AMC’s The Walking Dead had its very last panel ever on Saturday afternoon at New York Comic Con (you can watch The Walking Dead panel video here by becoming a Popverse member). It was in many ways a strange experience. The actors present, which included Lauren Cohan (Maggie), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Negan), Lauren Ridloff (Connie), Paola Lazaro (Princess), Eleanor Matsuura (Yumiko), Michael James Shaw (Mercer), Walking Dead Chief Content Officer Scott Gimple, and the great granddaddy of them all at this point, Norman Reedus (Daryl), delivered thoughtful and poignant remarks about their experiences on the series. Many talked about how much the show and fans had meant to them. “Many times in life I felt like an outcast,” Lazaro explained. “Being a part of this has aided me in loving myself. I don’t feel alone any more.” Reedus agreed: “You’ve changed my life in a million ways that I can’t even explain. I’m a better friend, I’m a better father, I have a better work ethic, I appreciate things more. You gave me an opportunity to really enjoy working and I just love you all and I appreciate you all so much.”
Asked what her time on the show might have taught fans, Ridloff, who is deaf, recalled going to a convention and being shocked at how many people were ready to have a conversation with her. “I’m deaf, obviously, and it’s not a big deal to me,” she explained. “But what really is a big deal is how do we communicate. And I think fans watch Connie’s interactions with others and learned that there’s no limit to how people connect, whether it’s gestures or writing notes or eye contact. That’s what has meant so much to me.”
But as meaningful as the onstage cast’s comments were, the absence of their many, many predecessors hung over the proceedings. In its hey day The Walking Dead regularly crushed not only every other scripted show on television but Sunday Night Football. Nobody beats Sunday Night football. And yet most of the actors who helped make that a reality, people like Andrew Lincoln, Chandler Riggs, Danai Gurira, Melissa McBride, Steven Yuen, Scott Wilson, Sarah Wayne Callies, David Morrissey, Michael Rooker, Jon Berenthal and Laurie Holden—didn’t even rate an In Memoriam reel, let alone a seat on the stage. Nor did comic creators Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Tony Moore.
And really, what is a last Walking Dead panel without any of them? Some very warm thank yous and an awful lot of host Chris Hardwick reassuring people it was all going to be okay, which honestly no one was wondering about except maybe him. Hardwick has fashioned himself into the ultimate earnest fan boy over the years, and AMC has stood by him and Talking Dead for a long time (and sexual abuse allegations). But I wonder what someone with more whimsy, thoughtfulness and curiosity, say a Larry Wilmore or Aidy Bryant, could have done with that show and also this moment, when the point isn’t just hugs goodbye but the deeper significance. What does it mean that a show about a zombie apocalypse not only lasted 12 years but has spawned three other series, with at least three more to come? As we look back on the show as a whole, what prescience has it shown with regard to our own society? Certainly over the last 12 years we have become more and more violent and divided (and been through a global pandemic of our own, to boot). What elements of our own troubles has it illuminated? What is this ride that we have taken?
To his credit, Gimple—wearing a rumpled plaid shirt and giving off fantastic “your favorite English prof” energy—talked about the final episodes as attempts to say something meaningful about each of the characters. He pointed to Rick’s final episode as an archetype for what they had planned. “We were asking what did it all mean, from waking up in the hospital to now? That’s how we approached these last episodes, too. What did it all mean? Who did they become?” (Hardwick spent much of the panel complaining about Gimple’s Sphinx-like approach to questions, but in fact he gave some of the night’s most interesting answers. He is clearly a guy with whom you could spend an evening at a dive bar shooting the shit about anything from the existence of God to the likelihood of a zombie multiverse.)
It is true, though, Gimple had almost nothing to offer about any of the upcoming three Walking Dead spinoffs, which seems very odd given the fact that they are the future of the franchise. Maybe from AMC’s point of view teasers are unnecessary, because each series stars fan-favorite Walking Dead actors—Cohan and Morgan in Dead City, which takes place in and around New York City and debuts in April; Reedus (and maybe some day McBride?) in an unnamed show set in France; and Lincoln and Gurira in a long-awaited and still unnamed six part mini-series. But for a show that has spent the last 12 years blanketing comic conventions with its advertising—many people over the weekend commented about the fact that for the first time in over a decade the convention badges didn’t feature the Walking Dead—the sudden silence is a little puzzling.
The only reveal of any real substance was a few set photos from Dead City. They were so ridiculously short of information—Maggie stares off into the distance; Negan staring out a window—they definitely seemed to be intended as a gag. But the information-starved fans ate them up.
Reedus had a little information to offer about his upcoming show set in France, or at least more color. “It’s fucking epic,” he said. “I think France is going to have a fucking heart attack.” He also had kind words to all those freaking out about the news that McBride, who had initially been promoted as co-starring with Reedus, was no longer involved with the show: “There’s been a lot of talk. Chill, it’s going to be fine.”
A couple times over the course of the panel the comment was made that we don’t even know “who makes it through” to the end, as though not dying before the series finale represents some kind of finish line for the characters. If the series has emphasized anything, it’s how arbitrary and unexpected death can be. Unsurprisingly (but also, jeez, guys, come on), no hints were given as to how the story would end, beyond the fact that it would not end with the unexpected time jump of the comic. Gimple—who like everyone else was not informed that the book was ending or how it was ending—called Kirkman’s ending “brilliant.” “I loved that he did that,” Gimple said.
And the next time the two saw each other, Gimple says Kirkman “was kind of elbowing me and saying ‘See, see that? Kind of an interesting story,’” as though to say the show should go there. And Gimple says he wants to. Kirkman “created another world for us,” he opined. “And I do hope to explore it one day.”
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