How Danai Gurira Pulled Off That Emotional ‘Walking Dead’ Reunion

[This story contains spoilers from The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live episode four.]

Nobody knows Rick and Michonne better than Andrew Lincoln and Danai Gurira, and to back that up, the powers that be wisely installed the iconic zombie-fighting actors as executive producers on The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live. For the fourth installment of the six-part series, Gurira took her duties one step further, by writing and effectively showrunning the episode.

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The episode, called “What We,” directed by series veteran Michael Slovis and written/overseen by Gurira, sees a climactic confrontation between Rick and Michonne, whose reunion has not gone exactly as either one of them expected. Rick is fully embedded with the militant CRM, hoping to take control from the inside and build a safer world for his loved ones. Michonne, meanwhile, is fully committed to bringing Rick home from all of the horror, and is shocked that he doesn’t want to come along. As the hour draws on, it becomes clear Rick’s still traumatized by the death of his son Carl, whose face he can barely remember anymore, and he’s worried about the same thing happening to the other ones he loves.

“It was intense,” Gurira tells The Hollywood Reporter about crafting the episode. “But ultimately, it was gratifying. We had to tie together a lot of loose ends, and it had to be the culmination of a lot of conflict. We had to allow these characters to say the things they haven’t been able to say yet. It was a very calibrating writing experience because, how much would they say? And, what would they say within the realm of who they are? I had to serve my character, and also serve Andy’s character, which was quite the journey.”

The episode takes place almost entirely inside the confines of an abandoned apartment building, which held up for many years in the apocalypse, but has since fallen like so many other communities in the AMC horror franchise’s extended universe. Much of the conflict comes between Rick and Michonne hashing out their respective issues in the confines of a single apartment.

“She doesn’t know what’s going on with him,” says Gurira. “This is not him. Something is blocking him, and she doesn’t know what. Is he really stonewalling her? If so, why? She can’t understand it, so there’s a journey to that point. When she finally gives up on him, they have that moment of togetherness.”

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes, Danai Gurira as Michonne - The Walking Dead The Ones Who Live _ Season 1, Episode 4
Danai Gurira as Michonne with Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live.

A “moment of togetherness” is one way to describe a riveting action scene in which Rick and Michonne go after several different corridors filled with walkers, expressing their sustained connection with one another through the Walking Dead franchise’s love language: extreme violence against zombies. On the other side of surviving the trenches together again, Rick and Michonne sleep together, unlocking the emotional depths Rick hasn’t been willing to express up until that point.

“She gains more mercy toward him because she sees this isn’t something he can articulate,” says Gurira. “He needs me to help take it out of him. So she has to get to the point where she’s equipped with understanding Rick and has her own expectations of him out of the way. Her expectations were, ‘We’re going to connect back, and it’s going to be bing-bang-boom, we’re home.’ But that’s not what happened. She had no idea he was going to be this way.”

As the writer of the episode, Gurira felt she clearly understood Michonne’s arc, but she wanted to make sure her co-star and fellow executive producer Lincoln had enough meat to sink his teeth into, as well. “You want to give an actor like him everything you can,” she says. “Andy’s such a fantastic actor who throws everything into it. I was keen to give him that workout.”

Lincoln added to THR, “It was thrilling to do all of this with friends, but Danai had one heck of a role as well as showrunning the fourth episode as an added responsibility. I thought the work she did on that was an astonishing testament to her skills, especially because apparently she only needs two hours a day to sleep.”

Two hours is an exaggeration, of course, though not by much. “There were times where it was pretty tight,” admits Gurira. “There were tone meetings late at night, I had an early call the next day…things like that. On top of that, I was shooting the other episodes. But it was all very gratifying. I was very thankful to [executive producer Scott] Gimple who handed the reins over to me.”

By the end of the episode, Rick and Michonne are hand in hand, driving off together with a clear destination in mind: home. It’s as happy an ending as one could possibly hope for, for these two crazy kids…if not for one major problem: There are still two whole episodes left.

“It does feel complete at that point, doesn’t it?” muses Lincoln. “Of course, as always is the case with The Walking Dead, something happens to mess everything up.”

The six-episode season of The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live releases new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC and AMC+. Head here for a refresher on Rick and Michonne’s story.

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