Only eight more episodes to go, and The Walking Dead is done, forever (other than the multiple spinoff series). And in tonight’s midseason finale, which ended the second group of eight episodes that makes up the final season, Maggie Rhee (Lauren Cohan) made some huge choices that quite literally changed the landscape of the series.
Spoilers for “Acts of God” past this point, but Maggie not only left her son Hershel (Kien Michael Spiller) with her former arch-enemy Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), but she also blew up Hilltop to try and kill Daryl Dixon’s (Norman Reedus) ex-girlfriend Leah (Lynn Collins), who is on the warpath. It didn’t work, and led to a blow-out confrontation between the two — leading to Daryl ultimately killing Leah to save Maggie — as well as the loss of Hilltop, Alexandria and Oceanside to the Commonwealth, and an out-of-control Lance Hornsby (Josh Hamilton).
“How do you keep the core of what that dream is alive without the actual place?” Cohan told Decider about Maggie’s difficult choices in the episode. “And she realizes, and that’s why it’s important in that moment: those people is all she cares about, the handful of people that she has left to protect.”
To find out more, including her reaction to her final day on set (the show wrapped filming March 30), what we can expect from the upcoming Maggie and Negan focused spinoff Isle of the Dead, and where Maggie is going emotionally when the show broadcasts its final eight episodes later this year, read on.
Decider: Before we get to the episode, filming wrapped on the series as a whole about a week ago, what was that experience like? What was the feeling on set, on your last day?
Lauren Cohan: It’s funny. For whatever reason, when you said “what was that experience like,” I literally was just on the last minute, when I finished my last scene and there had been a few people wrapping that week, and I remember thinking, “I’m not going to cry. I’m not going to cry. I’m not going to cry. I’m going to say my goodbyes, and I’m not going to cry.” And that’s probably how I was talking to myself for like, 23 of the 24 episodes this year. And then yeah, it starts well and then you just feel overwhelmed with the incredible experience that this has been and the gratitude for the people that you’ve been with for a long time.
It was such a combination of feelings: excited and proud of everybody that we finished it, and that this long road we’ve been on, with fans being with us all this time… And then such a weird realization that you’ll see a lot of people again, but it’ll never be in exactly this configuration. But mostly it’s that feeling of, yeah, you couldn’t have done it if everybody hadn’t invested their passion and their time and so much time away from home and family and stuff like that to dedicate to it.
But you also have the spinoff coming up. Are you jumping right into that, or is there a break between the two?
We have a little bit of a break. So I’ll start filming that in July, which is great, because we just did something like 18 months or… I don’t even remember. A long time straight for season 11. So yeah, good time to go visit everybody you didn’t see for two years.
And I believe Jeffrey Dean Morgan said you all are actually filming in New York City, per where it’s set. Are you looking forward to the change of scenery?
Yeah, I am. I will definitely miss Georgia and our crew in Georgia, but I think it’s going to be an exciting change for the fans. And it’s going to be… A little discomfort for these characters is very healthy. Not that they’re not living a life of discomfort, by the way, in the apocalypse. But seeing them in this totally new terrain, it just brings a whole new level. We’ve gotten the chance to read most of the season, and to know what’s coming for most of the season and it’s just… It’s very scary. It kind of refreshes the scare level of that world. So I’m very excited about that because… They’re away from everyone they know in this totally new situation that I think, yeah, it’s good. I get to find new things about the character and come up against different kinds of challenges, and let alone being there with my nemesis.
Well, let’s talk about this episode, the… Two-thirds season finale, whatever we’re calling it. Maggie sends off Hershel, which has to be about the hardest thing she has to do as a character. Why do you think she makes this choice in particular?
I mean, it was just the only thing to be done at this time. The hardest thing. When I read it, I was like, “oh God, do we have to film this?” In terms of, it feels so difficult for Maggie, which is exactly what it is. How I feel about it is how she feels about it. Intellectually, she knows Negan to actually be trustworthy in this type of situation. I think she knows that he is not the person that she has every reason to never forgive, but when faced with needing to, she knows Hornsby’s on the hunt and that if he finds her, he will find the people she’s with, including her son. And she carries this cloud of danger, and the only way to deal with this is to go alone and to put Hershel in the safest place she can imagine. And Negan, especially in concert with Annie, does qualify as the best option at that time. And that’s got to be enough, because that’s the only choice right now.
It seems like because of these experiences that Maggie and Annie had in the apartment building, Riverbend, I have to imagine that makes it easier for her to accept giving her son over to this man who she has such a deep history with.
