[Note: This interview contains spoilers for all seasons of The Walking Dead.]
Season six of The Walking Dead opens with another variation on the “that was then, this is now” dramatic framework common to the series. Recent events that have occurred since the conclusion of season five are stylized in black and white footage. Present action is in color. As visual storytelling, this sort of crosscutting is not groundbreaking. However it seems like precisely the right choice for this point in the series.
The episode, tellingly titled “First Time Again”, achieves the purpose of bridging the gap in a continuing storyline, and the juxtaposition of two spans of time features significant events that inform one another in a meaningful way. On another level, these two ways of viewing this particular drama convey the series’ two chief selling points: human characters in conflict and post-humans in bloody procession.
An especially tense moment in the season’s first episode finds Josh McDermitt’s “Eugene” caught while eavesdropping on a plan to kill Rick, the (self-)appointed leader of haven Alexandria. As Eugene is known for his habit of observing private moments and for his cowardice, it is true to character that he would be caught in this sort of predicament. He is interested in what is happening around the corner, but he’s not naturally inclined to intervene. Indeed, Rick himself must save Eugene and restore order.
For the moment Eugene lives. As does Carter, the man who suggested conspiring against Rick. But by episode’s end, Eugene remains alive and Carter does not. Rick initially spares Carter’s life but then (presciently) predicts and precipitates his death. Carter’s death validates Rick’s approach to leadership. In the world of The Walking Dead, one stays alive by knowing and doing what it takes to stay alive. Any other course of action fatally ignores the promised end.
McDermitt sees Eugene as a character for whom cowardice and duplicity are keys to staying alive. Traditional heroics are not in high supply on this show. Rick is increasingly antiheroic, Glenn is perhaps too compassionate (leaving too much to “chance,” a dangerous quality in Rick’s estimation), and Eugene is content to stay far from direct confrontation with walkers. I ask McDermitt about Eugene’s place within the group of established characters, as well as his many revelations since first appearing in season four.
“He shows up on the scene in a grand way, you know? Here’s the guy who has got the cure to this apocalypse that we haven’t been able to address previously because literally all we were trying to do was survive,” he tells us. “And he certainly made a splash. And we find out right away that that’s all bullshit, and then he’s just a coward. It seems like every episode there’s like a new change to this guy. It’s kind of exciting to be able to play someone who has changed so much and to have had certain ups and downs to his arc. It’s certainly the best job I’ve had as an actor and I hope it continues as long as it can.”
The actor says that he and his fellow actors “talk … all the time” about The Walking Dead being “the best show and the best working environment that any of us have ever been a part of.” But accompanying that awareness of how good they have it is a kind of gratitude that is perhaps exclusive to a series with such a high body count. “We’re thankful that we’re alive because it means we get to continue this great journey and this great ride. A lot of people ask if I’m worried about dying, about getting killed off, and I try not to think about it. Because if I’m so worried about that, then I’m going to miss this great opportunity. And you can’t do that. You have to really just focus on the good and if it comes time to punch my ticket then I’ll be sad and upset but I’ll move on.”
There does seem to be some advance warning about characters’ fates, courtesy of writers who share their plans with the actors. For McDermitt, that communication helped to relieve the anticipation surrounding the ways in which Eugene might (or might not) be redeemed after becoming known as a liar. “I knew that was coming, just because at the start of the season we sit down and have a meeting with the writers and they kind of let you know what’s coming. So in a sense, yes, I was happy.
“But also if it didn’t come, I knew it would be coming, surely, because I felt like that’s just the only place for this character to go. Or, to double down on his cowardice and die, which was always on the table, as well. You never really know. But also, right after the episode aired where we find out Eugene was lying, I think we were in the middle of shooting the episode where he was a hero and we find out he’s lying as it’s airing and the fans were pissed! And it was funny because in my mind I’m thinking, just wait, you have to wait, because it’s just going to get better. But also, the fans will get mad and part of me is thinking, did you really want me to cure this thing? Because if I did, the show would be over. So chill out. [laughs]”
A recurring topic of discussing The Walking Dead with its actors is the reaction of enthusiastic viewers, whose wishes are often paradoxical regarding the plot at large. As McDermitt says, to resolve suspenseful elements, such as Eugene’s cure and its efficacy, would end the story altogether. But more generally, to cater to tastes of any one segment of the viewing audience would undo the balance that the creators and cast have worked to create.
