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‘The Walking Dead’ Mid-Season Premiere: Greg Nicotero on How to Destroy a Walker Herd

Read no further if you haven’t seen Sunday’s “The Walking Dead” mid-season premiere: Spoilers ahead!

For the first time since our heroes met Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), “The Walking Dead” fans are feeling some hope. Not only are Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and the rest of the Alexandria crew willing to mount a revolution, they know where the Saviors are, how to get there, and they’ve got some serious firepower. The tide may still be a long way from turning — maybe another seven episodes — but the gang is at last back together. Executive producer Greg Nicotero, who also directed Sunday’s episode, broke down the mid-season premiere for Variety.

You guys took some flak for the sheer hopelessness of the first half of the season. This episode felt like even more of a relief — was that why the first eight episodes had to be so dark?

I don’t know if it was calculated that way in terms of eliciting an emotional response. But it’s the journey that Rick is on. Nobody wants to see their hero with a boot on his head, getting his head stomped into the ground. But horrible things happen, and on our show, Rick had a pretty good run of being able to get past a lot of the bad things that landed in front of him, and this was a situation where he didn’t have a way out. Negan took advantage of it. We could’ve killed Negan in the second episode, but then it’s like, “Where do we go?” It was an uncomfortable first half of the season, but when you have the opportunity to see Rick stand up again, it’s the fighter on the ropes coming back out of the corner. It’s great to see. This episode has a very different feel that anything we’ve done.

The exciting thing now is things are starting to accelerate. The second half of the season always has a very specific speed and trajectory. We’re turning a corner. We’re still dedicated to telling the story the best way we know how. I’ll always talk about Season 2 of this show, when it aired people were like, “Nothing happened!” And I thought, these people could not be more off-base. Season 2 allowed us the opportunity to get to know these people. We got to meet these people we got to know better than we know in real life. Be patient! Let us take you on the journey.

The way Rick and Michonne (Danai Gurira) took care of that walker herd was pretty novel. How much of that was CG versus practical effects?

With our midseason premieres, we always want to have that one over-the top-moment when everybody cheers. Our audience doesn’t get them that often. This particular sequence I had a lot of input in.

The cable and the cars were right there in an earlier incarnation of the script: Initially, they recovered some of the bombs and blow up the walker herd and go through it. And I said to Scott [Gimple] and Angela Kang, who wrote the episode, if you want to add five minutes to the script, you’d see the beautiful setup you’ve laid out for me. That was my sort of homage to Robert Rodriguez and “Planet Terror.” And it gives Rick and Michonne the opportunity to be on the same page again. We haven’t seen that in so long, they were coming from two completely different places. But now they’re working in tandem together. Literally.

So about 75% of that is CG. The overhead shots, we used a drone. And we had all these cameras going, 125 extras in walker makeup. It was very specifically choreographed, to get the biggest bang for your buck. It was thrilling.

What’s the deal with Gabriel leaving?

If you watch that opening sequence a couple of times, there’s some little Easter eggs that has some clues there as to what’s going on. You’ll discover relatively quickly where he goes. It’s no mistake that when they go to the boat and they get surrounded.

Who are those people that surrounded Rick and company? Are they from the comics?

I don’t think they are actually. Scott Gimple’s pretty good about mixing things up. Unless it’s something that was introduced in literally the last month or two. No. But you’ll see.

Will Rick try again to convince King Ezekiel to join them?

We’re at a point now where Rick’s trying to put an army together. He knows how far-reaching they are and how strong Negan is. He’s putting his plan together. I don’t think anything is every going to be ruled out. The episode is a series of wins and losses. But the losses make Rick stronger and make him realize he needs to try harder. When he’s surrounded by this unknown group of people, he smiles, because this is a group of people he can recruit.

And lastly: Morgan kept his word! He didn’t tell the others where Carol was.

That’s a fascinating moment. Morgan’s whole thing here, it’s something the audience thinks about: He doesn’t know that Glenn and Abraham are dead. You assume word spreads quickly, but that’s not the case. Still Morgan’s like there’s got to be another opportunity other than fighting. He’s proven to be a trusted advisor. I think Morgan admires Ezekiel because he realizes there is a way to live where killing is not the first priority. He’s showing Benjamin a more serene way of life. Morgan wavered a bit at the end of last season, but he realized in the second episode it wasn’t his place to save her. He lets her go to the cabin and it’s great. All this stuff is just fascinating to watch.

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