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‘The Walking Dead’ Season 6 Finale: Scott Gimple Defends Controversial Cliffhanger

Spoiler warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Walking Dead” Season 6 finale, titled “Last Day on Earth.”

The sixth season finale of “The Walking Dead” was the cherry on top of a divisive year. Ever since Steven Yeun’s Glenn evaded what looked like certain death by crawling under a dumpster (and the show decided to drag that reveal out over the course of multiple episodes), there’s been a mounting skepticism among a significant number of fans that the show’s storytelling isn’t quite on the up-and-up.

That skepticism exploded on social media when the season climaxed with the expected arrival of new supervillain Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and the death of a key character unexpectedly shown from that character’s POV. The fatal cliffhanger means the audience won’t find out who actually died until at least six months from now (assuming details don’t leak out first) when the show is due to return for season 7.

AMC held a conference call with showrunner Scott M. Gimple and members of the media the morning after the finale so that he could answer pressing questions. Here are the highlights of that call.

On the decision to not show who was killed, and whether we’ll see the beating in graphic detail next season…

“The reasoning behind this was in many ways what we saw last night was the end of the story of season 6. Where Rick winds up is completely different from where he started in [episode] 1 [the season premiere] and where he started in [episode] 9 [the midseason premiere]. I know obviously and I’ve known for awhile what is in [the season 7 premiere]. Presenting what occurs, to show what happened in full force, is the beginning of the next story.

“But to the showing of [the beating]… It’s an incredible work of gore by Charlie Adlard in the book. How we show that on TV? I’m certain we’ll be pushing some boundaries with it.”

On the fan backlash over not showing the death…

“I think if you approach it from a place of skepticism or with the idea that there’s some sort of negative motivation or cynical motivation behind it — if you come at it that way it’s difficult to convince you otherwise. I do think we’ve done enough on the show, we’ve delivered a story that people have enjoyed.

“I ask people to give us the benefit of the doubt that it’s all part of a plan, all part of a story. I truly hope that people see [the season 7 premiere] and they feel it justifies the way we’ve decided to tell the story. That is the way it is in our minds. I know what [the season 7 premiere] is and I feel that it delivers on what [the season 6 finale] sets up.”

On the criticism of keeping Glenn’s fate a mystery earlier in the season, and removing Yeun’s name from the opening credits…

“I know that in my heart it was about protecting the audience’s experience. There is a great deal of meta that goes on around the show. If I left the name in I think there might have been criticism in another direction of it being sloppy or not protecting the audience’s experience. Taking it out, if people choose to look at it cynically, it’s like we were trying to trick in some way. I was trying to give audiences an emotional experience and I didn’t want things like the credits to get in the way of that.

“I can see if it’s looked upon cynically that I’m doing something not to protect the audience but to play with them. It’s an incredibly smart audience, an incredibly plugged in audience. I thought it would be safer for the experience to take the name out than to leave it in and shrug my shoulders. It really is all about the audience and their experience of the story. We do care about our audience a great deal.”

On plans to keep who Negan killed a secret until the season premiere and what happens if the actor whose character is killed takes another acting job…

“We are doing our best in all those areas. It is very very difficult nowadays, especially on a show that is in so many different places. That said, we are working very hard to put things in a place where I hope we protect it.

“We have a big ensemble and people do take jobs and have taken jobs throughout our seasons. You can be on a couple different shows nowadays. That said, we’re trying to get around that as well. It goes back to that meta stuff, the awareness of all that stuff around the show. It goes back to [removing Steven Yeun’s name from the credits]. The way we took that credit off was trying to protect a secret, and we are going to try to protect the secret of [who Negan killed] to protect the audience’s experience. I sure hope it doesn’t leak. The world is what the world is, but we’re going to try hard to make that not happen.”

On whether or not the creatives expected criticism of the cliffhanger…

“We were definitely anticipating some. I think if you have something in a story that can be criticized in some direction, it will be criticized. There is a vast audience. People in some ways now almost feel like it’s their duty to let their opinions be known. That’s great, that’s part of the world now. If you do something and think ‘some people aren’t going to like this,’ you can set your watch towards people saying so. And usually not subtlely.

