The Walking Dead: Director Greg Nicotero Breaks Down the Bloody Midseason Premiere

Rob Moynihan
The Walking Dead
Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading if you have not yet seen The Walking Dead's midseason premiere!

The battle of Alexandria may be over, but the body count continued to rise during the midseason premiere of AMC's The Walking Dead.

The zombie apocalypse drama returned on Sunday night in spectacular fashion as Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and all of the residents of the Safe-Zone banded together for the very first time to wage an all-out attack on the swarm of walkers that had penetrated the walls of their community. But Rick witnessed a handful of horrifying losses: young Sam (Major Dodson) could not stay quiet while navigating the dangerous streets and was consumed by a walker. Sam's mother and Rick's love interest Jessie (Alexandra Breckenridge) also fell victim to the herd as she watched her son die, and Rick was forced to cut off her arm in order to free his son Carl (Chandler Riggs) from her grasp. Jessie's older boy Ron (Austin Abrams) blamed his mother's death on the Grimes and pointed a gun in their direction; Michonne (Danai Gurira) killed him, but not before he'd shot Carl in the eye. Carol (Melissa McBride) shot the Wolf (Benedict Samuel) who'd taken Denise (Merritt Wever) hostage, allowing the doctor to escape in time to save Carl.

Outside the walls, Daryl (Norman Reedus), Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) had an encounter with Negan's (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) men, but managed to escape thanks to a rocket propelled grenade. Once they arrived back in Alexandria, saving Glenn (Steven Yeun) along the way, Daryl used their fuel truck to light the community's lake on fire, drawing the zombies into the flames.

We talked to executive producer, special effects supervisor and the episode's director Greg Nicotero about what's next for the survivors, the logistics of shooting such a massive episode and the behind-the-scenes mishap that resonated with the cast all season long.

This episode felt like a Night of the Living Dead homage. Was that intentional?
Without a doubt. As a matter of fact, the first thing that I said to [showrunner] Scott [Gimple] was that we have to do it at night. For six years, we've seen walkers wandering the streets of Atlanta, in the woods and now in Alexandria. We really needed to change the mood. When you're shooting in the summertime, night is the shortest part of your 24-hour period. We were only able to shoot eight and a half hours before the sun started coming up again, so I was basically diminishing my shoot time by insisting that we shoot it at night. But I was that dedicated to building in some of the mood and atmosphere that I really felt the episode needed.

"No Way Out" is an iconic chapter in the comic book series. What moments were most important for you to replicate as closely as you could to the source material?
Clearly the reveal of Carl and Rick's reaction were the two most iconic moments. I matched those frames almost identically to the panels in the comic book. When you think about The Walking Dead, you think about the iconic moments in the graphic novel. For me, I remember when Shane (Jon Bernthal) got shot and when Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) was killed. So I remember this moment with Jessie and just the idea of a woman seeing her child killed in front of her. The moment that Sam is bitten, Jessie is already dead. There's another scene that's coming up later in the season that is an iconic moment in the comic book that puts a lot of pressure on me as a director to make sure I do the source material justice.

How do these tragic events affect Rick going forward? Is anyone who gets close to him just cursed in this world?
[Laughs] I don't think so. The main thing that we learn about Rick is when Rick goes back out into the street and the rage of him slashing and killing walker after walker and everybody joining him, it's a transition for him. He realizes now that because Carl was almost killed, he's a new man. He is a man who now is not willing to jeopardize anybody outside of his group. This is about going forward with society. For Rick, it is the first time in six years that he is able to shed any of those prejudices about who is worthy about being in this group and who is worth fighting for.

How does this change Carl?
Carl's got some darkness in him. These events affect everybody. But this is probably the closest that we've ever had to a happy ending. They made it through, even though we lost a couple people. When Carl squeezes Rick's hand, that's about as good as you can get in the world of The Walking Dead.

What's next in the rebuilding process?
They have a renewed sense of community now. The fact that Denise gets back to the infirmary and saves Carl's life— Carl would have died if it hadn't been for Denise. So there is a renewed sense of "we're in this together," which is illustrated visually by the fact that they're all fighting side by side at the end of the episode.

The W man was such a huge story catalyst in the first half of the season, so why did you decide to have Carol kill him?
I thought the W man had a little thing for Denise. If he can get her over the wall and hook up with any of his group that is still out there, I think he imagines a life with her. He's fascinated with the fact that she's so terrified. She's never been outside of the walls, ever, and it's sort of ironic to him when he's looking up there. And when they're running across the street, she gets grabbed and he turns and goes back for her. He didn't have to turn and go back for her, but he did. And by turning to go back for her, he seals his fate and he's bitten and then everything's changed. Then she says come with me and I'm going to save you.

Do you think she would have really saved his life?
I do think she would have saved his life. They were on their way to the infirmary when Carol shot him. Denise doesn't have a lot of time because the second that she gets into the infirmary, she realizes she can't be scared, afraid or timid anymore. She has a job to do. She's the physician for Alexandria. When they look out the window and they see Rick running with Carl and Michonne slashing her way through the hoard to get to the infirmary, there is no doubt in her mind that she was saved for a reason. And it's a great turn for her character. And there is a split second of redemption for the W man because Morgan's been saying for the whole first half of the season that there is good in people, and the W man actually turns around and saves Denise.

We also got to see more of Negan's men in the cold open. Will Daryl's actions with the rocket launcher have repercussions for the group as a whole?
In this world, sure, there are always going to be repercussions. If somebody killed somebody else in your group, you're going to take it personally. The rules of the world have changed. But Norman and I talked a lot about Daryl's character and where he's going through the season, and the fact that Daryl is the one who comes up with the plan to save Alexandria is critical. Daryl's like, I got this. I remember Scott saying to me, "Hey, I think we're going to light the lake in Alexandria on fire and have all the walkers drawn to the flame," and my first instinct was, "Wow, that's very random because monsters generally are not attracted to fire." They are always repelled by fire. So we spent some time setting up events, especially in Episode 6, when they're talking about when they blew up the first tanker truck and D (Austin Amelio) is telling Daryl that we lit this whole area on fire and all the walkers were drawn to the flames. It's a moment that happens in dialogue that you might have missed, but we were laying the groundwork for that here. And I will say that the majority of those shots were all practical. We actually lit that lake on fire and then we had a second unit day where we had stuntmen and we had put fuel into the lake behind the studio. The stuntmen walked into an actual lake on fire. So there's not a lot of visual effects enhancement, that was all done practically. It's a tremendous accomplishment from our effects team and our stunt team because it was pretty astounding to light that lake on fire and shoot those elements.

When I was on set for this filming of this episode, there was a little technical snafu with the initial explosion though, right?
That was great. We had 150 zombies, 25 actors and the sun was coming up. As the zombies are pushing them towards the fence, I had to give the cue verbally for the explosion on the lake. And I screamed it. I didn't miss the cue because some people heard it. I would yell "KABOOM" from the top of my lungs. At one point, some of the people turned and Andy kept swinging and swinging and yelled, "Where's the f---ing kaboom?!" In the middle of 200 people in the shot and five camera crews. It was the funniest thing. That was one of the lines that through the rest of the season, people would walk by me and go, "Hey, where's the f---ing kaboom?" F---ing Andy Lincoln!

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The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.