The Walking Dead’s showrunner, Scott M. Gimple, knows about your crazy Terminus cannibal theories—and he’s a little confused.
To hear Gimple tell it, the mysterious residents of Terminus—who opened fire at Rick’s group in Sunday night’s Season 4 finale and locked them in a cargo container—might just be … misunderstood? They’re “maybe not the worst guys in the world,” he says. (After all, main hero Rick Grimes is now the guy who bites people’s throats out.)
But scrutinizing Walking Dead fans have picked up on signs of something darker going on at the “sanctuary for all.” The slabs of meat on Mary’s grill? The way she said “we’ll make you a plate” when welcoming Glenn's group to the prison? Many have pointed out that Terminus seems to echo a storyline involving cannibals from Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead graphic novels, a theory Gimple calls “utter fair play”—but beware of taking Mary’s grill as evidence.
The Daily Beast caught up with Gimple to discuss Season 4’s intensely violent finale, what’s ahead for Season 5, and what Mary’s grill really means.
How much of Season 5 have the writers sketched out?
The whole story, more than generally. The beginning, middle, and end of the entire season, specifically a lot deeper into the first eight episodes, we’re well down the road with those. On the back half there’s a little less specificity, but we know a lot of the big moments and the emotional stories. A lot of the information starts with their character arcs, then goes into building the story that serves them.
Why did it feel important to you to have Rick shift into this mode where he can readily access his brutality?
In the prison, Rick stepped away from brutality; he stepped away from leadership, primarily to be there for his daughter and ensure that his son would not go down a dark path. He put away his gun and became a farmer. But after losing the prison, that wasn’t the reality anymore. The world came back for him.
It was really the threshold he needed to cross to have the tools to deal with that world, while still not forgetting the lessons that he learned and the progress that he made at the prison—one aspect of which is that at the end of this episode, Carl is concerned for himself and whether or not he’s a monster. That’s actually a pretty big victory in as much that Carl is even thinking about that; he wasn’t before Rick became a farmer. So, it worked, he did have that victory. It’s a sad victory, but a victory nonetheless.
The Walking Dead has always been dark, but this season pushed the boundaries even further, with Carol killing Lizzie and that man forcing himself onto Carl.
The darker turn that we’ve gone down really has to do with their circumstances and the story. We started out this season at maybe the least dark the show had been in a long time. There was a little bit of comedy, there was a little bit of romance. There was peace. Then the Governor came for them. Once they lost the prison, the world became a darker place for all of them. But they carried with them a lot of the positive stuff that they learned at the prison and it helped maintain who they are. Andy [Lincoln] said something very cool last night about Hershel, about how Hershel is still such a strong influence on all of these characters. Everything they went through enabled them to face the incredibly dark things outside the safety of the prison.
Where do you draw the line for what can happen in the show?
I mean, as long as it’s there for the story and not shock value. There is one additional step of not doing something purposefully gratuitous, you know, really thinking, “Did we earn this moment?” And within these moments, there’s both sensitivity to be applied and broadcast standards to be adhered to as well.
How do you guys plan to handle the trauma of what happened to Carl on Sunday? It seemed like the attack was about to become a rape.
Well, he was being held down. I don’t want to say one way or the other what was going on beyond that. That character Dan was just holding him down making sure he didn’t get away. He wasn’t laughing like it was nothing, which made it pretty horrific, but I will say the actor who played Dan is an unbelievably sweet, intelligent, sensitive guy. We couldn’t have chosen a better guy to play that role, ‘cause he played creepy really well.
“In the first episode at the prison, there’s a woman at the grill flipping meat. That was Carol. So in some ways, this place was supposed to echo the prison. I suppose if it was a different situation, people would have walked into the prison, seen Carol and gone, ‘Oh my God, these people are cannibals!’”
And Carl’s a pretty tough kid. If you notice, he was more worried about the dark thoughts he was having afterward, which were very much in line with the things that Rick did. In Carl’s head, he was all but cheering on his father. But he recognizes that that isn’t necessarily a good thing; that to even approve of what his father did is scary. As far as the trauma, he’s more traumatized by his own reaction to it, which I believe is a good thing ‘cause he’s checking himself and keeping his humanity.
Back to Terminus, we saw only a bunch of young people and one older woman, Mary. There was a room with tons of lit candles and writing on the wall. Is there anything about what we saw last night that you’re allowed to explain?
I’m technically allowed to tell you more than I even care to. As a viewer, I hate spoilers, I hate getting ahead of the story. I think it’s good to get people’s imaginations to think about it. And I think a lot of people are applying a lot of stuff from the comics to it.
Does that mean you’ve heard the cannibal theories by now?
Oh, yeah. It is utter fair play because if people are following the timeline of the comic, we’re right about there. But, you know, Mary and Gareth weren’t in the comics, Terminus wasn’t in the comics—it’s an invention that all of us came up with, including Robert [Kirkman] himself. It’s just a different thing. But, man, yeah, put a little meat on the grill and people go crazy. I will say—and maybe we were being too clever by half—but in the first episode at the prison, there’s a woman at the grill flipping meat. That was Carol. So in some ways, this place was supposed to echo the prison. I suppose if it was a different situation, people would have walked into the prison, seen Carol and gone, “Oh my God, these people are cannibals!” Though we did have Patrick mention that Daryl had caught a deer the day before. But there are a heck of a lot of deer in Georgia and they’re quick; walkers can’t catch them. In trying to echo the prison, I might not have accounted for people’s sensitivity to that stuff.
Is there any chance that this whole Terminus confrontation is just a big misunderstanding?
Well that’s a great point. Who knows what happened—well, we know but we’re not telling—with Glenn’s group. But with Rick’s group, look at it through the Terminus people’s lens. Like, what the hell? You kind of went pretty aggressive there. The Terminus people didn’t try to kill them, all the gunshots were aimed at their feet, except for one. So maybe they’re not the worst guys in the world; maybe they think that our guys are the worst in the world. And who knows? Rick does bite people’s throats out now, so there is that.
The second half of Season 4 focused on individual groups of characters in order to do more with their development. Is that something you’re taking forward into Season 5, now that almost the entire prison group is reunited?
That’s a great question. The show changes every eight episodes. The next eight episodes are going to be completely different from the previous eight. It’s not like we’re giving up on developing these characters, but it’s going to be in a very different format. You know, there isn’t even one half season where people go, “Oh yeah, that’s The Walking Dead.” It’s a show that plays around with its focus and its format and we’ll keep doing that. But the calibration and balance of character development to other stuff will always be different from season to season. But we will always have characters with full stories that play out over the entire season. We can’t wait for people to see it.