No disrespect to Scott Gimple, who led The Walking Dead as it became the biggest show on TV during his tenure as showrunner, but the show lost some luster in Seasons 7 and 8. Gimple's writing style heavily relied on long, declarative speeches and cartoonish brawling at the expense of character development and meaningful conflict. But the way the story is told is changing in Season 9 under new showrunner Angela Kang, The Walking Dead executive producer, director and special effects wizard Greg Nicotero told reporters during a visit to the show's Georgia set. According to Nicotero, the show is getting back to its golden age style.
"This season's all been about what's been going back to what made The Walking Dead great when we first started watching the show," Nicotero says. "I feel like it's very much back to the DNA that we love."
Nicotero directed the Kang-written season premiere, unsubtly titled "A New Beginning," and he shot it in a way that puts the actors and the words they're saying back in the foreground. "I wanted you to be leaning in and listening to everything that they're saying, because they say more than two or three f---ing things," he says. "They have real conversations. Conversations that you give a s--- about and you're like, 'oh, that's what Rick (Andrew Lincoln) is feeling! That's what Daryl's (Norman Reedus) feeling!' They're actually talking, and it's the first time we've done that in a long time."
Nicotero thinks the show relied too heavily on cryptic speeches in recent seasons ("'I don't know, what's gonna come after?' I'm like 'after what?'") and this season is a return to meaningful character development. "It reminded me of Season 2," he says. "Everybody always says 'Season 2, it was really boring, Hershel's farm,' and I'm like 'F--- you guys.' Season 2 is when we fell in love with Daryl, that's when we fell in love with Carol (Melissa McBride), because we took the time."
He credits that change to Kang, who he says "super-collaborative" and "really gets it." He recalls a moment very early in her tenure as showrunner where they were working out some special effects. "I said 'come on, guys, pump up the blood, this should be Greg Nicotero blood,' and she goes 'no no no, it's Angela Kang blood now,'" he says. "And I was like 'Oh! She's a f---ing gorehound. I love it.'"
For her part, Kang promises new "storytelling rhythms" in Season 9. Kang has been with the show since Season 2, so she has clear ideas about what works and what doesn't work and is making adjustments accordingly. And it sounds like she's tired of the draggy pace. "We definitely actively tried to mix up the expected rhythms that people have for the show," she says. "So that's one of the things we changed."
And through the first three episodes of Season 9, at least, the pace is mercifully faster and the emotional stakes feel more real. The Walking Dead may never get back to its circa-2014 ratings and creative highs, but its cast and crew are working hard to make sure it's not ready to be put down yet. There may be life after Rick Grimes after all.
The Walking Dead Season 9 premieres Sunday, Oct. 7 at 9/8c on AMC.