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‘Walking Dead’ Season 7 Premiere: Greg Nicotero Previews Negan’s Big Decision, Ezekiel’s Storyline

There is an extra fervor for “The Walking Dead” to return for its seventh season.

The Season 6 finale ended, almost infamously now, with Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) introducing his bat Lucille directly to the skull of one of Rick Grimes’ gang. But fans were left to wonder about the identity of Negan’s victim. Here, executive producer Greg Nicotero, who also directed the Season 7 premiere, tells Variety about the pressures going into this season, choosing Negan’s victim and what’s in store for the rest of the gang.

How was directing the premiere? I imagine there was a little added pressure with this one.

Only by about a million percent. It’s always difficult when you’re dealing with a character death, but it’s also the season premiere which launches us back into the world again. Given where we left off last year, I felt more pressure directing this episode than I ever have.

How often do fans come up and ask “Who did Negan kill?” Do you have a standard answer at this point?

I get it a lot. A bunch of people have come up to me saying “I know you’re not going to tell me, but it would be really great if you just let me know who it is.” When we were on set we did one take where Jeffrey hit me in the head with the baseball bat, so when people ask me who Negan killed I say me. I have video on my phone of me having my head bashed in by Negan.

Are you more eager than usual for the show to come back so the question will be answered?

I’m excited for the show to come back because it feels like this hiatus has been longer than any other. We’ve done our best to preserve the integrity of the episode and the show. It’s difficult to do press when you know you can’t really say much. I’ve been talking to the actors the past couple of days and we’re just excited for it to finally be out there.

Do you expect the fans will think the answer was worth the wait?

I would probably say that people will be sad, I recommend watching the episode with lots of Kleenex, and there will be a lot of questions and a lot of whys and “What’s going to happen next?” and “How could you?” but that’s attributed to us spending seven years creating characters that people care about.

In the writer’s room, was it always a unanimous decision who Negan’s victim would be, or was there some debate?

It’s really about propelling the story forward. I remember when I found out I was upset, and the first thing I thought was, “I wonder who else it could be?” But you have to understand that certain characters will propel different people into different directions. It wasn’t a matter of a unanimous vote, but we have a very important story to tell and we have to honor the direction that the show will go. The hardest thing on our show is acknowledging who has got to go.

Moving away from Negan, and all the characters on his chopping block, what can you tease about Morgan and Carol’s situation as the season starts?

I was excited that Morgan and Carol weren’t in the line-up. Seeing these two people dealing with this whole new-found community, and seeing how Morgan deals with what he’s done and how Carol deals with it, is a very good relief from the world that we ended up in last season. Carol and Morgan provide the introduction to the Kingdom for us, and we’ve spent a lot of effort making sure that we are doing justice to create a larger world. We have the Kingdom, we have Alexandria, we have the Hilltop, we have Negan’s compound the Sanctuary, so we have a lot of different flavors to explore.

Since he was introduced in the comics, I’d wondered how the show would handle Ezekiel (Khary Payton). He’s one of the more “comic-booky” characters to join the show — his community has a theme, he has a pet tiger — what was it like adapting him for the show?

It was great. It’s such a contrast to the other worlds that we’ve experienced, to see a guy like Ezekiel who basically stepped into this role out of necessity. He’s a very different leader than Gregory or Rick or Negan, and I think that’s tremendously interesting. He’s in a community that has actually been doing pretty well.

The Walking Dead” returns for Season 7 on Sunday, Oct. 23 on AMC.

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