Spoiler warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Walking Dead” season five finale, titled “Conquer.”
Season five of “The Walking Dead” was a rough one for Steven Yeun’s Glenn, one of the few original characters still remaining on the show. After reuniting with his wife Maggie (Lauren Cohan), they wound up prisoners of a cannibal cult at Terminus, suffered a devastating blow with the death of her sister Beth (Emily Kinney) and also lost their friends Bob (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) and Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman). The bright light at the end of it all was Alexandria — a peaceful community where they might be able to settle down, and even have a family. But when the incompetence of certain Alexandrians resulted in yet another tragic death — R.I.P. Noah (Tyler James Williams) — Glenn was faced with a moral dilemma: What to do about Nicholas (Michael Traynor), the selfish coward who basically got Noah killed.
The season finale gave Glenn the perfect opportunity to take Nicholas out for good, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Variety spoke with Yeun the day after the finale to get his take on why Glenn made the decision to let Nicholas live, what Glenn represents in the world of the zombie apocalypse, why he wishes everyone could binge watch the show and how he thinks the first meeting between Glenn and Morgan might go down.
I’m not always on board with the “kill or be killed” philosophy, but I’m actually a little upset Glenn didn’t kill Nicholas. Is that bad?
You know, I kind of knew when we were filming that that would be the case, that people would be upset. I think it’s the difference between how we consume things as a viewer of something fantastical and how the show tries to explore what people would struggle with in this situation. Ultimately Glenn couldn’t shoot (Nicholas). If he did it would’ve marked a new era for Glenn and completely changed who he is. He wouldn’t have been following his heart, and the track he’s been on. It would’ve been satisfying to me as an actor to go to that place and kill Nicholas, but I thought it was very interesting and more real to show the struggle through Glenn’s eyes.
At the same time Glenn has seen how bad these situations can turn when mercy is shown to the wrong person — the Governor and Terminus are two of the bigger examples. What makes him able to give Nicholas a chance even after all of that?
The whole season for Glenn has been a big struggle. He comes off the tail end of last season believing in hope. He was in a very hopeless situation and he still found the people he loved. He’s really fueled by that, by Hershel’s last words to him and the people he’s learned from. That’s what he carries into season five, but then you see terrible things happen over and over. You see him lose his sister. You see him lose Tyreese. That brings him to a place he didn’t want to face but ultimately has to. He has the conversation with Rick when he says, “I wasn’t where you are, but now I am.”
When he’s actually in a situation where he does have to choose whether a person lives or dies he ultimately can’t bear to lose himself. It doesn’t even have to do with Nicholas. He wholeheartedly believes Nicholas deserves to die, and says so in episode 15. I wanted to make sure as he’s there holding a gun to (Nicholas’) head, it’s a struggle for him to decide. He knows once he does it, it’s going to be that much easier to go down that path every time in the future.
What do you think Glenn wants to happen to Nicholas now?
I don’t know, that would be on Scott (Gimple). But for me, I feel like Glenn got what he wanted. He got the confession out of (Nicholas). He got the man to realize he’s weak, he’s a coward, that he doesn’t deserve to be there but he is by some stroke of luck or magic. I don’t think Glenn is sitting there thinking, “Cool, I taught him a valuable lesson and now he can be readmitted to society.” I think he still holds Nicholas at arm’s length, at minimum. But at the same time Glenn knows he’s pushed Nicholas to a place he deserves to be at. It’ll be on Nicholas to rebound or adjust. And I think Glenn isn’t completely incapable of killing someone who needs to be killed, as a threat.
It wasn’t enough of a threat for Glenn that Nicholas almost killed him? Both by shooting him and throwing him to the walkers?
Glenn is a nicer man than I am. If you were to ask me, things would be different. It’s a bigger discussion to even think about how the world affects that. The stakes are much higher. You talk about the world now — if someone kills your friend and tries to kill you, you can claim self-defense as a reason. But in (the post-apocalypse) world there are no rules. There’s no governing body. You’re just governing yourself. “If I shoot this man and kill him, even though I know I’ve completely destroyed him, what does that accomplish? Other than me losing this part of myself I’ve maintained up to this point?”
The episode set up three different characters who could have been redeemed in some way: Pete, Gabriel and Nicholas. Obviously it’s never going to happen for Pete, while Gabriel seems to be on his way. Where do you think Nicholas falls into that spectrum?
I feel that it’s less about retribution or redemption for Pete, Gabriel and Nicholas, and more of a study on where we find our characters. Where are they going to end up on the spectrum? Sasha and Glenn are really struggling to keep some semblance of humanity, and Rick has already crossed that threshold several times. If anything he’s bringing Deanna into the fold. He’s influencing that. I have no idea what will happen in the future but it’s an interesting juxtaposition between those characters for the viewer. To see a leader who is clearly justified in killing or protecting the safety of the people he loves, and then this other person who wants to live by a code he’s been instilled with: humanity and hope and the idea we can go back to what we were before. It’s a very complex situation, and that’s often where I really begin to love our show. In these discussions.
Tyreese was someone who wanted to live by that code too, and he heard from other characters that it meant he wasn’t cut out for the world of the show. How is Glenn different?
