The Walking Dead's Greg Nicotero and Negan's First Victim Discuss the Season 7 Premiere

Evan Lewis
Negan - The Walking Dead Season 7 Premiere Spoiler Alert
Gene Page/AMC

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the Season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead

Half a year of murder-hype promos and bloody baseball bat gifs has passed, and The Walking Dead has finally subjected the world to its dreaded season premiere. Stroke after stroke of alternating fan service and fan hostility on Sunday night led to the less than surprising death of Abraham (Michael Cudlitz), the also unsurprising but gratuitously gory death of Glenn (Steven Yeun), and the relentless but ultimately fruitless teasing that Rick could maybe, just maybe, finally lose that hand (the one he’s been missing in the comics since he first met The Governor). Cudlitz and executive producer/director Greg Nicotero spoke out Monday afternoon with their opinions on the controversial Season 7 opener.

In keeping with the graphic novel source material, Negan’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) introduction on the show was the most harrowing moment in an already disturbing story, but the show took the violence from the page and doubled down. After so much buildup of expectations, Nicotero was careful to stick to the tone of the books for inspiration in the season premiere. “It was horrifically graphic and senseless and brutal [in the comics], and I wanted to try to capture those moments,” Nicotero said.

His justification for the show including two deaths (as opposed to just one in the corresponding comic story) was all about Rick’s (Andrew Lincoln) mindset and willingness to resist Negan’s dominance. “We really needed to drive Rick and Negan’s story throughout the season. We felt that one death would do the trick, but the second death, Glenn’s death, really, really propels us into a very different direction. It’s about Negan laying down the law.”

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Gene Page/AMC

Cudlitz as Abraham, staring down Negan.

The first of the episode’s two casualties, Abraham, was something of a red herring, providing a plausibly poignant loss, but not an unbearable one, while leading viewers to believe that they’d made it through the worst the night had to offer. It wasn’t until Lucille deformed Glenn’s head that the full impact of Negan’s sadism on the direction of the show became clear. Cudlitz was fully aware that his character’s death wouldn’t be the biggest takeaway, and he wouldn’t have had it any other way. He was glad that Abraham got a defiant soldier’s death, sacrificing himself for the good of the group, but the emotional punch had to come from the relationship between Glenn and Maggie (Lauren Cohan).

“I’m a fan of both the graphic novel and the TV show, so when we were doing this, I was very specific to [showrunner] Scott [Gimple]," Cudlitz said. "I said ‘This cannot in any way take away from Glenn’s death.’ Glenn has a much more cemented, emotional place in the show. I get it, the fans love the Abraham character…but, the character of Glenn, we’ve watched him grow up from a kid.”

RELATED: Glenn’s History of Close Calls With Death

Abraham’s death wasn’t entirely stoic, despite the Glenn scene cashing in most of the episode’s emotional capital. Cudlitz added in a “very loaded peace sign” to Abraham’s love interest, Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green), a move he thought up after filming the Season 6 finale and knowing that he was limited in his movements by what viewers had seen through his character’s eyes.

With firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to be written off the show, Cudlitz assured press that any character could be the next to go. “I don’t care who you are, whether it’s Michonne, Daryl, Carl, Rick, there’s no safety in the show right now, none, which is great,” Cudlitz said. “As a kid growing up you always had Captain Kirk [getting into] danger, but you always knew Captain Kirk was going to be on next week. It’s Star Trek, he’s not really in danger. Our show puts you in real jeopardy. Our show really makes you fear for the characters you care about, which draws out an emotional experience and puts you very much in the moment.”

Beyond saying goodbye to beloved characters, the episode also provided some challenges to Nicotero and the cast that were more technical in nature. Pushing the limits of acceptable violence on TV was a special undertaking for horror makeup guru Nicotero.

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Gene Page/AMC

Nicotero (center) with Norman Reedus, Morgan and Lincoln.

“For Steven, we built multiple versions of that prosthetic with the eyeball popped out. And then when he’s on the ground and the head is crushed, we actually dug a hole and put Steven’s face down into the ground and we covered the back of his head with this sort of turtleneck crushed head so that you could see his real hands twitching and moving.”

Adds Cudlitz, “It is quite disturbing seeing somebody who’s been built up to the exact features of you or somebody you know and seeing their head smashed in or seeing them getting beaten, even though you know it’s not them, the image of that is quite disturbing. My wife said even though she knew it wasn’t me, she could go her whole lifetime without seeing that again.”

As for those decrying the show and renouncing all future viewership, Nicotero believes that the backlash comes from a place of deep-seated love for the way the show operates, and not from disgust at cable gore gone awry. “We’ve done something to affect these people in a way that they don’t necessarily know how to process,” Nicotero said. “I think it’s a kneejerk reaction people have because they care about these characters.”

Nicotero also promised that for those who weren’t turned off by the gruesome season premiere, there will be significant narrative payoff for starting out the season in such grim fashion. Rick, Maggie and especially Daryl (Norman Reedus), whose outburst indirectly caused Glenn’s death, will be shaped by the events of last night’s episode for seasons to come.

“We thought it was important to launch us into the season by showing the extent of what Negan is capable of doing, because that drives so much of where the series is going from here on in,” Nicotero said. “[It leads to] the opportunity to then introduce the new worlds and new characters and exploiting all of that.”

The Walking Dead, Sundays, 9/8c, AMC