'The Walking Dead' postmortem: EP Denise Huth talks Negan's backstory, the BFF fight, and the helicopter

Kimberly Potts
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead (Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC)

Warning: This interview for “The Big Scary U” episode of The Walking Dead contains storyline and character spoilers.

Negan backstory, Rick and Daryl throwing down, a sick Gabriel, a suspicious Eugene, a live helicopter, and a hint at the return of the Heapsters… “The Big Scary U” had all that and more. And one of our favorite members of The Walking Dead crew, co-executive producer Denise Huth, broke it all down for Yahoo Entertainment.

This is a very packed episode. I love that we’re getting these backstories, parallel stories this season, with the larger stories. Like in this episode, where we find out why Negan and Dwight and Eugene and Gavin were gathered right inside the Sanctuary when Rick and his team arrived in the season premiere. Is that how it will continue to play out through the first half of the season?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s been really interesting this season with the amount of time that passes over the course of these episodes. This is episode 5, but it’s still the same day as the initial attack from (the premiere). Episodes 1 through 5 are the same day. So, we have a lot of characters and stories to check in on. Once they split up there at the Sanctuary, they all went off to different stories, and, of course, we left Gabriel and Negan trapped in that trailer. So, I love this episode as well, because we’ve had so much action the first four episodes, and we still certainly have action in this episode with Rick and Daryl, but we’re able to go back in time a little bit, and see what was going on at the Sanctuary before the attack, and find out what happened there after their attack.

We also get the first major piece of very specific backstory from Negan, when he tells Gabriel about his first and, as he puts it, his only, real wife. This is the most genuine, non-swaggering we’ve seen Negan so far. It’s a great performance by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and it’s powerful when we get that piece of information from him in this circumstance.
Yeah, it was really fun to see that side of Negan, because we haven’t seen it before, and that little piece [of info] that Gabriel was able to get from him, it tells us a lot about him. It tells us a lot about how he was before he got to this point. It is nice to see that moment of real honesty from him because everything is a bit of a show with Negan. He does like to put on the show, and even in the conversation with Gabriel in that trailer, every question Gabriel asked him… he’s always sort of evading the point and dismissing Gabriel’s questions, but in the end, when he knows they’ve got to get out of there, and the trailer is not going to hold, and they’re better off together than trying to do it alone, he actually is able to get very honest and give Gabriel a little bit of truth that he probably hasn’t given anybody else in his life for a very long time. So, it is a very powerful moment.

And he reveals a lot more, in less direct ways. We’re getting a bit of the reasoning behind why Negan leads the way he does; he says to Gabriel that people will die if he’s not there. That might seem like simply arrogance on his part, but by the time the whole episode has played out, we see how that could be true. He tells Gabriel he’s going to wait for a bit in the trailer to see if his people can pull things together, which suggests that he knows there’s a good chance some sort of chaotic situation will result from his absence, which happens.
Yeah, it’s really interesting to see both sides. We definitely get Negan’s perception of what will happen when he’s not there, and then we do see the reality. We see that the lieutenants are caught off guard. They certainly were not expecting this attack, and they do not know where Negan is, and they wonder if he’s even alive. They’re not comfortable. They don’t have a plan, and you certainly see how when people are angry and scared, how quickly things can fall apart.

Negan, I think, certainly has a sense of brutality in the way he does things, but he also does provide order, and that is something people need when they’re under great stress and when they [have] great fear. And he provides a strict order for how the Sanctuary operates. When there’s a question of whether he’s still there, you see the lieutenants kind of scramble and fall apart. You see the workers starting to rebel. I don’t think the workers of the Sanctuary are necessarily all that happy generally, but they have been relatively safe in the grand scheme of things, and so to see the walkers surrounding the Sanctuary, and Negan’s not there leading everybody, you get the sense that they are moments away from complete and total chaos. And in that regard, Negan isn’t wrong. He is capable of keeping people alive, and his whole speech at the very beginning, when he’s talking to Gregory about, “We save people. That’s what we do,” he believes that. He’s not above killing, obviously, but his intent in his mind is to save people.

Negan and Gabriel made for such a great pairing, and it was fun to see what they brought out in each other. Gabriel wasn’t afraid of Negan. And Negan opened up to Gabriel in a way that he hasn’t with anyone else. Why do you think there was this chemistry between them?
They were in an extreme situation, and it’s one of those things that [showrunner] Scott [Gimple] and the writers do that I always love, when they take an unpredictable pairing of people and put them in a situation where they have to deal with each other. These are two characters who haven’t really spent much time together at all, and obviously there’s a great deal of built-in mistrust there. They’re trapped in this situation, and how are they going to get out of it?

