Even though she hasn’t yet seen the episode, Walking Dead co-star Lauren Cohan knows all about the poignant, emotional action which floored viewers in Sunday’s episode of AMC’s zombie drama – as fan favorite and all around jerkface Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker) sacrificed himself to save his loyal brother Daryl.
“It’s shame because we’d all just begun to love the character and understand where he coming from,” said Cohan, who plays tough farmgirl-turned-zombie killer Maggie Greene on the show, which airs its third season finale Sunday. “To make this ultimate sacrifice for his brother and have everybody be wrong…It comes at a time when we could be wrong about Michonne and – big surprise! – we were wrong about Merle.”
The episode was a slow reveal, focused mostly on the band of heroic zombie apocalypse survivors led by Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), anticipating an armed conflict with the show’s increasingly twisted villain, The Governor (David Morrissey).
Merle, always shown as a racist, violent thug (and once The Governor’s enforcer), spent Sunday’s episode admitting to Rick that he doesn’t know why he’s driven to make impulsive, often horrific life choices. Stuck with Rick and his people in an old prison because his brother Daryl insists on staying there, Merle first tries to give up a fellow survivor, Michonne, to The Governor, to stop an attack.
Then, he decides to try killing as many of the villain’s men as possible, getting killed in the process and turned into a zombie “walker” his own brother must put down.
It’s become a trademark of the show; just as we get to know – and care about -- a sketchy character, he gets killed, deepening the audience’s shock.
“It was such a shame, even with Iron E (Singleton, who played survivor T-Dog), you had a moment of ‘Oh he’s becoming more noticed' – not more noticed, actually -- but he’s becoming a more prominent leader in the group, and then he goes,” said Cohan, an American-born, England-raised actress whose British accent flavors her words. “It's so flipping sad...but everybody goes out as a hero.”
Cohan, with fellow castmember Emily Kinney (Beth Greene), gave me a much longer interview for a later Tampa Bay Times story on that event. But she also was willing to talk a bit about the shock of losing Rooker as a castmate, and how the cast always seems to be in mourning -- a bit like the characters they play.
“The thing about Rooker, even though his character is such a baddie, he’s one of the softest castmembers ever…such a little pussycat,” she said. “It’s kinda how you go through life thinking ‘Well, if I love less or don’t love as deeply, maybe it won’t hurt as much when I lose someone.’ But it kinda doesn’t work like that. You kinda just have to live life fully and…well, it’s a very difficult show to do, sometimes.”
Sunday’s episode seemed to nearly complete a season-long arc, in which Rick and The Governor started as seemingly very similar figures and now have landed in very different places. Rick embraced his humanity by deciding against giving up Michonne and pushing away visions of his dead wife, while The Governor has become more of a monster – biting off Merle’s fingers during a fight and secretly holding former lover Andrea in a torture chair at his Woodbury compound.
Some critics say . But I remember people saying similar things about series such as Mad Men and at different points, mostly as a protest when the storytelling got too slow.
The eternal question which hung over The Walking Dead this season: How much of your humanity can you retain in a world gone insane, while still keeping yourself and your family alive?
Rick’s answer seemed to come in bringing an end to the “Ricktatorship,” telling his group they would make choices by majority vote in the future. Assuming the Governor finally gets his comeuppance in next Sunday’s finale, the question remains how some other characters – Michonne, Tyreese, Milton – will get folded into the family, if at all.
For now, fans are left to simmer over the poignant sight of Daryl killing his brother Merle – whom The Governor shot dead in a way which ensured he would return as a zombie “walker.”
“It’s kind of a call back to (Rick’s son) Carl having to shoot (his mother) Lori,” Cohan said. “We always go at the hand of our closest, I guess. I just (realized that) as I said it."”
Second part: About The Walking Dead itself and her passion for sci-fi roles:
As half of the youngest, best-looking couple on AMC's hit zombie drama The Walking Dead, Lauren Cohan has become the green-eyed queen of every geek's fantasy.
Indeed, as her gutsy Maggie Greene prepares to marry geeky sidekick-turned-passionate survivor Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun), they are living most fanboys' post-apocalyptic dream, where even the most awkward guy has a shot at the pretty girl at the end of the world.
"I know that on the page, Glenn's character is supposed to be a dorky guy, but other than the fact that he's Asian, I don't really understand what makes him geeky to anyone," Cohan said. "Maybe the part of it that's the 'dream come true' is that Glenn was the really shy one where Maggie was concerned. But he's good looking and so is Steven; (Maggie) always saw him that way. It always made a lot of sense to me."