Glenn and Tyreese are similar in that aspect. I don’t know if there’s a hardline difference. Glenn embodies hope throughout. I don’t know if Tyreese necessarily embodied hope. He embodied humanity and compassion. But I don’t know if he had hope in the idea of a future. Maybe his relationship as a caretaker for Judith gave him the amount he needed, but if you look at Glenn he has Maggie. He has someone to live for and a future to build. Tyreese lost that. He had that with Karen and lost it. Glenn has that with Maggie and on top of that he found a place where it could happen. A place where they could survive and have a family, and I think that’s Glenn’s goal at the end of the day.
Glenn hasn’t met Morgan yet but it seems like they might have similar outlooks at this point. Do you think they’ll get along?
I think so. They might have that common bond of “all life is precious.” We shall see though, I don’t know if Glenn has those bow staff skills that Morgan has. [laughs] Glenn’s a puncher. He only likes hand to hand combat.
Speaking of that, let’s talk about your fight scene with Nicholas. Was it as gritty and nasty to film as it played on screen?
It’s really fun. I love getting into the nitty gritty stuff like that. It really helps when your scene partner is also really gung ho and really good at what he’s doing. Michael Traynor is nothing short of a really great actor. We snuck in some hits. He went for it. To me, to have those bruises and scratches and scars after those types of scenes is like a badge of honor. We just went for it. They called action and we slammed each other on the ground as much as we could. I hope it showed.
There was a lot of concern online that this season was going to be the last for Glenn considering certain events in the comicbook and some foreshadowing that the show seemed to be doing. How much did you hear about that?
I did have a lot of people say, “Hey, stop holding bats.” [laughs] At the same time I struggle with that. I always struggle with the fact that sometimes people can let the death part of our show overtake what we’re actually trying to do. The bat reference comes from the comicbooks, but we’re not the comicbooks, we’re making a show. That’s not to say that we’re not holding true or heavily influenced by the source material, which is fantastic, and Scott Gimple definitely holds firm to as much as he can, but at the same time we are making something different in a different medium. You know what it is? I wish people could binge watch our show, as opposed to waiting week by week. I often feel that’s the reason people are pulled into this weird vortex of “Who’s gonna die next?” As opposed to just, “Let me watch this story for what it’s trying to say.”
There does seem to be a lot of pre-judging of the show week to week. When the group went to Alexandria I saw a lot of people predict it would be Woodbury all over again, which obviously it wasn’t. And after last week’s episode there were a lot of predictions that Alexandria would go up in flames in the finale.
Honestly, when I hear some of that stuff it’s so fun. And sometimes it’s like, “Where did you come up with this?” People will have screenshots, put red circles around little bits and pieces, and say “Aw yeah, this is gonna happen!” I’m like, “Good luck man, good luck.”
You’ve talked a lot about how much you’ve grown as an actor on this show, and when I talked to Tovah Feldshuh about her first episode with Deanna’s video interviews, she singled out your performance for praise. How does it feel when someone who’s been a working actor as long as Tovah says something like that about you?
I can’t say that I don’t have that laminated, highlighted and blown up billboard size and just plastered on my wall in the office. I can’t say that. She’s incredible, Tovah is incredible. It’s hard to jack-in to the tone of our show — it can go to really grounded and real or it can go slightly surreal. You have all these places it can go. Tovah came in and literally crushed it. For me to even be acknowledged by someone like Tovah is incredibly generous on her part and absolutely awesome.
I’ve been very fortunate to be surrounded by actors such as Tovah or Andy (Lincoln) or Norman (Reedus) or Jon (Bernthal) or Scott Wilson. I can name every single person. It’s been great because they’ve pushed me a lot and been great examples of doing things for the art of it. We’re doing what we’re doing because on a selfish level we want to experience these moments. The reason I love being an actor is because I get to do stuff I’d never get to do in real life. I get to be a forever student. To say I get to pretend I live in a post-apocalyptic world and I see someone ripped to shreds in front of me or say I’m a rabid animal and maybe I was away from civilization for too long — these small moments are what we live for and have so much fun doing.
I have to ask about one of my favorite scenes of the season, from episode 510, when the whole group is at the barn door holding back the walkers during the storm. What was that like to shoot?
That was really awesome. I remember they filmed it by doing close-ups on everyone in succession left to right, and they we paired up and they filmed each pair. What was really fun was not just us living as a cast together like that, but (d.p.) Mike Satrazemis and (director) Julius Ramsay — they set up a beautiful shot. If we weren’t on camera we were always close to video village and would just stare at the lighting and the images. You feel a buzz on set after moments like that. It’s exactly the kind of moment our show is trying to go for.
By the time “Walking Dead” returns in October, we will have seen another part of the world in this summer’s companion series, “Fear the Walking Dead.” What are your expectations or hopes for that show?
I haven’t heard too much about it. I do hope it’s great. I hope it fills out our world. It’ll be cool to see what happens in that arena and where it goes. But my focus is less on that whole big picture and more on how do we make our show better every single year?
Right. And hopefully there are enough stories for both shows.