[Warning: This story contains spoilers for the comic books on which AMC’s The Walking Deadis based.]
Something’s stumbling upstairs — an oddly foreign but familiar figure.
It’s not a new sensation in the world of AMC’s The Walking Dead, in which humans become monsters in the blink of an eye, or, more accurately, in the bite of an arm. But when it comes to the being hobbling through the top floor of a quaint Georgia household with a haunting but humble shuffle, there’s an unmistakable feeling that we’re in the midst of something new, even if it comes in the form of someone old: Rick Grimes, the hero of this tale, eyes slowly opening, body slowly rising as if from the dead. Instead, he’s simply rising from the bed.
On this early May afternoon on the show’s Atlanta set, the lithe Andrew Lincoln looks worse for wear as he wanders the Walking Dead set, and it’s not just because he’s physically weary — though it’s understandable if he is, given that he’s in the middle of shooting the 100th episode of the AMC zombie drama, airing Oct. 22. Instead, it’s because he’s trying on a different version of Rick than ever before: bearded and broken, at least more bearded and broken than usual.
It’s an image that first appeared in the Comic-Con trailer for the upcoming eighth season of the post-apocalypse series, and one that’s very familiar to readers of the comic books from Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard on which the show is based. In those comics, the story eventually jumps forward in time, a few years into the future, following a brutal war between Rick’s Alexandrians and the Saviors, led by the nefarious Negan, played with an ever-present cruel charisma by Jeffrey Dean Morgan.
For his part, elsewhere on the set, Morgan’s (Lennie James) menacing mannerisms remain alive and well. The same might not be said for the reformed coward Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam), at least not for much longer, based on the nightmarish nature of the scene being filmed. In the depths of an overly warm soundstage, on a dimly lit set fashioned as a grungy corridor, Morgan as Negan stalks toward a cornered Gabriel, delivering a Neganism that’s already been featured in previews for the season.
"I hope you’re wearing your shitting pants," Negan tells Gabriel, talking and walking slow, his barbed-wired baseball bat Lucille never far behind. "Because you, are about to shit your pants."
Never mind that Negan apparently believes people in the apocalypse have the luxury of owning a pair of "shitting pants," let alone believes in the very concept of "shitting pants" at all. The point is, the arch-villain of Alexandria is exactly as we left him at the end of season seven: deeply dangerous and at least a little bit deranged, ready to emotionally and physically break apart anyone who crosses his path.
The sameness of Negan stands in sharp contrast with the future glimpse of Rick Grimes, hair cropped short, except for the beard, impressive in its heft, wise in its graying hue. In person, it’s easy to see through the fiction, even if the aged Rick reads fine on camera. What’s most jarring about this look at Rick, however, isn’t the uncanny valley quality of the makeup, but the fact that The Walking Dead is moving into this valley at all. In the comics, the time jump doesn’t occur until the immediate aftermath of "All Out War," the arc in which Rick and Negan’s forces break out into — that’s right — all out war. It should come as no surprise to people who haven’t read the comics that Rick’s side wins the fight, albeit with casualties, some more devastating than others. But the fact that the outcome is being lobbed up here in the season eight premiere, the 100th episode of the series, is certainly an unexpected outcome.
Most fans would have pegged the time jump to take place in the season finale, or even further down the line, given the way Walking Dead often paces out. The second season’s focus on the Greene family farm, for instance, was a fairly significant expansion of the location’s appearance in the comic books, which lasted no more than a small handful of issues early in the run. Similarly, the first half of season six (as well as the midseason premiere) unfurled over the course of little more than a day. The Walking Dead likes to take its time, in other words, slowly stalking forward like the walkers at the heart of the tale, not to mention Old Man Rick in his Alexandria home.
What’s with the glimpse into the future, then? Mum’s the word when poking and prodding around Senoia, Georgia, which stands in for the Alexandria Safe-Zone, and serves as the site of Grandpa Grimes’ new household. But the fact that the series is already willing to move into that far-future territory stands as a testament to an idea the Walking Dead crew will happily engage: season eight, on a structural level alone, is designed to be unlike anything that’s come before, which means a swifter story momentum than ever before.
"It’s funny — in some ways, I was trying to make it a little smaller and more intimate," showrunner and executive Scott M. Gimple told The Hollywood Reporter and other press about the script for the 100th episode of The Walking Dead, during a conversation in a screening room on the set. "I made the mistake of telling that to [executive producers Greg Nicotero and Tom Luse], and when they got the script, they were horrified to not see small and intimate. Instead, it was, ‘How are we going to [shoot] this in nine days?’ I was trying to counter the pressure and go in a different direction, but there’s a certain pull to the story and to the characters. It got very big, very quickly, but in a different way."
