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‘The Walking Dead’: Andrew Lincoln on Midseason Premiere Casualties, Negan’s Arrival and ‘Appalling’ Season Finale

Spoiler warning: This article contains plot details for “The Walking Dead” Season 6, Episode 9, titled “No Way Out.”

After an anticlimactic midseason finale, “The Walking Dead” seemed determined to make up for lost time in its 2016 return, resulting in a veritable bloodbath that dispatched Jessie and her sons Sam and Ron in typically brutal fashion — simultaneously satisfying our bloodlust (because no one appreciates whiny kids at the best of times, let alone in a zombie apocalypse) and leaving Carl permanently maimed, after a horrified Ron took a shot at Rick and hit his son in the eye instead.

This precipitated a rapid descent into chaos, filmed with frenetic energy (if not much art) by director and executive producer Greg Nicotero, who made some bold aesthetic choices in the action-packed hour that didn’t always pay off — for one, the climactic montage of the survivors hacking at zombies against a black backdrop inadvertently distracted from the momentum of the bloody battle, likely designed to give each character a “hero shot,” but playing like a cheesy ’80s B-movie that blunted the emotional urgency of the scene.

What the episode did do right — unlike Nicotero’s meandering season premiere — was keep the tension and adrenaline ratcheted up throughout, first in Daryl, Sasha and Abraham’s terse encounter with Negan’s followers out on the road, then through the unfolding anarchy inside Alexandria, which finally saw the compound’s sheltered survivors prove their worth, resulting in a triumphant team effort that even allowed Father Gabriel to make himself useful. The show continues to toy with viewers’ affection for Glenn (as the producers have arguably been doing for several seasons), once again seeing him cornered by a zombie horde only to be narrowly saved by Abraham and Sasha — but after the emotional bait-and-switch of the first half of the season and that frustrating dumpster fakeout, those playful jabs from writer Seth Hoffman felt a little like pouring salt in the wound.

But the episode’s standout moment came from one of its simplest scenes — a terrified father sitting by his son’s bedside, as Rick begged Carl not to leave him. “The Walking Dead” has always been strongest in those intimate, character-driven beats, and as Andrew Lincoln recently told Variety, “it makes me so happy that [the episode] is impossibly huge and epic but then it finishes in such a tender, small, emotional way with a father and a son. When I watched Greg Nicotero film it, it was so moving, because you have the new family outside, waiting in vigil, and then the camera goes inside and you’ve got the inner circle — the originals, the family — and then Michonne at the door, and then the inner-inner circle of the father and son, and I loved the fact that everybody stood together in this crisis, willing this boy to pull through.”

Variety spoke to Lincoln about the emotional fallout of the premiere, how Carl’s injury will affect both him and Rick moving forward, and how the introduction of comic book villain Negan will change the dynamic of the show.

Obviously the biggest moment out of many big moments in the premiere is Carl being shot – which will clearly have lasting repercussions for him both physically and emotionally. How does that experience shape Rick in the back half, and perhaps alter their relationship?

Certainly if we’re going to echo the comics, which I hope we do, I think it marks a very interesting turning point in Rick and Carl’s relationship. If he makes it, which we hope he does, in the comic books he’s disfigured, and you know, he’s a teenage boy. He’s a boy and with one eye, he’s an uncompromising presence, and certainly it’s hard enough parenting an adolescent — so I hear — in the millennium, let alone a zombie apocalypse. It’s not going to be without its problems. I also dig, particularly, the relationship — which is almost a triangle — between Negan, Rick and Carl. I think that’s a really interesting psychological battleground; the father figure and a parent that cares desperately about and would give his life for his son, sometimes can be smothering and not value the son enough or not listen to the son as a true leader in his own right. Whereas someone else may offer that, which is very interesting. All of this ground is the stuff I’ve been waiting for, certainly in that relationship. I think it’s really interesting; it’s touching upon the same moral ambiguity of “The Grove” and episodes like that. I think we’re getting into muddy, deep and dark waters, and as an actor, for my taste, it really excites me, I’m really interested in that area. In short, I think it gets very complicated, very quickly.

Rick also lost Jessie this week; they were only just starting to get close, but they obviously had a connection — how does that affect him when piled on top of all this other trauma he’s had to deal with?

When I read that scene, when all of us did — Sam getting bitten, Jessie getting bitten, me having to chop her arm off and then Ron shooting at me and then shooting my son and then Ron being stabbed by Michonne — we all read it and laughed. We just went, “this is an impossible scene, thank you! How are we supposed to do this?” And I think, like most times on the show when we have to put ourselves through emotional marathons, you look around and everyone just goes in and commits. We’re very fortunate that all of those actors are just brilliant.

