Warning: This post contains spoilers for the Season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead.
The premiere of The Walking Dead finally revealed who Negan chose to beat to death during the closing moments of the Season 6 finale: Abraham. However, the episode had another heartbreaking twist, as mere minutes after the Sarge uttered his last words, the Saviors leader also turned his barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bat on Glenn.
The episode continued with an onslaught of brutal moments that culminated in the complete emotional and mental destruction of Rick Grimes, leaving many viewers horrified. However, Andrew Lincoln — who plays the fan-favorite protagonist — still believes the show’s underlying message is one of hope.
TIME chatted with Lincoln about the grim season opener and how things will be different for those who survived.
TIME: What was it like having to keep the identity of Negan’s victims a secret for so long?
Andrew Lincoln: It was quite difficult actually getting into the [U.S.] because homeland security threatened to not let me in unless I told them. It has not been without its problems. I’m relieved — and more so now that we can celebrate the boys [Steven Yeun and Michael Cudlitz]. It’s a very strange experience being on this show and having to do conventions and be on panels with people who have already departed from the show and they’re not allowed to let it slip. At last the boys can move on and we can talk about it and celebrate their legacy and what they gave to the show and what they leave — their fingerprints on the show.
What part of filming the premiere was the most emotional for you? Was there a particular scene?
It was all of it, really. I only got the script when I was already in Atlanta, but if they had sent it to me before I got on the plane I probably wouldn’t have gotten on the plane. I said to [showrunner] Scott [M. Gimple], “Is this as earth shattering as it reads?” And he went, “I’m afraid it is.”
The entire episode was pretty much from Rick’s point of view, with Abraham and Glenn’s death shown as flashbacks. Did you know it was going to be framed that way?
It was absolutely scripted, and my chief concern for this episode was to tell the story of a defiant man being turned into an obedient man through grief and trauma. So it begins with a man saying, “I’m going to kill you. It doesn’t matter when, but I’m going to kill you,” and it ends with a man begging and even thanking this tyrant for sparing his son’s arm.
What was it like filming the scene where Rick is finally broken by Negan convincing him he has to cut Carl’s arm off?
It’s a very brave thing for Scott and the gang to have done — to ask the audience to kneel alongside us in the lineup. And then also to witness — as if they were in the lineup — the demolishing and shattering and emasculating of their leader and their hero. It’s not done that often. Usually you have a convention in a show which is there’s the leader and whatever happens he’s going to get out, they’re going to be fine. And in this one, unfortunately, they don’t let us off the hook in that way. I wish I could have saved the day in that one. And I kept hoping when I was reading [the script] that there was going to be some glimmer of an opportunity, but that’s not where we’re going. We’ve jumped off and we’re in the deep end now, I’m afraid.
At the end of the episode does Rick have any glimmer of hope for revenge or even for getting Daryl back? What is he focused on at that moment?
No, he’s shattered. He’s done.
Many fans have been blaming Daryl for Glenn’s death since his outburst is what prompted Negan to choose a second victim. Does the group see it that way or is there still a “we’re all in this together” vibe?
The “all in it together” vibe is no more in the show for the foreseeable future. The way the other characters are processing this night, this grief and this new regime is completely unique to them, as grief and trauma is. The only one showing a certain level of defiance still is Maggie — an incredibly powerful and strong moment in this earth-shattering night, particularly for her after losing the love of her life. But the thing that is always in the show is hope. It begins in the first-ever episode and continues in the DNA of every episode subsequent to it, including this one. When Rick says to Maggie, “He’s our family too” [about Glenn], there is still that moment of unity that is prevalent even in this hell of a night, and that tiny moment of unity is something that certainly they can build upon.
As you said, Maggie was still intent on fighting Negan by the end of the episode, while Rick was completely defeated. How is this difference in mentality going to come into play?
You’re going to see a different show. The way I’ve very glibly tried to encapsulate it is that we’re more sort of Lord of the Rings than Lord of the Flies — a less insular sort of family group and a much more expansive geographical sense of different communities and how they relate to one another. You’re going to see a much bigger vista this year. But I’d like to believe — I may be completely wrong — but I think we’re telling a classical story of what it means to be a hero. And the hero has just met his greatest foe, and he’s going to have to go into the woods for a while, and there may be a land without a king and a king without a land for a bit. But the thing that I love about Rick Grimes is that he pulls himself off the canvas even when he has been pummeled to the ground so many times. And either he gets up by himself — he drags himself up — or he is helped up by loved ones around him. It may be a long tunnel, but I think there is a light at the end of it.
Even though the manner in which Glenn dies was taken from the comic books on which the show is based, there’s been criticism that the episode was too violent and too much to watch on TV. What’s your take on that?
It’s difficult because I don’t watch the show. I’m allergic to my face so I never watch the show. But I do know that the people who make these decisions are responsible people who take the violence on the show very seriously. And I’ve always maintained that unless the violence advances plot, character or story, it doesn’t belong in the show. From where I was kneeling it was an incredibly brutal episode and I think the intention was to reinforce that this is the most formidable, brutal and terrifying person that the group has ever met to date. And then of course it’s down to personal taste and the taste of the people making the edits.
Is there anything else you want to say about the episode?
The thing that’s been rumbling around in my head a lot is [a quote] by a great man — one of the greatest men who ever lived, in my opinion — Nelson Mandela: “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” That’s the key to the season.
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