real world, the sound of the walkers starts to interfere with that montage. We hear the growling, then we cut to Morgan at the Sanctuary, and we realize that the Saviors have come up with a plan, thanks to Eugene, to create a "zombie moat" by gunning down walkers and allowing the bodies to pile up high enough that they have enough freedom to escape safely.

Gene Page/AMC

In between the sweet, sad Carl stuff, we see Morgan, who seems to have slipped back into being a "killing machine."

It's clearly in direct contrast to everything Carl is going through. Carl is talking about living, about not being able to move forward unless we can live together. Morgan is in the EXACT opposite place. The idea of intercutting Morgan, who has turned into this unstoppable killing machine, with Carl in the church, pleading with his father to look for another way to exist... they are such dramatically different ideas.

Lennie James could read the phone book and I would be mesmerized. He is so damned talented, and such an amazing performer. A lot of people ask me what I think about The Walking Dead, and if when I watched the first episode, did I imagine it would have the success it did. No one can ever guess or project that. But for me I think about that, and I think about many moments in the pilot that were awestruck for me: learning about Rick, seeing the world, bicycle girl. For me, personally, the moment I realized that The Walking Dead was special was that scene with Morgan trying to shoot his wife, and the tears coming to his eyes. I realized that was the first time that we had ever seen a show about the zombie apocalypse that was absolutely heartbreaking. I feel that Lennie's performance in that scene was one of the key factors in the success of The Walking Dead. For me, to be able to direct an actor of that caliber and see what he brings to the table in these instances is really something I will cherish forever because he is so good.

Those moments where Carol is with him, Carol is watching him... Carol, in her own fashion, she is clearly also about being a good soldier, but when she looks at Morgan and realizes this is going above and beyond ending the war, this is getting into the fact that he is literally just perpetrating these acts of brutality, I think is tremendously insightful.