Let's face it, there was a lot of emotional depth and resonance in that "Walking Dead" mid-season premiere, and we're still working our way through it. From Carl's dying message for his father and Michonne to try to find a better way, to that final shot of Rick looking on death's door himself under a tree, these next seven episodes are looking like they may be the most important block of episodes yet.
On the surface, the episode was simply a drawn out farewell to one of the show's original characters, with Chandler Riggs' Carl Grimes taking the dead walk into the next world. It was an emotionally wrought farewell powerfully acted by Riggs, but it was also a call to arms for the show itself, facing criticism for its growing violence and declining ratings.
Riggs and Andrew Lincoln have played the son and father since the show began eight years ago, with Riggs literally growing up on the set of the hit AMC show. Now, as their final farewell finally hit the airwaves, they talked about Riggs' final performance, his favorite moments, Carl's legacy, and saying goodbye to the character once thought the future of the franchise.
It was a powerful moment when Carl grabbed the gun and told Rick and Michonne (Danai Gurira) that he would take his own life, rather than either of them having to do it. "Ultimately, I think it's a super empowering thing for Carl to show as much mercy for Rick as he can," Riggs told The Hollywood Reporter. He added in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, "This is kind of Carl showing Rick mercy because he knew it was going to crush him, and this is kind of his way of saying that he's sorry and trying to put him through as little grief as possible."
One of the reasons Carl was able to give his family that mercy was because of where he was. Riggs explained to EW that Carl was in a much more serene place. "While Rick and Michonne are kind of freaking out to figure out what to do, Carl is more calm, and he's already written his notes," Riggs said. "He's already said a lot of his goodbyes, and then actually gets to talk to Rick and Michonne, and tell Rick whatever he can. I think that's more than he could have asked for, and him being with Rick and Michonne is definitely, like, worse for them than his last moments."
While he admitted that his favorite episode was the powerful "pudding" episode where Carl watched vigil over a very ill Rick, Riggs told THR his favorite moment came on his 14th birthday. "In episode four or five of season four, when Rick and Carl were mowing down all the walkers at the prison, that was definitely my favorite moment," he said. "It was the night of my 14th birthday and child labor laws say that anyone under 14 can't handle a firearm on set. It was the night of my 14th birthday and we all counted down to midnight and Andy handed me a machine gun. That scene was so much fun to film; it felt like I was in a video game."
But that was just a moment of euphoric fun for a boy, while the Season 4 "pudding" episode was a chance for the young Riggs to really flex his muscles as an actor. "I got to really kind of push my boundaries of what I could do as an actor, and I got a whole episode dedicated to me, and I got to do stuff that I'd really never gotten to do before, which was really, really fun," Riggs told EW. "It was definitely something that I was looking forward to for so long and I'm really, really happy with how it played out."
Saying goodbye to any character is never easy, but losing Carl was especially tough on Lincoln. "You know, the only sort of huge comfort I take in Chandler leaving at this point is the fact that he got to be the hero of the series and the episode and give the gift to Michonne and Rick for the future and to say farewell," he told Entertainment Weekly.
"The last scene I shot was my farewell scene to Judith," Riggs told THR. "I remember reading the script and thinking how depressing all these scenes were."
Riggs recalled his final day of shooting for EW, saying, "It was definitely not a scene that I was excited for. Like, when he's talking about his mom telling him that he was going to beat this world, and he didn't. All of that stuff, is just so, so sad."
The actor did have one of the show's traditional death dinners, but left the possibility open he may not be done yet, telling THR, "It does suck to know that I might not work with any of them again but Carl can always come back in flashbacks or hallucinations or something like that. You never know."
When THR asked if there'd been any talk of that, Riggs dropped a potential spoiler by responding, "Yes, there has been. Toward the second half of the eighth season but nothing past that -- yet." But then he said this was the last we'd see of Carl this season. Hmmmm.
Carl urged his father and Michonne to find mercy and compassion for the future, that it's something worth living for, finding a better way. Lincoln told The Hollywood Reporter, "It's at the core of the back eight episodes. That's the big conflict. Does he honor his dying son's wishes? Or does he subvert them? Or does he go his own way?"
"Carl has left [Rick] with an idea that might not be so easy to embrace," Showrunner Scott Gimple told The Hollywood Reporter. "Everything toward the end of this season is charging toward a conclusion of who these people are going to be -- or who they were -- and in that way, it really concludes a huge swath of story for the show. And it really sets it up for its next evolution."
Gimple also teased to Entertainment Weekly, that Carl's message of mercy may not resonate with Rick and Michonne as fans expect. "What Carl says to [Rick], he says to Michonne too," he said. "I mean it weighs upon them in every scene moving forward this season. So they may not be in the same place, they may not come away with the same messages."
"It doesn't look good," was Lincoln's response to THR's questions about that final scene with him looking close to death and muttering, "My mercy prevails over my wrath," a line Siddiq had earlier used. And while Lincoln was purposefully vague and cryptic, he did confirm that this moment was not a vision. He wouldn't say, however, if it was indicative of his death on the show. Lincoln has signed on for Season 9, but we've seen actors sign on as series regulars before only to die almost immediately when the next season began (David Morrissey and Andrew J. West both did that).
The actor admitted he was concerned when shooting that scene. "I was very worried!" he said. "Especially when we did the makeup test and I said, "He looks like he's lost quite a bit of blood. Do we want him to be this white?! Can we make him look like he's got a pint of blood in his body?!" But showrunner Scott Gimple told THR that Rick's death is "really not something we're talking about now," so maybe Lincoln needn't worry just yet.
In another cryptic moment, Lincoln told THR that filming the back half of this season was't easy. "Rick has lost his wife and his son and so much about this back eight is about him trying to live as well as win a battle," he said. "I had to stay honest in this back eight; there weren't many easy days coming to work in these remaining episodes. It's a testament, after eight years, to put me in the corner. I had to earn my keep!"
So Rick might not die, but it looks like he's going to be put through the ringer.
Lauren Cohan has yet to sign on for Season 9, though she is a pivotal character in the show. In fact, she signed on as the lead in a pilot for ABC (though that is no guarantee the show would get picked up). Lincoln admitted to THR he was conflicted about her situation "That makes me terribly sad but at same time I'm absolutely thrilled because she's a friend and a good actress. But I don't know what that looks like," he said of "The Walking Dead" without her character, Maggie.
For now, both Cohan and Lincoln remain front and center as "The Walking Dead" continues Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.