Snow has finally come to the deep south as The Walking Dead creeps toward another game-changing season finale. But when winter sets in, there’ll be fewer heads for it to descend on — thanks to the surprise exit this week of three characters whose deaths were almost impossible to see coming.
The pure shock of those sudden and jarring goodbyes wasn’t random, says TWD showrunner Greg Nicotero. Or, rather, it was random, but that very randomness — that dreadful and uneasy sense that death could fall on anyone at any time — was built into Season 9 from the beginning, he explained to The Hollywood Reporter.
**Spoiler Alert: Spoilers for Season 9 of The Walking Dead appear below. If you haven’t seen Episode 15 (“The Calm Before”) and want to head into the season finale with fresh eyes, turn back now!**
Even though Sunday’s episode returned to Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel source material for its most brutal moments, it tweaked the specifics just enough to keep viewers on their toes, while setting up a more open-ended future for where the show could go next season.
“[W]e had no idea who it was going to be or when it was going to be until probably two or three episodes before we shot,” Nicotero explained, describing the late-season process that settled on Henry (Matt Lintz), Tara (Alanna Masterson), and Enid (Katelyn Nacon) as Alpha’s latest trio of victims.
“First of all, the deaths are at the hands of a human being [Alpha, played by Samantha Morton] instead of walkers, so that immediately makes it different,” he explained. “…There’s a randomness to it. That's part of what makes it so tragic. It has that Glenn [Steven Yeun] feel, where it's random and uncontrollable. You don't expect it. You don't see it coming. And then you get this one-two punch.”
On top of that, the survivors are about to come face to face with winter, an unstoppable natural threat that makes an appropriate complement (as Alpha shows Daryl firsthand) to her unstoppable army of walkers. Keeping fans off balance just as winter hits the survivors with a new, and potentially season-defining, kind of adversity — it may be random, yes, but it’s all part of a larger plan.
Sunday’s penultimate episode “feels unlike any other episode we have ever produced,” Nicotero told THR. “In that way, I think we're going to have our audience saying, ‘Man, they keep giving us more and more stuff that makes us want to stay tuned. It makes us want to know what's going to happen next.’”
We’ll get the chance to do just that when Season 9 finale “The Storm” brings winter to The Walking Dead’s Georgia on March 31.