“I think if you left it up to some fans,” McDermitt says, “they would just watch Daryl kick ass all day. That’s what they want. Well, you’re still going to get that, and you’re still going to get a healthy dose of character development from Daryl, and from Michonne and all these other people. But you’re going to also have some frustrations with the characters because that helps everybody grow and that pushes the story forward when you have to deal with that sort of stuff.
“So it can’t just be killing all the time. Like, ‘Oh we’re low on supplies, let’s go look for something. Oh, a zombie pops out, oops kill it, okay, next episode.’ That would be the most boring show. You need to have people lying about having the cure or have a character like Father Gabriel — Seth Gilliam’s such an amazing actor — and to bring that character to life. Like, right now, the fans are pissed at him, and they’re pissed at Michael Traynor, the guy who plays Nicholas, for ditching Steven and Noah in the turnstile of death last season. It’s like, you need these characters, and these actors are killing it.
“And it’s fun to watch the fans get pissed off over these characters because that means they care. But season six, we’re going to have a lot more of that because that’s what this show does. It’s fun to be a part of something like that, that’s not stagnant.”
Despite the degree to which some viewers create irrational expectations for the show and its characters, McDermitt says the cast members never lose sight of the reality of their shared situation. Most importantly, they don’t allow the frictions between characters to affect the relationships of performers. “Everybody is so loving and supportive of each other. There’s no question at all with that. It’s really more from the fans’ perspective. People call me Eugene. They say, ‘I’m upset you didn’t have the cure, Eugene.’ And it’s like, ‘Okay, dude, I’m an actor’. [laughs] ‘My name is Josh, not Eugene. And the show is not real, chill out.’ The actors don’t ever have a problem with that. If anything, we’re even more supportive when a character has to do something like that, you know? It’s exciting.”
Since premiering on October 31, 2010, The Walking Dead has broken cable television viewing records and become a ratings behemoth. The show has sustained critical acclaim and commercial success despite some significant changes behind the scenes. Occasionally, the series tests the patience of its viewership with long stretches of time spent in a single location, such as the farm of season two. Regarding complaints about storylines, McDermitt says, “Everyone’s a critic. You can’t please everyone. If you do that, you’ll die trying.”
On the other hand, “Everyone’s opinion really matters, because they are the consumer. I’m not telling them that they are stupid or anything. Everyone’s going to have their opinion and it’s great. But the fact is, this is a different show now than it was when Frank Darabont developed it. And when Glen Mazzara took over in season three. We have different people involved, even though we have [some of] the same people.
“Ultimately, someone’s always going to hate a certain episode and they are going to hate a certain character and that sort of thing. But that just shows you that they care. And that’s kind of exciting, because we’re on a show where people are talking and they care about it. We could easily be on a show that nobody watches.”
The show works, McDermitt says, because of its focus on the human characters that are fighting to stay alive. “The show isn’t about the zombies — the walkers, I’m sorry. If the show were about the dead people, then it would just be action, and there would be no story, and it would be boring.” Though the show often looks unflinchingly at graphic violence, McDermitt says the boundaries being pushed are not merely the levels of bloodshed, but of the characters’ experiences within a story world of life-or-death stakes.
“The way we’re able to push it and come up with new things and find new ways to push the characters is because it’s about the characters. Like, what would this show be if Eugene hadn’t showed up on the scene? What would the show be if Michonne hadn’t shown up and saved Andrea, in season two or three? What would the show be if the Governor weren’t there? These are strong characters or people that you need to drive the story forward. I think by default that’s what is going to happen. You’re just going to have people and their extreme personalities, in terms of the characters, and they are going to push the boundaries.”
Though McDermitt is “not in the creative day-to-day, in the writer’s room and that sort of thing,” he says suspects the writers and producers of The Walking Dead “don’t really pay attention to the other good shows” that exist alongside theirs in the bountiful television marketplace. Or when they do pay attention to the other good shows, they are not doing so with any specific standard to meet or exceed. He says, “I think they’re excited because, as writers do, they want to watch shows with good writing. Actors want to watch shows with good acting. People want to watch other people in their area of expertise, kill it.
“So I don’t know if it’s definitely raising the bar and that we’re focused on that. I think we’re more focused on our show and doing what’s best for our show and just leaving them to do their show and how when we go home at night we have a good show to watch.” As for the multitude of media products related to The Walking Dead, including the graphic novel predecessor, talk show Talking Dead, prequel Fear the Walking Dead, and any number of other examples, McDermitt admits, “It’s a little overwhelming, I’ll tell you that. But it’s also great. I try not to focus on it too much in that, like you said, there’s so much stuff, it’s going to be horrible to try and keep your eye on everything.
