[SPOILER WARNING: Major spoilers for the episode of "The Walking Dead" episode that aired November 11 are included in this article.]
"The Walking Dead" TV series might have deviated from Robert Kirkman's Image Comics series it's based on in a number of ways, but Sunday's episode, "Say The Word," made a marked return to the source material. The episode featured the first sighting of Penny Blake, the debut of Woodbury's zombie gladiator fights and even a mysterious phone call at the end of the episode that, as fans of the comics know, shows how far Rick has descended into madness.
Special effects make-up designer and co-executive producer Greg Nicotero directed last night's episode, and he and actress Danai Gurira, who plays newcomer Michonne on the show, participated in a conference call with select journalists early yesterday to discuss Sunday night's pivotal episode. Nicotero said he didn't realize until after he was assigned to direct the fifth episode of Season 3 just how much exciting material would be there, but he definitely rose to the challenge.
Fans were introduced to Penny Blake in a manner different from what they might have been expecting during "Say The Word." Prior to episode's opening credits, The Governor can be seen brushing the hair of a little girl. It's revealed that the girl is actually his undead daughter (or potentially niece, depending on how "The Walking Dead" pans out), and that she's one of the few "tame" viewers have seen on the show.
Nicotero revealed what inspired him to reveal Penny in this way, and said it was all part of trying to let the audience see a different side of The Governor.
"It's a really interesting way to get us into that character," he said. "I think with The Governor we've seen that he's got this sort of sly, manipulative way of charming Andrea, and he tries it on Michonne but clearly it doesn't work because she's way too in tune for that, she's way too smart for that. So [we] have an opportunity to see him in a different light by seeing the little girl and then sort of leading us into the fact that she's a walker.
"The way that the scene was written and even some of the ways that we shot it, she's actually eating a piece of flesh that we're supposed to assume is human flesh," Nicotero continued. "We're supposed to get the idea that, just like they're feeding the walkers that are in captivity before Michonne kills them, that The Governor is feeding her flesh. You see the blood around her face and you see the blood on her hands, so we're supposed to believe, and we will probably learn in a future episode, a little bit more about that. I just think that it was a really fascinating way to get into seeing a different facet of The Governor and giving you a little snapshot into what it is that is obsessing him and driving him to do what he does."
Another big moment in "Say The Word" was the reveal of the zombie that had eaten much of Lori's corpse. Rick ran through the Prison after discovering his wife had died giving birth to his daughter to try to find her and, according to Nicotero, say goodbye, but what he found instead was a very full zombie and a blood trail implying that Lori's body had been dragged, partially eaten, around the corner.
"He never had a goodbye with her. He never had any resolution," Nicotero said. "That's a really horrible way for him to have a last final connection with her."
For a moment it appears as if Rick might Rick cut open the zombie's stomach to find the remnants of Lori inside. Nicotero said this was very much intentional, and was supposed to hearken back to the Season 2 premiere where the survivors cut open a zombie's gut to see if Sophia is inside. Instead, Rick shoots the zombie and repeatedly stabs its stomach, and Nicotero promised that is the closest we will see to partially-eaten Lori.
Andrew Lincoln got to act more in last night's episode than he has all season. He didn't have a single line beyond "Hello" at the end of the episode (fans who have read the comics know what that phone call meant), which meant he had more room to show Rick's descent into madness. In particular, Lincoln and Steven Yeun really enjoyed getting rough with one another when Glenn tries to help Rick cope with his grief.
"We shot all [Lincoln's] stuff in sequence. We spent one day and just really let him delve into it. ... It was important to me to allow Andy as an actor to delve into this sequence," Nicotero explained of how he got the right performance from his leading man. "Both of those guys just loved it becoming physical. You've never seen Rick doing that to any of those other characters, especially Glenn of all people."
Though Lori and T-Dog were both killed in "Killer Within," viewers haven't yet discovered Carol's fate beyond a scrap of her clothing. The characters in the show assume she died as well, and Nicotero clarified that it won't take viewers long to know for sure.
"As far as anyone knows, Carol's suffered the same fate as everyone else, but that will be revealed shortly," he said.
Michonne's future is also unknown following "Say The Word." She leaves Woodbury and Andrea behind in the episode, and Gurira teased that we'll have to wait and see when she'll next return. But she did say that it hurt her character to have to say goodbye to the one friend she had.
"I think when she saw Andrea that first time we see her, she saw a fighter. Andrea was fighting tooth and nail to survive, and you can see that if you're a fighter. ... She saw someone she can really say, this chick I can hang with," Gurira said. "I think she was lonely. She'd been on her own with these walkers, and you start to want human company."
Nicotero added, "When she's left at the gate with Andrea and they're talking about leaving, she's hurt. I love that vulnerability in Michonne."
Gurira teased that the backstory she, the writers and showrunner Glen Mazzara came up with is "not exactly what's in the books," and implied that we'll likely find out more about Michonne later on down the road.
Nicotero, who also directed Episodes 11 and 15 this season, offered up a couple Easter eggs for fans of the show during the call. He revealed that the second walker shown in the gladiator sequence at Woodbury is an homage to Flyboy from "Dawn of the Dead," while one of the heads in The Governor's tank is supposed to be Ben Gardner's from "Jaws." He also revealed that Simon Pegg sent him a text after "Killer Within" aired saying, "Having to shoot your mom's so 2004" because, as fans will know, Pegg's character in "Shaun of the Dead" also had to shoot his mother after she turned into a walker.
"The Walking Dead" airs Sundays on AMC at 9 p.m. ET.