Nicotero, the legendary horror effects mastermind chiefly responsible for the show’s zombie design, also serves as one of the most seasoned directors on The Walking Dead, and with that in mind, he’s the man stepping behind the lens for the 100th episode. In terms of the pace of the season, he fully backs Gimple’s claim: "The show is going to have a tremendous amount of momentum this year."
"We left season seven with Negan standing in front of the Sanctuary and saying, ‘We’re going to war!’ Everyone was there, ready to go to war, and I would say this is by far the most propulsive season premiere we’ve ever done in terms of setting the stage for knowing we’re in the war," says Nicotero, sitting in the living room of the same house where an older Rick Grimes stirs in bed one floor above. "That’s fun and exciting, and just the idea of knowing our story arcs that tend to play out over different episodes, where people sometimes disappear … we’re accelerating our pace this season a little bit, with some of those moments concluding a little sooner as opposed to maybe dragging them out over long periods of time."
For many of the people involved with the series, the incoming season’s sense of forward momentum isn’t anything new, of only on a practical level. Take Norman Reedus, for instance, who has starred on The Walking Dead as the rugged Daryl Dixon since the very first season. He sits in the middle of a different Alexandria living room, speaking with gathered reporters, wearing a Walking Dead hat emblazoned with the number 100, designed to honor the milestone episode. To hear him tell it, he’s as surprised as anyone that the series has reached its current place at the edge of war: "I never knew the show was going to be around this long, to be honest."
"We fight really hard for the show to be what it is," says Reedus. "It could have gone south so easily in the beginning, with zombies and crossbows and samurai swords and all of that shit. We fought really hard to keep it as real as possible. Every year, we see a new guard of people come in and join the show. Some of us old-schoolers work really hard to keep this train on the tracks."
The new-schoolers work hard, too, at maintaining their guard in all corners of the zombie apocalypse. For example, there’s Josh McDermitt as Eugene Porter, the brilliant but often cowardly survivor who stands on the wrong side of the battlefield, firmly one with Negan. McDermitt, who joined the series in season four, says he’s in awe at not only what’s ahead in this season of The Walking Dead, but at the sheer volume of story the series has already accumulated over the years.
"Not a lot of shows get to episode 100, so this is exciting," he says, sitting in the same screening room as Gimple. "And the last show I was on [the TV Land sitcom Retired at 35] only got to episode 20, so this is even more exciting. Five times the fun! Getting to episode 100 on a show that isn’t 22 episodes every season is a feat. The fact that people are still coming back and watching it? It’s exciting. I was a huge fan of the show before I started working on it. Being a part of it at this milestone, it’s really special. I’m blessed, man. It’s kind of awesome."
Even as the series reaches its 100th episode, and even as it starts showing signs of the future, the cast and crew are clear about their desire for the milestone installment to keep one eye firmly on the past. In that regard, Nicotero says: "One of the things that’s most exciting about the episode is every once in a while we like to remember where the show came from. It’s an opportunity to thank our fans and thank our viewers for staying with us for so long. We can pay tribute to what makes the show so great. That’s what’s most exciting to me about where we are on the show, and this episode especially."
"That’s just a straight yes, and even in the whole season," says Gimple, when asked if the 100th episode of The Walking Dead will pay knowing homage to moments from the show’s past. "In a lot of ways, this whole season pays direct references to the past stories. Some visuals are carbon copies of earlier visuals. It very much has to do with the cumulative nature of the story. Where the story is now, the history of the show is weighing upon each character. In some ways, it’s made them who they are. In other ways, some of them are fighting that history. The history of the show in general is very much in the first episode [of season eight], and even in the whole season."
"Episode 100 is huge in itself," adds McDermitt. "It’s massive. We always say that for whatever premiere or finale, whether it’s midseason or otherwise, that it’s big. After a while — and I don’t know how the fans take it, or how you take it — but it just sounds like we’re saying the same thing over and over again. But as I read this script, I’m thinking, ‘God, I have to read that again to comprehend everything.’"
Indeed, McDermitt’s feelings toward the 100th episode’s script — the need to read it again, in order to properly process its events — certainly extend to the sensation of watching a post-war Rick walking through the set, at a time where this version of the character by all rights shouldn’t exist. For now, there are no answers to this glimpse into the future. Instead, here’s a suggestion from someone who watched Old Man Rick rise from the bed: when the eighth season premieres, perhaps its wise to heed the words of warning from Negan to Gabriel, at least in terms of your viewing attire.
Follow THR.com/WalkingDead for more stories from our visit to the set, plus continuing coverage as we approach the milestone 100th episode of the series, premiering Oct. 22.