The topic of geeks comes up often in our discussion, not long before last Sunday's blockbuster third season finale for the show. To be precise, we talked right after the episode where hardcase Merle Dixon sacrificed himself to try taking out the show's villain, the Governor, but before the whirlwind finale in which Andrea died, shooting herself in the head after getting bitten by a friend who had died and returned as a zombie.
Cohan appears Sunday at Tampa Bay Comic Con with fellow cast member Emily Kinney (Beth Greene), signing autographs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Kinney also will appear Saturday.) Which means a lot of face time with the fanboys who cut their teeth on Robert Kirkman's Walking Dead graphic novels and helped turn the TV show into a magnet for the highly sought after 18- to 49-year-old viewer.
"I always end up doing sci-fi; I guess I really like the brains of it," said Cohan, who has also had roles on the CW seriesSupernatural and The Vampire Diaries. "I like the people that are devoted enough to put in the time to read the comic. I'm a geek myself; I grew up watching Star Trek, I don't do drugs. … They're my people."
That bit seems hard to believe. Born in New Jersey but raised in England, the 31-year-old leggy beauty has a beguiling British lilt to her voice, which surprises if you've spent much time watching her play tomboyishly tough Southern gal Maggie onThe Walking Dead.
British actors pop up in the most unusual places on Walking Dead; star Andrew Lincoln is a London-born actor from British film and TV projects like Love, Actually and the BBC dramaThis Life. Bad guy the Governor is played by another Brit, David Morrissey, star of classic English TV series State of Play and Blackpool.
Tell Cohan that casting such actors in American projects allows producers to present U.S. audiences with super-experienced stars they have never seen before, and she gasps like it's an idea she has never heard before.
"It's always a fantasy for Brits to play Southern … maybe it's Tennessee Williams, or maybe it's that it's so foreign to us," she said, noting that playing American is a bit easier for her than for Lincoln and Morrissey, who are "through and through Englishmen."
"There's something old-fashioned about the South; it calls to your spirit," Cohan said by cellphone from a coffeehouse in Atlanta not far from where the show films. "I love the pace and the sense of priorities. It makes me feel like a lady."
You expect death to be a major theme in a show centered on zombies, but The Walking Dead takes that idea to new extremes — killing off major characters in ways both exhilarating and daunting for longtime fans.
Which raises an important question for Cohan: Has she ever worried about getting that fateful call?
"Maggie and Glenn will never die," she said, laughing. "Obviously, you hope to never get the call, but that's part of the honor of being on the show. These deaths always further the story and it's always going to propel big arcs for the characters. It really has an unprecedented effect on people and that doesn't come without some kind of cost. It just shows you, there are no rules."
Indeed, thanks to their love of The Walking Dead, the geeks of the world have rewritten the rules for series television, making an unlikely hit of a cable TV show featuring gruesome zombie deaths and a bleak, world-ending vision.
Nothing speaks louder than ratings in series television, and The Walking Dead has earned numbers among viewers 18 to 49 that surpass any rival show on cable TV or broadcast (Sunday's season finale drew 12.4 million viewers, with 8.1 million viewers 18 to 49, more than network hits like CBS's The Big Bang Theory and Fox's American Idol). Even its live, after-show analysis program, dubbed Talking Dead(Cohan calls it "the hug after the show that everyone needs"), scores ratings other broadcast shows would be happy to have, 5.2 million viewers on Sunday.
In an interesting way, the geeks have inherited the future of television, giving us all a show that will encourage the TV powers that be to break more rules — hopefully in ways that benefit the audience most of all.
"If The Walking Dead can do everything, then no one has any excuse," Cohan said. "I'm waiting for every other show to have its own after-show.
Me: You're also the guest star in a Law & Order: SVU episode, playing a TV reporter raped by a co-worker. What was that like?Cohan: "The journey she goes through, you could see the biggest transition in 45 minutes. She starts at the absolute top of her game, and by the end of the episode, she’s a completely broken human...The first few days I didn’t have time to talk to anybody. It’s a beast of a role, the first few days, I’m not talking to anybody, I’m just wanting to do good work. When you do good work, you get a lot of support...(But) I have to stop doing all (these roles) with emotional intensity. I gotta do something nice, like the next Enchanted or something."