Gabriel, he’s so smart, because I don’t think he is afraid of Negan. He says in the beginning what he fears is a fruitless death, and if he’s going to be there with Negan, even if he ultimately were to die in that trailer with Negan, as long as it’s for a reason, and as long as he can do something to help his group, he would be OK with that. And that does make him very brave.

I think they’re such phenomenal actors. Seth Gilliam is just amazing, and Jeffrey, of course, who’s always had so much dialogue and stuff, and so much to say, and to be able to crack him open a little bit and see a different side of him, and have these two characters who have spoken two sentences to each other prior to this on the show, spend the bulk of an episode peeling away at each other… it is really exciting to watch that, and to see the chess game unfold between the two of them as they were trapped in that trailer.

Steven Ogg as Simon and Xander Berkeley as Gregory in  The Walking Dead (Photo: Gene Page/AMC)

That’s kind of a theme of this episode, these great pairings. We also get more time with the strange friendship, “frienemyship,” that’s always so fun between Gregory and Simon. But that also leads to some friction between Simon and Negan, the first time we’ve seen that fracture in their relationship. Is there maybe more story there? Is Simon perhaps that hapless previous leader of the Saviors that Negan mentions to Gregory?
You know, I think we’ll definitely see a lot more this season of the relationship between Negan and Simon. These two characters have obviously known each other. They had a history that we don’t know. Simon was one of the very first Saviors we ever saw, back at the end of Season 6. He definitely has a history with Negan, and we see a piece of that. Simon seems very prepared to take out everybody at the Hilltop if he has to, and Negan has a very violent reaction to that. You do get the sense with that moment, and then combined with Negan saying, “If I’m not in there to save them, people will die,” that perhaps there is a little bit of disagreement between Negan and Simon as to how situations like this should be handled.

I think it will be interesting to see how that whole dynamic unfolds between the two of them, especially since they’re in this extreme pressure cooker, attacked by Rick and our group in a way that they’ve never been attacked before. They are caught off guard. I think Negan and the Saviors are used to this kind of rolling and laying down, people just roll over, and Rick has changed that game quite a bit. So, they’re back on their heels a little bit, and how Negan reacts and how Simon reacts may not entirely be the same reaction.

Josh McDermitt as Eugene and Austin Amelio as Dwight in The Walking Dead (Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC)

There’s also Eugene and Dwight, who were doing a little dance with each other. Eugene’s clearly trying to suss out some information on Dwight when he visits him. Dwight’s trying to play it very cool. Both of them know that they’ve played against Negan in some ways, but when Eugene sees that bag with the red mark on it, and he knows that it probably came from Dwight’s chess piece paint, he also knows though that he’s got red paint on his thumb, and that he’s going to be the first suspect if anybody notices that. So, do those two guys need to form an alliance right away, or is that too risky for either of them?
I think it comes down to, these two characters are not necessarily on the same side at this point. Dwight, we know, is trying to help Rick and the Alexandria/Hilltop/Kingdom group, but Eugene is always more questionable as to which way the wind is blowing. The reality with Eugene is, he’s out to keep himself alive, and we’ve seen it time and again with him that he’s going to do whatever he has to do in order to survive. I think he is in a very vulnerable position, because everyone within the Sanctuary will assume he is the rat, just based on where he came from, and I don’t think anybody’s really looking at Dwight as that possibility, but Eugene is figuring it out.

It’s going to be a trick of what Eugene does with that information, and how he reacts to it because I don’t think it’s black and white. There’s a lot of ways Eugene could go with this, so it’ll be interesting to see how he ultimately handles those new pieces of information.