It is horrendous. Jessie was one of the first people in Alexandria to touch Rick, to open him up to a viable community and make him empathize with them and their plight. But she also allowed him to open up a part of his heart that he’d kept shut down for a long, long time, and to trust and to dare to even feel that way for another human being after the loss of Lori. So to have to go through this trauma and witness this in such shocking fashion is appalling, but it’s almost like it gets overridden — everything just gets worse and then worse and then worse, so much so that he has to hand what he thinks is his dying son over to someone who he doesn’t know, and he’s powerless. And I think that’s why he just processes it all and channels it all into this impotent rage and just has to get this energy out.

But the wonderful thing is, even all of that trauma gets overridden by the fact that everybody stands shoulder to shoulder and fights alongside each other, and they become brothers in arms, and it is like the last stand, and everybody’s reunited and it is our “Magnificent Seven.” And I think that’s the genius of the writing — you kind of go “no! What?! No!” I would love to see a bar watching that episode. I don’t want to see the episode, I just want to see how people watch the episode with lots of people because it’s ridiculous, what happens, but it makes me so happy that it is impossibly huge and epic and all those things but then it finishes in such a tender, small, emotional way with a father and a son. But when I watched Greg Nicotero shooting it, it was so moving, because you have the new family outside, waiting in vigil, and then the camera goes inside and you’ve got the inner circle, the originals, the family, and then Michonne at the door, and then the inner-inner circle of the father and son, and I loved the fact that everybody stood together in this crisis, willing this boy to pull through. I find it moving talking about it, because … I don’t know because I won’t ever watch it, but I hope they didn’t use the snot takes in the bedside scene, because there were quite a lot. Even the camera guys were going “wipe your nose.”

Rick began the season determined to keep his distance from the Alexandrians and demonstrating a very “us versus them” mentality – how will that position evolve in the back half of the season now that they’ve been through this gauntlet together?

It’s a massive watershed episode, and it marks a real change in Rick’s leadership and his feelings about Alexandria, the people within it, and also their future. It’s a huge, huge departure from where he’s been… The final moments of the episode can almost be day zero, it’s almost civilization begins from this point, for the first time. Because I think the key thing that’s been missing for so long is hope. It’s the first time that Rick, in spite of the trauma and the carnage, [Carl surviving] has given him his first feelings of hope since he was shot two years ago.

We’ve seen Rick’s core group very fractured in the first half, as has been the case in previous seasons — will we see more of a united front in the remaining episodes?

Yeah, the back eight is exciting, and we move very quickly. It’s different and we’re gunning towards one of the best, most appalling and brilliant season finales we’ve ever attempted. It made me physically sick when I read it, and if we’ve done it right, you will [be] too. You’re gonna be made nauseous! The story moves very quickly, you see very much a unified front, but what happens is, loosely speaking, so much of the stories for the last couple of years have looked inwardly, towards group dynamic and how we assimilate, whether or not we can or can’t, and that question is not in doubt anymore. We turn our eyesight outside the walls, and in one direction we see an incredibly exciting, beautiful, optimistic vista. In the other direction, we see hell. [Laughs.] The world opens up and the world just got a whole lot bigger.

Speaking of expanding the world this season, our group is going to have contact with a lot of different factions, between Hilltop and the Wolves and the Saviors – how would you say that affects Rick’s leadership style?

One of the great things I like about playing Rick is that he began — six years ago in my life — as the visible embodiment of law and order, and he’s used to being in situations as a cop, when [dealing with] people in heightened situations of duress and stress, he’s a natural person that people would look to in this environment. But he’s been pushed in so many different directions and… in a place that has no law and order, seemingly, and the goalposts keep changing, how do you reevaluate that, and what is society now? I think that’s always been the thing, it’s changed his moral compass continually. I think there’s always been a righteous father and husband – he used to be a husband – in all of this, but he’s been pushed and pulled and tormented and tortured by the fates and lost his mind. He’s been on this incredible emotional rollercoaster, and I think where you find the man now is … he’s a leader that has everything, but with that confidence comes possibly hubris. There’s a tendency to believe — and they are an incredibly powerful, dynamic group of survivors, but everywhere else you look, anyone else who’s left is equally as self-sufficient. We’re gonna meet somebody… we’re gonna meet a few people, a lot of people — more people than you can imagine in the back eight — and a lot of different ways of surviving, some good, and some very, very bad.

How would you contrast Rick’s leadership style with Negan’s?

I can’t really go into great detail about that, but all I know is that from the comic books, he’s an incredibly funny, incredibly charming and lethal leader, and I know that we’ve got Jeffrey Dean Morgan who is all of those things, and … all I will say is, I think people will be very happy when they see his entrance.

What makes Negan different from other enemies they’ve faced in the past, like The Governor?

He’s unashamedly psychotic. [Laughs.] He’s unapologetic about his means, his ways of getting his points across and getting things done. He’s absolutely unapologetic, I think that’s the closest I can answer that.

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

What did you think of the midseason premiere? Were you glad to see Jessie and her sons bite the dust? Weigh in below!

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