“And I have a big enough job to do just worrying about looking up the big words that Eugene’s using and trying to get the definitions, because I’m pretty much an idiot. [laughs] But there’s so much stuff and it’s cool that there’s room for all that. That’s how big the fandom is. And it doesn’t matter if you like the show more than the comics or vice versa, that sort of thing. There’s something for everybody. And Robert Kirkman really created this amazing universe that I’m excited to be a part of. I was a fan of the show, so I’m certainly excited that I get a chance to be a part of it.”
Being a part of The Walking Dead requires dedication to a single role for the greater part of a year, which does limit involvement in other creative pursuits. “It’s really hard because the show shoots for seven months out of the year. And I write a lot. So it allows me to do that sort of thing and to make stupid videos and things like that. But in terms of going away to go shoot a movie, it’s just not really doable. And that’s kind of what I’m [pauses] waiting to do. I know that once this show’s over, for me, then the floodgates will open and I’ll be able to have my pick of what I want to do next. But right now I’m just happy doing this.”
For McDermitt, a busier schedule is not the only career shift caused by The Walking Dead and its popularity. He is now so identified with the character and the series that his former life as a comedian has been overshadowed. “It’s funny because I started out in comedy and I’m having to reintroduce myself to the world as a comedian. In fact, I just lost out on a job for a movie, which was a comedy, and they were like, ‘Well, we want to go with a comedian.’ And I was like, ‘Blaaah.’ Okay, so the fact that I did stand-up for twelve years doesn’t help me here?
“Ultimately, that kind of stuff is going to happen, just because they know me as this other thing. But what I have to do is pick the projects that have the best writing and they have the most interesting characters and that sort of thing. I can’t necessarily pick it based on tone or genre. I mean if there’s someone I want to work with, that certainly comes into play. Or if they’re going to pay me 85 million dollars, of course I’m taking that job, you know? But ultimately I’m looking for something that is good writing or is going to be a great opportunity for me.”
At present, the continuing journey of Eugene provides plenty of suspense. “Look, we saw him at the end of last season as he’s stepping up and being the hero. And that wasn’t necessarily voluntary, even though he volunteered to watch Tara and that sort of thing. And he ended up saving them.” Eugene’s heroic moment was a high point of season five, in part because of all the characters who might have tried to save a particularly awful day, Eugene was the least likely to.
“We didn’t expect it, you know? He peeks around the corner with Tara on his shoulder. And then we don’t see Tara on his shoulder. And we think he’s going to chicken out. Then he runs, and we think, okay well he’s just getting her to safety. And then he comes around with the techno music blasting in the van, which was a great touch, and he saves the day. And unfortunately we lose Noah, but it could have been a lot worse. That was a situation that was getting worse. It’s one of those things that, I think that gives him confidence. And that’s certainly what he’s searching for, he’s looking for his place within the group. As he gains more confidence, he will start to realize how he can contribute and how he can be of service to everybody.”
However confident and purposeful Eugene has become as season six proceeds, McDermitt stresses that it is important to remember the nature of Eugene’s heroism. “It was more out of necessity, like, they’re all going to die if he doesn’t do something. I think he would still rather someone else do something. But obviously being inside Alexandria, it’s one of those things where, it’s a safe haven. Eugene doesn’t want to be out on the road. This is like the perfect situation for him. And so if there’s a threat to that, it’s going to be a problem. And I would hope that any threat that he encounters, whether it’s inside or outside of the walls, that he’s a little quicker to be a hero and step up.”
The showdown with Carter in the first episode provides him with a chance to step up, but instead he cowers. So is there another brave moment ahead for Eugene? “That remains to be seen because at the heart of it, he’s still pretty much a coward, you know? The fact that he was kind of forced into stepping up shows you that he’s not necessarily ready. I would hope that that trajectory continues, but with this show, you never know.”
Regarding that big lie about having a cure, McDermitt says, “I think he learned his lesson with that. But I also think that’s a skill of his, is to lie. And so if he has to lie again, I wouldn’t put it past him to do it.” I recall a conversation with Abraham from the season five finale that revealed Eugene’s philosophy of lying, promoting it as a sort of handiwork. “It was kind of a fun non-apology scene to do,” McDermitt remembers. “He justified it perfectly, when he just said, ‘Look, I am a coward and all I did was craft a top shelf lie so that a man of your heroism could apply his talents.’ It’s like, you can’t fault a guy for trying to stay alive. What was he supposed to do, just die?” It’s the question on which the series is built, and there is no easy answer.