Warning: contains major spoilers from The Walking Dead season nine.
Fears that the loss of Rick Grimes in season nine would spell the end for The Walking Dead proved unfounded. With a new showrunner, a new villain and a huge time-jump that gave us the gift of Lil’ Ass Kicker Judith aged 10, the show was revitalised. Samantha Morton’s terrifying Alpha made a very different kind of antagonist, and the introduction of new characters provided much-needed fresh blood. (Which was spilled to devastating effect in the penultimate episode, along with bucketfuls of the old blood.)
As we wait for season ten (read our spoiler-free opener review here), we went hunting on the season nine DVD disc commentaries and extras for behind-the-scenes insights and nerdy details. Here’s what we found…
(And if you need a reminder before you start, here’s our recap of all the major action from season nine.)
1. Showrunner Angela Kang wanted Rick to have a “final project” in his last episodes that would serve as a metaphorical bridge between all the communities. There were various suggestions for it, including a steam engine, but instead they went literal and made it an actual bridge.
2. In 903, Warning Signs, director Greg Nicotero included an Easter Egg reference to Night Of The Living Dead (1968) with the burned out car and old-fashioned petrol pump. The episode featured another deliberate call-back to the pilot with the Walker fingers poking through the wooden slats echoing those in the hospital cafeteria when Rick first wakes up.
3. In Andrew Lincoln’s last episode (905 Who Are You Now), Jon Bernthal ad-libbed and improvised during his scene with Lincoln in the car. The actors tried several versions of the scene, one very sinister, and another in which, trying to get Lincoln to react in different ways, Bernthal looked him in the eyes and told him that he loved him.
4. Andrew Lincoln’s last episode was also Lauren Cohan’s last episode “Not in Walking Dead altogether, I don’t think. I hope,” said Scott Gimple. Angela Kang said “We wanted to give her a meaty story up until this point but then also to leave the door a crack open so that she can come back to the show at any time, or back to the universe.”
5. The showrunners have a story in their heads for what Maggie’s doing while she’s away “whether that’s seen or even necessary to be seen, that’s sort of a question because her on the show is something that we love. We’re gunning to see it again,” says Matt Negrete.
6. In 905, the scene in which Judith and Michonne are playing with shells was originally written with Judith drawing, but the twins playing young Judith were obsessed with shells, so the activity was changed to keep them engaged.
7. The song that plays as Rick is flown away in the helicopter in 905 is Space Junk by Wang Chung, the same song that plays at the end of the pilot, as chosen by series creator Frank Darabont. It bookends Rick’s journey on the show.
8. The scene where Michonne and Maggie clash over Negan in 904 had to take place in the courtyard outside Negan’s cell because the rest of the Alexandria set was being rebuilt in preparation for the six-year time jump in 905, extending the church and constructing the windmill.
9. Originally in the scene where Maggie goes to kill Negan in his cell in 904, she had a gun like she did in the comic book, but Scott Gimple suggested she use more of a blunt weapon like Negan’s bat so she could use to do to him what he did to Glenn and Abraham, hence the homemade crowbar, “a little bit of Hilltop”.
10. Scott Wilson, the actor who played Hershel Greene, passed away from leukaemia in October 2018. When he returned to film a hallucination scene for Andrew Lincoln’s last episode, he hadn’t yet made his illness public, making this scene, which aired just after his death, particularly poignant to the cast and crew, who described him as a kind, gentle father figure for whom everybody had the utmost respect.
11. The hallucination scene of Michonne and Rick on the bridge was included at the suggestion of Danai Gurira (a writer as well as an actor) who felt there wasn’t enough acknowledgement of Rick and Michonne’s love story in Lincoln’s final episode. “It’s hard when an Obie-winning playwright is coming at you with this stuff! It’s been intimidating from the start” said Scott Gimple.
12. When Rick was running away from the Walker herd approaching the camp in 905, director Greg Nicotero had crew members shake the trees to signal their approach, describing it as a monster movie moment and homage to Jurassic Park.