Yeah. I think that it’s something instinctual from the moment that she meets Annie, and we have the scene at Riverbend and they’re sort of sussing each other out. But there is this sense of compassion and leadership. And this embracing of the right things in Annie, that she knows something of who Negan was, but is focusing on who he is to her now, to continue to live life and to have this child and to do the things that Maggie also thinks are important in this world. And she made that decision with Glenn, whatever that was, 11 years ago, to do the same thing and live. And I don’t know that that’s the direct parallel people would pick up on, but it is that sort of… There’s some sort of kinship that she feels and some sort of trust that she feels with Annie, and that in combination with having very few choices, I think, makes this a kind of black and white decision.
You got to just sometimes do, and that’s what she says to Hershel, is something along the lines of doing what you know is right at that moment. Doing the best thing that you can with the information you have at that moment, basically. And Negan has… Maggie’s not, she’s not bitter. She is bitter. But she at least knows that he has this sort of affinity for protecting and looking out for young people. And she can recognize that, even if she will never forgive the other aspects of who he is and what he’s done.
Talking about not necessarily black and white, after holding onto Hilltop so tightly, a key part of her plan is blowing up the house. Why do you think she made this choice to essentially sacrifice Hilltop after everything she went through?
I don’t know. I feel like the layers are just coming off for her. She dreamed for so long when she was away, and when she met the people at Meridian, of bringing them back to Hilltop and having that homestead, and that safety, and the security that was theirs, that they could protect and fortify. And everything good that had happened there, and returning to it and rekindling it. And it’s been this readjusting each time to realizing that it’s over, that it might be over. And how do you keep the core of what that dream is alive without the actual place? And she realizes, and that’s why it’s important in that moment: those people is all she cares about, the handful of people that she has left to protect.
It’s like at any cost, at the cost of admitting this thing to Negan. At the cost of the risk of putting her son with him, knowing overall that if her main goal is this sense of safety or protection or what’s important, just keeping it down to the essentials. But there was something about holding onto Hilltop that was standing in the way of the bigger goal. So I think that was kind of a key. That was a symbolic letting go. And it didn’t take out Leah, but it did take out a lot of the guys that she was with that may have proved a threat, and it was definitely chipping away at the threat.
Let me ask you about Leah then, because you have this knock down, drag out fight with Lynn Collins. What was it like filming that?
It was like, one of my favorite scenes I’ve ever done on Walking Dead. It was so fun. Lynn is so invested and fierce and fun. And we wanted to make that fight as brittle as we could, and not hold back. And Catriona McKenzie, who directed the episode, wanted it to be sort of inspired by Atomic Blonde and how savage that fight is, all of her fights are, and they’re fighting to the death. The sad thing is it’s almost like they’re beating the parts of themselves that they can’t stand out of the other person. The parallels between these two women and the tragedy of them not being able to be on the same side in a different life is what I think is powerful about that interaction, that relationship, rather. It was an outpouring of all the rage and the grief and the loss and the basic survival, animalistic survival that this world really is and calls for sometimes. The Walking Dead, not this world that we’re in.
…But also this world a little bit, as well.
[Laughs] Yeah. I didn’t want to say that, but yeah.
The end of the episode has some pretty blatant Fascist imagery from the Commonwealth, of the banners falling down on Hilltop, on Alexandria, on Oceanside. Does this essentially prove Maggie right?
Yeah. I don’t think there’s that much satisfaction in being right in this instance, but I think it is that, just trust your instincts. I always go back to the episode where Maggie lets Hornsby spin this tale of the future that could be, and it’s so tantalizing and it’s really everything that she’s always wanted to be able to do, and why she held onto Hilltop. The truth is somewhere in the middle, right? Because if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. But can’t there be a world where you can trust one another and where you can have a society like Commonwealth that’s not corrupt? And that you don’t have to be distrusting and cynical? But apparently, not yet.
As we’re heading into the final episodes of the series, what thematically or emotionally might we expect from what’s going to happen with Maggie?
It’s so hard for me to actually describe it. I can still feel it, because if this whole season has been pressing her to face… I don’t want to say face her demons, but it is that to a degree. The hate she doesn’t want to feel and the challenge of raising her child well in these situations that are endlessly impossible. I just have to say, I think the challenge still remains ripe. And I think that it’s what’s so true about these last eight, is that there’s no easy answers, and sometimes that’s just how it is and you just try to keep going. So a hopeful ending. Hopeful theme.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The Walking Dead will return for its final episodes later this year.