"The Walking Dead" Season 6 michonne
Courtesy of AMC

Spoiler warning: The following interview includes plot details from “The Walking Dead” Season 6, episode 10, titled “The Next World.”

Valentine’s Day came a week late to “The Walking Dead.” Fans have watched Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) develop a strong friendship over the past four seasons, but the possibility always existed that they could become more than friends. That possibility became a reality in tonight’s episode — set two months after the death of Rick’s former flame Jessie (Alexandra Breckenridge), the loss of Carl’s (Chandler Riggs) eye and the rebuilding of Alexandria as a fierce walker-fighting community.

Variety spoke with Michonne herself, Danai Gurira, about why this was the right time to take the next step with Rick, what a full-fledged Richonne relationship might look like, closing the set for that final scene and welcoming back Tovah Feldshuh (Deanna) for a moving goodbye.

How much did you know about this episode before you got the script?

I had an understanding of how things could end up going… Mr. Gimple kept things pretty close to his chest, but it was becoming clear this was coming. We had chats about the idea of [Rick and Michonne’s] intimacy and their relationship before anything was happening — what it is and what it could be.

And what did you think when you read it?

I had a pretty good inkling something was coming soon between the characters, but when I read it I was still kind of surprised. There was something surprising seeing those names on the page doing that. Seeing it in writing was like, “Whoaaaa!” I was kind of thrown.

Have you been waiting for this moment yourself?

We have a lot of fans who are very much about these two being together and they were picking up on something that was definitely there. I picked up on something since the episode “Clear” in season 3. Mr. Gimple had written that episode. He wasn’t making all the calls at that point, it was before he was showrunner, but we actually chatted about it even then.

For Michonne, Rick is the one man she could respect and felt she could align with. She had been in a world where her ex had caused the death of her son — and meeting men like the Governor, men like Merle, she was shut off to the idea of aligning with a man or a group of people. It was not her style when we met her. [Rick] was the one man she really got, she understood and she saw his heart. She’d heard about him from Andrea but she really understood this was a man trying to do the right thing. There was something about him that made her feel aligned. That was why she did join the group. The people were great, but the leader was someone she could align with.

Did it feel like it was always planned for the characters to get together?

I think that really grew. I think Mr. Gimple was playing a very long game with it, which is very impressive. He didn’t want us to get ahead of it which is why we were never informed — we chatted but he never explicitly told me. That was really smart because it really was about the characters staying in the moment of the journey of how intimate they became as friends over these seasons. In terms of everything: their mutual connection to Carl, the way she trusts him and he trusts her, the way they can talk to each other with a glance, they work really closely together — it was something that was definitely building over the course of the seasons.

We felt these characters had a very interesting connection, but it was in the realm of friendship until it wasn’t. I think the timing is really perfect because the last episode they bonded even more deeply as a result of what happened and almost losing Carl. They seamlessly worked as a team to save him and get him to Denise. It was really clear to me how much [Michonne] loved both [Rick and Carl]. When she had one on the table but couldn’t do anything more for him and the other one walked out the door into the fray — I really felt like this was the first time I was experiencing Michonne panicking. She really could not bear the idea of losing both of them in one day. She had to do all she could to not let that happen.

The bonding of that experience and the fact they have a newly formed life now — it’s two months later, they get Carl back, and they’re able to rebuild Alexandria. Rick transformed as well. He’s able to take on all that Deanna used to say and that Michonne would encourage him to believe — to come to Alexandria and consider himself one of these people. He’s now much more hopeful and I think that’s something that appeals to Michonne as well. They’re in a place where they can actually allow their hearts to express themselves. Things are stable and better, they have a new lease on life.

How often do fans ask you about Rick and Michonne?

All the time. I don’t get through anything without that. I don’t get through a panel, an interview, anything. I’ve had very close friends who I didn’t even realize watch the show — lawyers, PhD types — who had me in a corner, pinned back, like, “Why? Why isn’t he with her?” And I’m sitting there thinking, “Oh God, wait until the 21st…” But instead I have to say, “They’re friends and that’s really important.” I [was] spinning my wheels trying to deflect.

Sexual relationships aren’t explored very often on “The Walking Dead,” and this is a first for Michonne. Even though her relationship with Rick has been building for a long time, are you worried some fans might reject seeing them become more than friends?

What I thought was great about it was it’s really submission to the organic progression of two characters. That’s what I like. I like storytelling that’s truthful. The idea of saying we shouldn’t do it because with certain types of characters you don’t want to see that side of them, it sounds like an imposed concept rather than following a story’s organic progression.