13. In an early version of Rick leading the Walkers across the bridge, the Walker herd was supposed to have been made up of every character who’s died on the show so far, but it proved totally unfeasible. Instead, Rick’s vision of Sasha starring Sonequa Martin-Green nodded to the comic book cover of issue 100, which featured Rick standing atop a field of corpses of key characters who’ve died on the show.
14. The raging river underneath the bridge that carried away the burning Walkers was really a shallow creek, and was created by Goodbye Kansas VFX studio.
15. The decision to have Daryl turn away and leave right after he sees Rick ‘die’ in the bridge explosion was led by Norman Reedus. The writers originally planned for Daryl to go back with the others and leave a little while after Rick disappeared, but Reedus said no, the minute Rick dies, Daryl’s mission would become finding his body. The moment he turned away to go was the moment he left the community.
16. For authenticity, Norman Reedus insisted on working with real dead snakes and rabbits in the scenes of him at camp with Carol and Henry in 907 rather than models.
17. For the new group of characters who speak American Sign Language (Connie – Lauren Ridloff, formerly crowned Miss Deaf America – and Kelly – Angel Theory, who has hearing loss in one ear, Magna, Yumiko and Luke), there are two ASL interpreters on set. One is there to work with the actors, and one is there to watch what’s being filmed on the monitors to check that everything signed is in correct ASL.
18. In 915 The Calm Before, Daryl signs to Connie to ask her to feed Dog while he goes out, but, as a non-ASL-speaking character, he actually signs “Do you think you could eat my dog?” When the interpreter told the producers, they chose to leave it in as a joke.
19. 907, Stradivarius was the directorial debut of Michael Cudlitz, who played Abraham from season four to seven. He’s back directing again in season 10.
20. Look closely at the new animated title sequence for season nine and you’ll see Easter Eggs for all kinds of events that happen throughout the season, including the weapons of all the main characters, a helicopter, a noose on the barn to show Maggie’s execution of Gregory and so on.
21. At the fair 915 in The Calm Before, the toffee apples on sticks in the scene between Enid and Alden are deliberately foreshadowing of the heads on poles to come later in the episode (including Enid’s).
22. The white doves released by Jerry and Nabila’s son at the end of Ezekiel’s speech to open the fair did not want to fly out of their cage on cue, and it took several attempts to get the shot they needed. In the end, the doves were thrown into the air by their handlers.
23. When Carol, Daryl and co. are surrounded by the Whisperers in 915, the first one to emerge from the trees is wearing the face of Miles, from the Hilltop couple murdered by the Whisperers on their way to the fair, whose hair and clothing Alpha used as a disguise. The same actor Brian Sheppard played both Miles and the Whisperer version of Miles.
24. Ryan Hurst, who plays Whisperer Beta, is a dog trainer in his spare time and gave Khary Payton, who plays Ezekiel, lessons to help him train his new Boxer mix.
25. In 915, Henry’s death episode, he’s wearing the same compass t-shirt as he was introduced wearing after the time-jump, as a way of bookending his story.
26. We can’t see it, but make-up applied a line of crimson blood underneath Alpha’s sunhat in 915 to show that she was wearing the scalp and hair of Hilde, the Hilltop woman she killed as a disguise.
27. The herd that Alpha shows Daryl is supposed to be the largest ever seen on the show, comprising 50,000 Walkers. It’s five times bigger than the herd Rick blew up the bridge to stop.
28. In the finale, Melissa McBride deliberately hadn’t seen the Henry’s possession props that Carol took out of Henry’s wooden box before leaving the Kingdom, so her reactions would be more naturally emotional. Carol chose to take with her a little tiger head badge and a toy car as a memento of her adopted son.
29. The tree that crushed Aaron’s arm is was a hollow Sonotube surrounded by two inches of foam and was so soft and lightweight that the actors had to really mug to mime its heaviness.
