In 2018, The Walking Dead was on life support. Writers had run out of ideas, the stars were restless, and ratings had cratered. By the apocalyptic horror series’ season eight finale, it had lost 10million viewers in just three years.
To make matters worse, Andrew Lincoln, whose sweaty, musclebound hero Rick Grimes had anchored the show since its 2010 debut, wanted out. He’d grown sick of filming in Georgia, USA and wanted to spend more time with his wife and two young children at their home in England. Maybe it was for the best. Maybe this was an opportunity to turn things around.
“We thought Andrew Lincoln leaving might kill the show”
Step forward Angela Kang – a new showrunner for a new era. “We were all stressed out. We thought [Andrew leaving] might kill the show,” she says via Zoom, reflecting on that difficult time. Kang’s bold actions in the years since have breathed new life into every corner of the walker-infested wasteland. We tell her (truthfully) that, as the final Walking Dead episodes ever (!) prepare to air, the show’s never been better.
“It’s nice to think that people think [The Walking Dead] is the best it’s been for years,” she smiles. “We’ve always tried to make the best version of the show that we could, but sometimes circumstances that are out of your control – like the lead wanting to spend more time with his family – create a huge creative opportunity to just try something new. It can be energising, because the vacuum left by that character leaving influenced the decisions made going forward. We did wonder if there was a show without Rick… but then we thought: ‘Yes, of course there can be The Walking Dead without Rick!”
Kang, California-born and the daughter of working class Korean immigrants, has a long relationship with The Walking Dead. She started out as a story editor during season two, during an arduous run of episodes in which the ensemble cast largely sat around grumbling on a farm. Don’t hold that against her. The following season she was promoted to producer as the show finally delivered on the potential it had shown from the off, but never managed to consistently deliver on. She became co-executive producer for season five. And when showrunner Scott M. Gimple became chief Content Officer for the ever-expanding Walking Dead universe at the end of season eight, there was a ready-made replacement for the vacant role. Did she ever, during those years, think about what she’d do differently if she was given her chance in the big chair?
“Oh no,” Kang says, modestly. “I didn’t ever think that I would be the showrunner! I always thought that I’d work on staff for a long time. I knew and loved The Walking Dead – but when I was offered the showrunner job, I was getting ready to possibly transition to showrunning some other show.
“I never thought that I would be showrunner”
“You have those moments in life where you think: ‘What would have been different if I’d taken this path instead of that one?’ Everybody has those, but with The Walking Dead, it’s a show that demands a lot of focused attention, because there’s so much density. It’s a very complex show, to produce and to write. There’s not a lot of time to be thinking about anything that isn’t the show itself.”
But if Kang hadn’t been plotting in those years leading up to her new job, she was aware of what needed doing on day one. A new, tone-setting, graphic novel-inspired title sequence drew a line in the walker guts. This is The Walking Dead, it said, but it’s a different take on it. There was also the issue of how to accommodate the departure of Lauren Cohan, another of the show’s major players. Cohan, who played gutsy farmhand Maggie, was at that time in a pay dispute with studio AMC. Not good. And then there was the small issue of what to do with Rick…
“I was lucky that I had some lead time,” says Kang of Lincoln’s exit. “I knew Rick was leaving, and I had time to think about how to write him out and what came next. Certainly more than I’d had in previous seasons, because on those occasions, all the work overlaps.”
Kang also had ideas for who might flourish in Rick’s absence. “We wanted to flush out Daryl [Norman Reedus],” she says, “because that’s somebody who Rick considered like a brother and Norman is obviously one of the longest standing leads on the show. We wanted to create a great story for Carol [Melissa McBride] too… Rick leaving really reminded me that The Walking Dead is a genuine ensemble.”
It’s an expanding ensemble too. With iconic characters Rick and Maggie leaving – as well as a brutal cull in series nine’s standout episode ‘The Calm Before’ – it created space for new characters to join. After a six-year time jump from the events that saw Rick written out, in came a new group led by plucky survivor Magna (Nadia Hilker). Fittingly they were welcomed by Rick’s now 10-year-old daughter Judith, wearing her father’s sheriff hat, and played by Cailey Fleming, previously seen in Star Wars as a young Rey Skywalker. There remained disruption and obstacles for Kang and her team to navigate – Danai Gurira’s Michonne would leave late in season 10 – but the show felt fresher than it had in years. It was coming to an end, but not done.
“I think the time jumps helped,” says Kang. “Up until that point, a lot of the show had felt like 24 on steroids. Every episode picked up right in the next moment. That was great because it created cliffhangers, but I just found myself wanting to mess with the rhythm of the show a little bit. It was great in creating a sense of urgency – but when you’re always picking up off the last episode, you can’t progress certain things very far.”
Now, as we approach the hotly anticipated final episodes, Kang faces her biggest challenge yet, finishing off the very thing she resurrected. When we drop back into season 11, which will take us to the end of the main series, we find out what happens to the villainous Reapers. After that, we’re drafted to the frontline of an end-of-days class war as we learn whether the characters we’ve invested in for so long can integrate into mysterious new community The Commonwealth. We’re racing towards the end with a zest that makes The Walking Dead feel like it’s closer to the beginning than the end. Understandably, feelings are running high.
“I’m emotional about the end,” says Kang. “It still hasn’t completely hit me in a very visceral way yet because we’re still so deeply in the work of finishing the writing, finishing the producing and the shooting of it. Then we all have many more months of post-production work to do to, but we’re getting very, very close to the end of filming and that is emotional.
“When I think about it, I get misty-eyed because this cast is a very tight knit group. One of the things that’s been hardest about the pandemic is that we haven’t gotten to spend as much personal time with each other as we usually do. But I know that when we get together to send the show off, there will be drinking and there will be hugging… and there will be crying.”
“It still hasn’t hit me that it’s ending”
Of course, this isn’t the end of the franchise itself. A host of spin-offs and auxiliary series are already planned. “I can’t tell you anything!” splutters Kang, but anyway, she’s currently focused on the “pressure” of ending the original series well. Kang tells us she’s frustrated at how her plans have been restricted by COVID – and not just the drinking, hugging and crying – but that she’s doing everything to wrap up the show up in the way fans deserve. You have to wonder, all these seasons in, if she ever thought the show would be still here at all?
“No,” she says. “I came in on the seventh episode of season two. We all know how TV works. If you’re lucky, you get two seasons. If you’re really lucky you get three or four or five. But eleven? I think a lot of that is about the show’s appeal…”
Which is? Kang takes a moment to think.
“What I’ve heard a lot,” she says, “is that people connect to the idea that even when you’re struggling, you can find your family. And you can work on things together and that you can find connection, no matter how horrific the world might be. And, as hopeless as things might seem, you can find pockets of hope within that. That’s something everyone can connect to, even if they don’t like zombies.” Don’t like zombies? We can’t relate.