“The hard thing about it is you can’t say why you do some of the turns you take because you’ll wind up telling details of the story. I do know the writers and producers and cast and crew know why we do what we do. We know our intentions are good. We care about our audience and we’re just trying to deliver them an experience.

“I suppose it’s good that everything is met with skepticism nowadays. People are thinking critically and not just trusting things that are put before them. I’d love a little more trust. But I think it’s a good thing for society that people aren’t just trusting the things that are coming across their television set. It makes the challenge for us to win those angry people back with a great story that much more important and that much harder. But that’s the business we’re in. We’re not trying to do the easy thing. When you’re a parent, your kid might have a tantrum for a lot of different reasons and you still have to love them and try to do right by them. I do want to do right by this audience. I hope to win back or assuage some of the anger.”

On whether or not the actor whose character is killed already knows his or her fate, and whether any of the other cast members know…

“I can’t let you behind the curtain on that one. The spoilery-ness is just way way way too intense. I would say … I’m so afraid to open my mouth on this one. There are far too many landmines there to traverse.”

On whether or not fans can figure out who was killed from clues in the sequence…

“I believe there is no way. There are a couple of things in there that might help people, possibly limit the amount of people who are vulnerable. But I would rather people not go down that route because I truly don’t think there is a way to puzzle it out definitively.

“The reasoning behind that is these are incredibly smart fans to start with, and then you put it to this incredible crowdsourcing and they will get it. I’ll tell you with certainty, people will figure out what happens in [the season 7 premiere] even though there aren’t clues to determine it. And I’m not talking about spoilers, people will figure it out even if there’s no way they should be able to. I’ve seen it again and again. If you put very smart people together, I don’t know if we’re talking about the collective unconsciousness or something…

“Granted it might be one comment among 1000 comments. Luckily there will be a lot of theories floating around. I hope it doesn’t become the dominant one.”

On the lack of deaths of long running characters in season 6 and balancing the expectation to kill major characters with creative needs…

“It’s something we lived with since the beginning. It’s about those deaths meaning something to the story and to the other characters. I know that what’s coming up is going to change everything with the story. Whether [the death] is a fairly new or an OG character.

“There is a long running plan to this show. Characters will meet their end, but also some characters will not meet their end, at least for awhile. There are no immortal characters, I don’t mean to say that, but it is part of the bigger story. In the comics there are some pretty OG characters left, and there are some that departed a lot quicker than their counterparts on the show. It’s a balance. Once you plan things out and you look at where things are going and where people are going, that helps.

On whether or not Corey Hawkins’ Heath will return (in light of Hawkins being cast as the lead of Fox’s “24” reboot)…

“We will absolutely see Heath again. At this point we’ve had to ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ it a little bit. We’re hoping to have him in a certain episode for a certain thing that would lead to another thing. We have a lot of contingency plans because he’s the new Jack Bauer, he has skills now and you don’t want to mess with him.

“It’s a problem, but thematically with the character luckily I had been thinking about this possibility for awhile, and really just trying to find several different ways to get to where I wanted to get with the character [even] if we don’t get there on the exact schedule that we hoped to.”

On what to expect from season 7…

“The world opened up this half season, it opened up to some light places and some dark places. In the next half season, the world is going to open up even more. We’re going to have a wide variety of locales, tone and character. I’m very excited for all the different stories that are going to be told.

“I haven’t done the math but I think there’s going to be the biggest variety of stories we’ve had yet. I can say without spoiling anything that things are going to start of very, very, very dark. But that won’t be the whole season. It’s not going to be darkness upon darkness upon darkness.”

On feeling a kinship with the showrunners of “Game of Thrones” [who also ended their most recent season on a cliffhanger death]…

“I would love to sit down with those guys. I would buy them many beers. We could commiserate. We could compare notes. It’s a weird thing, it’s a hard thing. If you want to put the audience through an experience that mirrors the character’s experience it’s not pleasant, it’s challenging. It sometimes runs counter to what entertainment is.

“People have so many choices and there’s a certain flattening of emotion. I do believe that people want to feel and make them think and imagine and wonder and even be angry sometimes with the world of the characters. Or how much information they get and when they get it. I know it’s all in service to give the audience something.”

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