30. In finale The Storm, Carol is wrapped up in a heavy coat and scarf against the snow, but it was such a warm day filming that underneath, Melissa McBride was only wearing a t-shirt she’d asked wardrobe to cut the midriff and arms off, to stay cool.
31. Lydia’s suicide attempt with the biting Walker in the frozen river in 916 is a deliberate echo of [comic book spoiler] the way Carol dies in the comics back in the prison series when she allows herself to be bitten by a Walker.
32. The idea behind Lydia’s suicide attempt was that to her, Walkers feel like home. The sound and smell of them makes her homesick and hearing them is a comfort to her.
33. A line was cut in finale The Storm in which Negan compliments Eugene on his hat, and Eugene looked momentarily pleased before feeling ashamed that the compliment came from villain Negan.
34. They filmed the Alpha and Lydia flashback in 910 anamorphic format, which gives a distorted, stretched effect to the image, to distinguish it visually from the present-day action and reflect how Alpha had distorted Lydia’s memory of how her father really died. It’s also more blue-green than the show’s usual night look, to distinguish the time difference.
35. In 907 Stradivarius, there’s an accordion on the table in front of Jesus and a record player to tie in with the episode’s theme of music and the arts binding society and making civilisation progress.
36. The Jesus/Aaron fight in 907 was filmed using a circle track, as popularised in music videos. The camera team were initially sceptical but all agreed it worked really well in the end.
37. The voyeuristic shots through the trees in 907 aren’t just a horror genre element, but director Michael Cudlitz suggesting that the characters are being watched by the Whisperers.
38. In 915, Alpha represents the threat of terrorism says writer Geraldine Inoa. She mirrors the communities’ civilisation back to them to infiltrate them, and then unleashes devastating violence from inside their walls, where they felt safe.
39. In the comics, Alpha’s face is clean underneath her mask but in live-action, the whites around her eyes and mouth showed too clearly that she was human, hence the dark make-up which all agree works really well as a villainous look even when Samantha Morton takes off her Walker skin.
40. Samantha Morton’s body movements as Alpha are described as reptilian, she moves like a cobra or Komodo dragon.
41. Alpha’s mask eye holes are cut to look completely neutral, not tilted down or up (which would make her look angry or sad). Alpha’s cheekbones are built up under the mask so that Samantha Morton’s eyes could be set back, even if in reality, the skin would sag more because it’s been sliced off the muscle.
42. In 915, the scene of Enid, Henry and the others fighting together against the Whisperers before they were killed was the final day on set for all of those actors, scheduled deliberately to make them band together in one last stand.
43. At the fair in 915, each stand was filled with items relating to their community. Alexandria has bee hives, so the honey and wax products were theirs. Hilltop had a moonshine distillery so you could buy cups of “Hilltop Hooch” and so on.
44. The blizzard in 916 was filmed using traditional effects, not green-screen. A vast landscape was built on a soundstage in Pinewood Studios, Atlanta, and snow machines were combined with melted candle wax to resemble ice.
45. Whose heads were going on the sticks in 915 was the most debated thing ever to happen on the show. Ezekiel’s scenes in the episode were deliberately written to give the impression that he was about to die, to misdirect viewers.
46. The field in which the heads on sticks were discovered was the same location in which Rick cut Negan’s throat with the stained glass in the season eight finale.
47. It was deliberate that Negan ends season nine in the same place as he ended season eight – the hospital wing of Alexandria. The mirror was included to show how far he’d come as a character, to the point that he could be left unhandcuffed and Michonne would voluntarily pull up a chair to chat with him.
48. In 916, when the group cross the frozen river, it was intended as a symbolic link to the bridge at the start of the season. Nature is often working against them, but here, they were able to use it to their advantage and make a new kind of bridge.
The Walking Dead complete season 8 is out now on DVD and Blu-ray. Read our spoiler-free look at the impressive season ten opener here.