The other big pairing of the episode finds Rick and Daryl, the last duo we ever would’ve thought to see rumbling with each other, getting into this physical fight. Daryl is so full of anger right now, and a desire for vengeance. Is that motivated mostly by his guilt about Glenn? Is it his memory of the torture he suffered at the Sanctuary? Or is he feeling a little bit resentful about Rick’s plans, and how they have not yet led to Negan’s death, or the dismantling of the Saviors?
You know, I really think it’s all of those things for Daryl. He does have a lot of history with Negan and with Dwight, and what happened with Glenn. I think all these things are playing into it. I think a lot of it is just frustration. He wants to just go in and kill Negan. That’s his only objective, and Rick does have a plan, and the plan is working. From everything we’ve seen, the plan is working, but I think it’s very difficult to be patient when you have that much vengeance inside of you. So, for him and Rick, these are two characters we haven’t seen fight in a very long time. Probably the last time we saw them fight was Season 1, and there’s a really nice callback in there at the end of the episode when Rick says to Daryl, “Chokehold’s illegal, a**hole” … it was such a fun callback for the fans [to when Daryl said that to Shane in “Tell It to the Frogs”]. But I think that they’re brothers, and I don’t see this being a major divide that will last between them. There’s definitely a little bit of frustration with how things are going, and how this plan is proceeding, and I think Daryl’s just a little bit more anxious to just go in and finish the job, and Rick wants to continue with the plan that they laid out. So they fight, and they manage to blow up the guns. It doesn’t work out. They don’t get the end result that they wanted because they couldn’t agree. It was a fun moment to shoot. It was fun for [Norman Reedus and Andrew Lincoln] to get to do that, but it’s also… of course they would be frustrated. The amount of pressure they’re under, and hearing about what happened with the Kingdom group, and knowing that while they are sticking to the plan, they suffered a massive, massive loss among their ranks. That’s tough. They know going in they’re going to lose people, but when it actually happens, and when it actually happens with that large a number of people, I think it would unsettle anyone, including Rick and Daryl.

Norman Reedus as Daryl and Andrew Lincoln as Rick in The Walking Dead (Credit: Gene Page/AMC)

Especially when, at first, they hear everyone from the Hilltop was killed, which would include Carol. I love the little moment when they hear “short-haired psycho woman,” and they both know Carol is alive.
Yeah, they share that little look when [Yago] says, “the short-haired, psycho woman,” or whatever the exact line was. But, yeah, they’re like, “Oh, that’s our psycho, short-haired lady.” Everybody knows who that is, which is an awesome thing.

Rick, while he’s walking, hears, then sees a helicopter flying above him. He’s out in the heat. He probably hasn’t had a lot of food or water. Is he imagining this, or is this a real helicopter?
You know, there’s definitely a helicopter there. He sees it, he hears it, and it’s one of those things that, when I got the script, I was like, “What?! It’s a helicopter!” He saw one back in the pilot. There was a helicopter we saw, and we never really got the whole story on that one. Again, I think Scott’s doing a lot of callbacks this season in honor of it being the season of our hundredth episode, and this war, and the culmination of so much story that’s been set up. We’ll see where that goes, but, yeah, the helicopter is a pretty exciting little thing there. That could mean all sorts of things.

While Rick’s walking, a man is on lookout duty and spots him. That guy looks like a Heapster…
I think we know that that’s a Heapster. I think we know that, yeah, Rick’s walking in that direction.

And then at the end, we see Gabriel in the Sanctuary cell… first of all, Eugene, while knocking on the door, adds another entry on the list of Eugene classics, when he tells Gabriel they’re bonded together for life because they both ate dog.
They ate dog, yeah! That was another one of Eugene’s moments that I just laughed because it was so perfect. Again, it’s a callback to a moment from a few seasons ago. Everyone will remember it, and it’s such Eugene logic that, maybe we’re not friends, but we did share this experience… it’s just such a Eugene thing to say.

More seriously though, of course, Gabriel does look very, very sick. Do we think he’s maybe been bitten when he and Negan were trying to make their way through that walker pack? Or, as Negan described in a much more colorful and graphic way, the stewed walker guts maybe made Gabriel sick?
I think we’ll have to wait to see exactly what’s making him sick, and how it’s all played out, but Negan has a very good point there. It’s not something we’ve really shown a lot in the past, but that would have to be risky to put dead, rotting guts on your body. It’s an effective tool, and we’ve used it multiple times in the story, but there has to eventually be a price for that. So, we’ll see more with Gabriel, but he is definitely very sick.

What can you tease about the next episode, which is already episode 6, so just two more to go after that for the first half of the season.
It’s another stunning episode. We get to catch up with a lot of stories that we’ve established, and catch up with a few people we haven’t seen. We will see Carl, and we’ll see Michonne… it’s one of those episodes where we get to check in with a lot of different characters, and find out where they’re at on this very, very long day. It’s another exciting, action-packed episode of the war.

The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.

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