To me that sounds like copping out of going in a direction these characters are naturally going in. They’re living in the same house for God’s sake. They have so much in common and they’re so connected that it just makes sense they find each other this way. And it would be strange if Michonne never explored this part of herself. She is a full woman. As a playwright, when I’ve researched war zones — people fall in love in war zones because they’re in a life and death circumstance and they’re able to get to the truth of things.

What do you expect Rick and Michonne’s relationship will be like? Will they be as deeply connected as Glenn and Maggie or more casual like Abraham and Rosita?

They’ve come through too much together as a unit. They’ve trusted each other with their lives. He’s trusted her with his children’s lives. They’ve gone through some very hard moments together. She’s knocked him out and schooled him on things, he’s schooled her back. He’s been the leader that she’s followed. I think there’s a lot of intimacy there. To realize this person who is very close to being your best friend is actually also someone who you have feelings for and you find deeply attractive in a whole other way — I don’t think that translates to casual, to me. They’re deeply intimate friends and now they’re lovers. It’s not the makings of any of the relationships [already on the show], it’s its own thing.

How was it filming that final scene when Jesus (Tom Payne) comes into the bedroom and you and Andy Lincoln jump out of bed?

Oh, it was interesting. A closed set on “The Walking Dead” means about 10 men in the room, but we’re very much family. It was ultimately fun. Tom was great. We had been discussing and I said, “I can’t believe that’s the first time I’m gonna work with you.” He’s like, “No, it’s fine!” And I’m like, “Easy for you to say.” But we got along great from the get go, so it was fine. I was very comfortable with him, we’d all become good buddies and were hanging out before we shot. It was interesting walking into that room thinking, “Oh, this is a ‘Walking Dead’ closed set? Six cameramen, the boom, ADs, second ADs. You’re like, ‘OK, closed set.’” It was a great bonding experience.

It’s probably not something you thought you’d have to do on “The Walking Dead.”

No, it isn’t. It happens every now and then. I used to make the joke when people would ask “Why not Rick and Michonne?” — “Thanks for wanting Michonne to get some.” I’d just be flippant like that, but it is something I wanted Michonne to explore for herself. She’s a vibrant, living woman, why not explore that part of her humanity? She’s been through it all.

They both deserve it after everything they’ve been through.

Yes, and the episode itself answers the question “Why is this day different from all other days?” It’s very well set up for that. She reencounters Deanna, and Deanna had been the one who had really probed beyond what Michonne is comfortable being. Michonne was comfortable being the one who takes care of the group and who stewards the safety of people.

The episode where Deanna is dying and says, “What do you want?” — Michonne realizes in that moment there’s a scary place she’s blocked off. She’s a little nervous about what’s behind that particular wall, and she really doesn’t know because she’s blocked it off. That’s a wall that went up when her baby’s father died. It’s scary. She’s a control freak — so is Rick — and to be this vulnerable is frightening to her. Seeing [walker] Deanna that day was something that really primed this in her, and got her heart a little bit more in front of the wall.

Also, what Carl says to her that same evening — embracing her as being a mother to him and equating his relationship with her to Spencer’s with Deanna. And also Spencer saying, “You have a life back there and I don’t.” To realize all that she has — a life, a family, a home — after all that she came from. I think her heart gets to be a little more in front of all of her defenses.

Do you think Michonne has been waiting for Rick to catch on or was she so walled off she didn’t even think about it?

When the scene starts and [Rick] gets home, she’s waiting for him to get home. He’s out, it’s dark, she wants him home. The idea that he gets home and the one thing she wants to do is go plop on the couch next to him and spend time with him — in my head I was laughing because she’s in love with him and she doesn’t even realize it. That day finally allows her to be emotionally available enough to find out what’s behind that wall. Honestly, I don’t think she realizes it until that moment. I think it’s the same with [Rick], but I’ll let Andy speak to that.

Deanna’s return is the episode’s other great surprise. How did Tovah Feldshuh enjoy playing a walker?

She was a real trouper. I don’t think it’s ever fun playing your own walker necessarily. She was a fantastic walker, just brilliant. She came in and really wanted to figure out how to do it right and gave it 150%. It was very sad, a very sad scene, but she did it so excellently. She’s an example of the pursuit of excellence at all times at all costs. She’s been a real great example to all of us just watching her work. It was very sad but very powerful how she took it on.

And this is the first episode with Carl’s eyepatch. Did Chandler Riggs have any difficulty adjusting?

Oh, he’s cool, he’s fine. He’s psyched about all the different things that come with doing something different like this. He does have all these interesting adjustments that come with it, the way a character holds a gun and all that. But Chandler is amazing — he’ll always step up to a challenge and do great things with it, this is no exception.

“The Walking Dead” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.

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