Spoiler Warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Walking Dead” season five, episode eight, titled “Coda.”
Tragedy struck again on “The Walking Dead,” as beloved regular Beth Greene (Emily Kinney) lost her life in a showdown with egomaniacal cop/hospital prison warden Dawn (Christine Woods) in the Season 5 midseason finale, “Coda.” Beth’s shocking death comes a year after the loss of her father, Hershel (Scott Wilson), leaving Maggie (Lauren Cohan) as the lone survivor introduced during that Season 2 stint on the farm.
Variety caught up with showrunner Scott M. Gimple the morning after “Coda” aired to discuss the decision to kill off Beth, what viewers didn’t see and renewed critical interest in the series.
While we’re still in mourning, exactly when did you decide to kill Beth? Was she essentially doomed when she was kidnapped last season?
Gimple: The Grady hospital storyline was forming, we had a pretty good idea of that when Beth was taken away. How the character would wind up coming out of that story, there were a few iterations we were working on. Ultimately this was about a character who thought she was weak and found out she was strong all along. She was taken out by someone who thought she was strong but really was weak all along. It was the cost of Beth’s strength, tragically, that led to her death by someone who was weak.
Some fans and critics are criticizing the death as a decision made for “shock value.” Is that ever a factor?
It’s not the approach we follow. I guess you could say that for Bob or for Hershel, it isn’t done for shock value but it is shocking. It’s a very tragic story for Beth, she really was ready to face the world. It’s a part of the show and a part of the world they live in that people die. It should be tragic, except when people like Gareth die. Everybody has a favorite character. No matter who it was last night, you’re gonna get a lot of angry tweets. I guess that’s a good thing because that means people care about these characters and identify with these characters. We don’t really take any pleasure in breaking people’s hearts, it’s a very difficult part of the show but it is absolutely part of the show. The audience feels it because the characters feel it and we feel it because we lose who we get to play with.
I think knowing that Beth had that potential makes her death even harder to take for some fans.
Absolutely. As Bob had that potential and Hershel had that potential. These are all characters I wish I could keep writing for, but the world continues to take away these characters. It’s how they go on and how we go on that defines them and defines us.
Was the shooting an accident? Was it simply a reflex for Dawn?
We’re never gonna know, and I wouldn’t contradict what the audience thinks, but I would say from Dawn’s reaction it was a reflex. The gun was in her hand, she shot it and did not mean to kill her.
Dawn was such a smooth liar you never knew when to trust her, but it did feel like she was legitimately growing close to Beth.
She did and she recognized that Beth was in fact strong and perhaps felt how weak she herself was, and said “What the hell do I have?” Beth walked into that hospital very strong and didn’t know it, but by the time she found out she was in a very bad situation. She could not deal with Noah going back into that situation.
Was there any moment between Beth and Carol written or filmed? We don’t really see Carol’s reaction after she wakes up.
There was so much more we would’ve liked to have shown but we wanted to feature all of the characters; it’s a very big juggle on the show. We have a lot of characters and we want them all to be full characters and have emotional lives. That was a function of the amount of work we were doing within this hour.
I actually found it kind of funny no one from the hospital except Noah accepted Rick’s offer to leave. It’s a reminder that to outsiders Rick’s gang must look like a bunch of dirty maniacs.
They’re very scary people, it’s not a small thing. Even what Gabriel is struggling with is that these people are the status quo. They’re not bad people. They slaughtered people in his church but they’re not the bad guys. He is them. In fact, he’s a lot worse than them because he basically tried to lock out the world to the detriment of people’s lives.
Which is something Michonne and Carl purposefully decide not to do. They put their own lives on the line to save Gabriel.
Exactly. They opened the door for him. He didn’t do that when people were banging on the door.
You’ve done an impressive job balancing such a large cast, but some characters — like Michonne and Carl — inevitably fall to the background. Do you have a conversation with say, Danai Gurira, to explain, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you in the next 8”?
I do talk to everybody about the season coming up. I don’t get into everything for a variety of reasons, the number one being things do change. All sorts of things change, even from plans we’ve had for a long time. It just happens, it’s a function of storytelling. I will say there’s going to be significantly more Michonne in the second half of the season. As far as balancing characters within an episode, it’s also within the season with this large cast.
This is the second time we’ve seen a post-credits tag with Morgan (Lennie James). Why include him in that way?
He’s on his own story strand right now. He is separate from the group and it was really cool to get the opportunity to format it in that way, to play it as far away from the story as possible. It’s like Morgan has his own mini TV show right now — a tiny little spinoff that happens after our credits.
I’ve seen a few complaints from people who missed it because their DVRs cut off or they didn’t realize it would be there.
Oh, well, yeah… I believe the episodes are available on AMC.com. We should’ve worked a little bit better with the DVR people. But it wasn’t designed to cut off.
Several critics stepped up to praise this season — some with kind of backhanded compliments that insulted the show the same time they praised it. Did you read their takes and what did you think?
People sent them to me and I’m aware of reviews in any direction; we get them in all directions on the show. I guess with the Internet most shows do. Anybody digging it is super cool, but I’m very proud of all the work we’ve done on the show. As I’m sure are all the actors and producers and crew. But let me tell you, I shan’t look a gift article in the mouth.
One positive point raised by a few of those critics is how trusting the show is of the memory of the audience. The Daryl and Carol episode, “Consumed,” is a perfect example: there was a lot of backstory alluded to but not explicitly spelled out. Is that a luxury of the show’s success? You can trust people are paying attention?
I think it works in a couple different ways. Hopefully it helps people connect and their minds are working. It’s such a passionate fan base, if you have Carol saying, “Oh Sophia died, and she was my daughter,” the audience would say, “Yeah, we know Sophia.” But there are a lot of ways we don’t spell things out. A lot of things in the hospital weren’t spelled out. We knew the rules of what was going on but we wanted it from the perspective of someone slowly figuring out what’s happening. Even between the characters talking in shorthand — you risk maybe the audience doesn’t know exactly what they’re saying, but it’s cool for them to be thinking about what it is, as it is in life.
Another thing I appreciate is the way you continue to make room for lighter moments — the fishing excursion with Tara, Rosita and Glenn as one example. Is that important so the show doesn’t just feel like a parade of misery and also to establish that these people really do like each other?
Absolutely, that’s life. There is humor and friendship and love even in the darkest moments, those things stay alive. It’s part of what being human is all about. As far as people go, that’s more real to me. It also makes the darker stuff more dark, and the dark stuff makes the lighter stuff lighter. It’s a part of the show I’m really happy is there.
What can you tease for when the show returns next year?
Things are gonna get super hard at the beginning of Season 5B. Every eight episodes it’s a new show, and these eight episodes coming up are very much aligned with that, maybe the starkest example of that so far. We begin in a very dark place and our group is broken by what’s happened. And then things change, but who are they by the time things change? That’s the question. Have they been so hardened that they won’t be able to recognize opportunities in front of them?