by Edie Nugent
AMC’s The Walking Dead panel was packed nearly past capacity on Saturday afternoon at NYCC. When the 3500 floor seats of the main stage hall were filled, fans stood along the sides of the room-shunning available balcony seating to be that much closer to their favorite TV stars. The panel was moderated by Talking Dead host and perennial fanboy Chris Hardwick who was red-faced with excitement as he introduced an exclusive clip showing the first few minutes of the season five premiere. Hardwick was joined by Greg Nicotero, director of the season five premiere, showrunner Scott Gimple, executive producer Gale Anne Hurd and executive producer and series creator Robert Kirkman.
Season five picked up right where season four left off, with Rick and the remaining survivors of his group being held prisoner in a boxcar inside the Terminus compound. They are ripping their clothes apart, fashioning weapons out of belt buckles and shoe laces. The group hears movement outside of the container, and all assume defensive positions near its entrance. Suddenly, the boxcar opens from above and a cannister is dropped inside leaking knockout gas. After succumbing to the fumes, the group awakens to find themselves bound and are made to kneel before a draining sink used for livestock slaughter. Terminus, it seems, is indeed a colony of cannibals.
The clip ended abruptly, and Hardwick remarked how much fun is was to listen to the shocked audience reaction live, joking: “we should get together as a group and watch it every week.” Director Greg Nicotero remarked that, as someone who has directed several premiere episodes of Walking Dead, it was nice to continue the momentum of the end of last season into the beginning of season five. He also mentioned he wanted to make the season opener “super intense…I’ve seen it ten times, and I still get chills.”
Hardwick asked Gimple if season five might unlock more of the backstories of the group, to learn more about who they were before the zombie apocalypse. Gimple said to expect to discover more about the recent past of the characters, “in some very deep ways, we’re also going to play with time a bit.”
Kirkman teased that there are “a lot of big moments from the comic book series that will be pulled into the show this season…we’re still going to be changing things up a bit…I think it’s safe to say this season is going to follow the comics much closer than we have in the past.”
When asked to describe the season in a few words, Hurd replied: “Kick-ass, utterly relentless, and totally heart-breaking.” She went on to announce that the second half of season five will premiere on February 8th, 2015.
Hardwick then brought out the cast one by one. The applause, screams and cheers that went up throughout the main stage hall were deafening. Present for the panel were: Andrew Lincoln (Rick), Steven Yeun (Glenn), Lauren Cohan (Maggie), Michael Cudlitz (Abraham), Danai Gurira (Michonne), Melissa McBride (Carol), Chad Coleman (Tyrese), Sonequa Martin-Green (Sasha) and Norman Reedus (Daryl).
Hardwick began his series of cast questions by addressing Lincoln: “We finally at the end of last season saw the transformative moment when Rick came back.” Lincoln agreed, saying “I think you meet a man very much at the peak of his powers. I mean, he just bit a guys’ throat out. I think it’s safe to say I’ve been listening to a lot of Prodigy and death metal.”
When Hardwick asked Yuen where his character was emotionally following the events of season four, Yuen explained that Glenn “woke up in a prison with all his loved ones gone. He has a moment to himself and says: ‘eff this-I’m going to go find everybody’ and he treks out and finds everybody.” Co-star Lauren Cohan added: “the amazing thing at the end of season four is that we found each other,” looking at Yuen she continued: “ I felt like he was a soldier coming back from war.” Yuen asserted that he felt Cohan’s Maggie was “equally a soldier.” She went on to say that the next step for Maggie would be to find her sister Beth, and “keep everyone fortified.”
Michael Cudlitz emphasized that every character in the world of The Walking Dead has suffered massive loss: “so what we’re dealing with day after day is dealing with loss on top of loss” and that the supportive, safe environment the cast and crew create is essential to making those performances “ring true.”
Gurira thanked Kirkman and Gimple for imbuing her character Michonne with an “unapologetic strength to her, and you see that with a lot of the women characters on this show, which is really exciting.” She added that she felt Michonne’s strength hadn’t shifted through the events of the show, but rather but had gone through a transition because of her relationships with the group.
The deep, emotional connections the actors had with their characters was especially clear as McBride spoke of her experience playing Carol, saying “it’s something I’m so proud of, and for the character it’s been something I never saw coming, and I think I’m going to cry-because I love her.” Her eyes filled with tears, prompting Reedus to walk down the panel to hand her a tissue.
Coleman asked: “Without the children, where is our future?” He explained how his character Tyrese had gone through such a terrible experience with Carol in attempting to protect Lizzie, Micah and baby Judith in season four. “He’s hurting tremendously,” he added, saying that he felt Tyrese had forgiven Carol for her decision to kill Lizzie after she murdered Mika-but that Carol was still “on shaky ground.”
Martin-Green was proud of what she felt were “the prevailing messages being taught on a show like this, of hope and survival and family and love-making it through adversity.” These themes were especially resonant to her now, she said, as she is pregnant with her first child-due in January.
“A lot of times when Daryl has been killing things, he’s been crying while he’s doing it,” Reedus said, speaking to Hardwick about how his character had opened up over the previous season. “We really feel connected to these characters and feel connected to each other-we really care about each other-so teetering on that line of being ferocious and being vulnerable-it’s a real teeter-totter. Everything feels really real.”
It was clearly also “really real” to the thousands of fans in attendance-some of whom were moved to share their feelings with the cast during the fan Q&A portion of the panel. One such fan, Michael, told of how he was badly injured while coming to the aid of a neighbor who was being attacked. He told the panel that the strength of the shows’ characters had helped him to have the courage to move forward in his life and recovery. Cohan was visibly moved hearing his story, as was Gurira who addressed the fan directly, saying: “to know that there’s any sort of message we’re conveying that gives you hope and courage-it makes it unbearable how wonderful it is to do what we do-to know that it resonates to you and emboldens you is really a blessing to us. You are the true survivor.”