‘The Walking Dead’: Seth Gilliam Breaks Down Gabriel’s Crisis of Faith

the walking dead father gabriel seth gilliam
Josh Stringer/AMC

[WARNING: The following contains MAJOR spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 11, Episode 7, “Promises Broken.”]

In “Promises Broken,” Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) made a shocking decision: He chose mercy. He chose not to kill a Reaper he came across on a scouting mission, even though he’d promised Maggie (Lauren Cohan) that if he had the opportunity to take one of the baddies out, that he’d take it.

It was an unexpected move from the man whose faith in humanity and God has been decreasing steadily; the man who bludgeoned Mays (guest star Robert Patrick) to death, and killed a different Reaper only a few episodes earlier. We chatted with Gilliam about Gabriel’s choice to spare the religious Reaper, whether his actions might spell trouble for him later on (as they often do), and whether anything could make the man of God truly believe again.

Gabriel had a clear shot at that Reaper. He told Maggie that if he had a clear shot, he would take it. But he doesn’t. Why?

I think he was taken aback by seeing someone who had the fervor for communicating with God that he used to have. I think that it just clouded the moment for him, on whether this person deserved to die or not.

Was that the main difference between this and the incident in Episode 3, where there was the other Reaper that Gabriel kills?

They were just coming off of a night of battle, and as Gabriel was pulling the ice pick out of his leg, he was trying to communicate with God and trying to hear the voice of God and get some direction from God. And he heard nothing, so he took matters into his own hands and tracked down someone who was trying to kill his friends and dispatched his particular brand of justice.

I wanted to talk about that line, too: “God isn’t here anymore.” How much does Gabriel truly believe that?

I think that to some extent, at this point, Gabriel believes that God isn’t here anymore. He can’t hear the voice of God, he can’t hear the direction of God, he can’t see the vision of God.

Dikran Tulaine as Mancea , the walking dead season 11 episode 7

Josh Stringer/AMC

When and why do you think Gabriel’s attitude toward survival and humanity took a dark turn? Was it the Whisperers? Was it Mays? Was there an inciting incident?

I think it was the Whisperer War. I think it had a profound impact on him, seeing what people were capable of doing and believing in order to survive. I think he lost a little of his faith in humanity from his encounters with the Whisperers.

This has been a pretty religious season so far. The Reapers, in and of themselves, are a religious group. What would Gabriel have to say about their brand of religion?

Gabriel would not approve. For Gabriel, when he is fully enraptured in his faith, it is about love. God is love. The Reapers, for Gabriel, represent far darker and more sinister aspects of the human condition. They are about greed and suppression.

In some ways, they almost use their faith as a weapon. Especially Pope. He seems to justify his darker deeds by saying, “Well, that was God’s will.”

Yes. As many leaders throughout the history of the world have done, they have taken their faith and kind of warped it in a way, to put themselves above the person next to them, which is not what it’s all about.

the walking dead father gabriel seth gilliam

Josh Stringer/AMC

That makes me think about Gabriel and Aaron’s conversation about the man Gabriel learned from, who taught him that faith was about being there with people and connecting with them.

Yes. It’s about the human connection and recognizing that we’re all striving for the same thing, and we’re all made of the same stuff. No one person is more evolved than someone else. No one person is more deserving of something than someone else. We are trying to be the sum of our good deeds and our generosity toward our fellow man.

Now, Gabe not killing that Reaper has made me very nervous. This is the kind of show where no good deed goes unpunished, and those kinds of decisions come back to bite characters. Could that mercy cause trouble for him down the road?

It absolutely could. He who hesitates is lost, is something that comes to mind. I think that it definitely puts them in more danger, not taking out another member of the enemy forces.

In my opinion, Gabriel has had one of the more transformative character arcs on the show when you consider where he started and where he is now. There have been many versions of him. What version of him has been your favorite to play?

I’m enjoying this whole “dark side of the moon” thing that he’s got going on. But it was also really fun to play terrified and afraid when everyone else seemed to be so fortified and assured of what their purpose was in this new world. I think being the only character who is still afraid of walkers and people at a time when everyone else was seemingly so strong was fun to play. I don’t think the audience really cared for the kind of reminder of what we could be — I think that’s one of the reasons people were so upset with Gabriel. I think deep down, more people would’ve had Gabriel’s response than they would’ve had Rick’s [Andrew Lincoln] or Michonne’s [Danai Gurira] response to the world falling apart around them. I think people were kind of like, “I don’t want to see that! I want to see myself as the hero!”

the walking dead father gabriel seth gilliam

Josh Stringer/AMC

Going all the way back to the start of the season, Gabriel actually volunteered for this mission. And there was this look that Rosita (Christian Serratos) gave him, and you could tell she wasn’t happy. What motivated him to do that, rather than staying behind with Rosita and baby Coco?

I think that after the Whisperer War, it had a profound impact on Father Gabriel and he sees that he is more capable than he used to be of being a leader. That means taking control, and taking the reins, and going out there and putting yourself in harm’s way first, before the people that you love and care about. He is of the mind that, “If I can go out there and confront this and strike it down, that will protect them more than if I’m hanging around and telling them where to hide when the enemy shows up at our doors.”

Gabriel is part of an elite group of Walking Dead characters that have outlived their comics counterparts. Does that ever make you nervous?

Every script that comes out makes me nervous, because of that. Because anything is possible, and we are in uncharted territory with this character, in this storyline, at this point. For me, as the actor, every time I get a notification that I have a message or a call from [showrunner] Angela Kang, I’m like, “Well, this is it. It’s been a fun ride.” [Laughs]

If Gabriel and that Reaper would come face-to-face again, would he make the same choice?

I think if they came face-to-face again, I think he would probably want to understand what makes this man still believe.

the walking dead father gabriel seth gilliam

Josh Stringer/AMC

Preview for me what’s coming in the midseason finale — and beyond — should Gabriel be lucky enough to survive it!

You know, this might seem like a cop-out, but I don’t really remember. We’ve done so much stuff, and that was months ago. [Laughs] I’m just getting old!

I’ll end with this, then. Gabriel, right now, is at a place where it seems that his faith is very shaken. What would it take for him to be comfortable in his faith again?

I think it would take seeing an act of kindness from an unusual source for Gabriel to start to plug back into his faith and his belief in people. I think seeing kindness would do that.

The Walking Dead Season 11, Sundays, 9/8c, AMC