Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Clothing by Brioni; Jewelry His Own.
Lauren Cohan. Dress by Cristallini; Necklace by Erica Weiner; Earrings by Alexis Bittar.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan and Lauren Cohan as Maggie Rhee in The Walking Dead: Dead City.
It was the last night of shooting on the new Walking Dead spinoff. Stars Lauren Cohan and Jeffrey Dean Morgan were sheltering under scaffolding in New York City, at the remains of the defunct restaurant Delmonico's. It wasn't a set or a facade — it was the real Delmonico's, a hallowed Gotham institution that some say represents the beginning of haute cuisine in America. The venerable eatery had been deserted since the Covid pandemic, but that night, thanks to the zombie pandemic, meat was back on the menu, as buckets of fake blood and guts rained down from above.
"It's really happening!" Morgan remembers shouting. For the show's characters, Maggie and Negan, what was really happening was that zombies — or walkers, in TWD parlance — were pouring out of skyscraper windows and falling off rooftops, landing and bursting on the city's abundant and long-standing scaffolding. ("Seriously?" Morgan's character Negan asks. "Walkers are fallin' from the sky now?")
Based on a series of comic books by creator and writer Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead became an unexpected phenomenon in 2010. Before that, pop culture had been dominated by a different sort of undead creature — sexy vampires — so gruesome zombies seemed fresh (despite their level of decay). But the key to their appeal wasn't just the menace posed by these monsters, but by the remaining uninfected humans left in their wake.
Antagonists such as Morgan's awfully charismatic Negan turned the apocalypse into a war against fellow survivors, America into a morally ambiguous landscape full of impossible decisions and the audience into surrogate members of a core group of characters struggling to retain their humanity — among them Rick (Andrew Lincoln), Michonne (Danai Gurira), Daryl (Norman Reedus), Carol (Melissa McBride), Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan).
The Walking Dead's monstrous ratings made it one of AMC's major tentpoles as well as one of the most popular TV shows of all time — with one of the biggest series debuts in cable history (5.35 million), which grew to a zenith of more than 17 million same-day viewers for the season five premiere.
And like the zombie apocalypse itself, there's no end in sight — beyond the flagship, it launched an after-show (Talking Dead), an episodic anthology (Tales of the Walking Dead), a limited series (Walking Dead: World Beyond) and a long-running spinoff (Fear the Walking Dead), making this, The Walking Dead: Dead City, the fifth and perhaps most surprising offshoot to date. The six-episode New York-centric spinoff — premiering June 18 on AMC and AMC+ — had come to town, and it was taking a big bite out of the Big Apple.
Getting Maggie and Negan to New York wasn't easy, even though it all started in Gotham. In November 2014, Cohan and Morgan met while shooting Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in Chicago. They were playing Martha and Thomas Wayne, Batman's doomed parents. "It was cold as hell," Morgan recalls. "It was so cold that two cameras broke." While trying to keep warm between takes, Morgan quizzed Cohan about playing Maggie in The Walking Dead (a role she's filled since the show's second season).
Those chats paid off. A year later, in November 2015, AMC announced that Morgan was joining the series, cast as Negan, a major villain. His run started with one of the show's most notorious cliffhangers — the season-six finale that ended without letting viewers know whom he had picked to bash with Lucille, his barbed wire-wrapped baseball bat. To prevent spoilers from leaking, the production shot multiple versions of the scene, with Negan killing several different characters. "There was a point where you had to kill me," Cohan says to Morgan.
"I was kind of sick of hitting people," Morgan says. "And I felt bad for the other actors because it takes an emotional toll. Everyone was all cried and snotted out. And you'd think, 'But no one will ever see this.' It's just in case someone was flying a drone overhead."
"It's pretty cool to be part of a show that needs to shoot fake endings," Cohan says.
"There had been someone hired to loop in other languages in Europe, and they were leaking stuff," Morgan says. "We had the leak narrowed down to a region, so that's the edit that got sent to the person doing the leaking: me killing Maggie."
The version that aired was somewhat different — it featured Maggie's beloved Glenn getting viciously murdered. The killing created a great deal of tension for the characters as well as the actors. "She didn't even make eye contact with me for years on the show!" Morgan says with a chuckle.
So the two characters — and the actors — went on to avoid each other for several seasons. "We spent years just kind of walking by each other," Morgan says. "Her glaring at me, me smirking at her." Gradually, Negan and Maggie learned to coexist in seasons nine, ten and eleven, Negan trying to be penitent, Maggie remaining furious and distrustful.
Reconciliations were short-lived. "I always loved that it was simmering," Cohan says. "Maggie always draws back from boiling over. What we're looking at is when something irreparable happens — when you lose someone and nothing you do will ever bring them back."
In the zombie apocalypse, death is never final. By November 2022, The Walking Dead was ending its eleven-season run on AMC, and a multitude of spinoffs was in the works.
"This is the biggest show in the history of cable television," says Dan McDermott, AMC's president of entertainment and AMC Studios. "It has such a passionate audience." Looking at the top characters in the flagship show, the team decided to continue their stories in different settings as part of an expanded universe.
"We go on this really interesting tour and see how the [zombie] pandemic is in some ways similar, and in other ways, totally different" from the areas previously shown onscreen, McDermott says. "What we're trying to do is offer the TWD universe backdrop, with more intimate and compelling stories. The great thing about this franchise is that's all baked into the concept. What parts of society have reconstituted themselves to live nearly normal lives? What parts haven't? It becomes an interesting sociological look at how humans deal with complicated scenarios."
"It's like this garden of quirky paths," says Scott M. Gimple, chief content officer of the TWD universe. "They might go left, right or down the middle and be different than you anticipated."
Series favorites Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) will follow the path of one such spinoff, which was teased in the series finale. They make sense as a team. But pairing Maggie and Negan? Could that be done in the world of the show? This became an obsession for TWD staff writer Eli Jorné, who became Dead City's showrunner.
"Maggie and Negan are connected for life now," Jorné explains. "Whether it's a post-apocalyptic world or in real life, how will they navigate that grief, that loss? How do you overcome it?"
With a time jump of a few years and these issues still lingering, the moment was right for the characters to move forward. "I thought it would bring out something new that we hadn't explored before," Morgan says. "That's super rare when you've been playing a character for ten years, you know?"
Jorné started pitching Gimple so often that Gimple knew what to expect every time he saw Jorné coming his way — more about the unfinished business between Maggie and Negan. "He was a Negan-phile," Gimple says with a chuckle. "He's since become a Maggie-phile, too. He saw them as the keys to some really interesting storytelling. He would stop me in the halls. He would search for me in my office. I wouldn't have been surprised if he bothered me in the bathroom."
Gimple encouraged Jorne to explore new narrative ground. "The Walking Dead had in many ways been a Western," he says. But it wasn't until Jorné hit upon the idea of putting the characters in the urban landscape of New York, Gimple says, that "we really started cooking."
McDermott remembers that moment. "When Eli said, 'They're going to the most dangerous place in the country, which is totally overrun by walkers,' I could feel everybody leaning in. That was dynamite."
The New York setting opened up an array of possibilities for things new to this universe, like having characters zip-line from one skyscraper to another to avoid the zombie hordes below. ("We've got to set up our zip-lining tour company," Cohan jokes.) Inspired by the Mad Max movies and other dystopian films such as The Warriors and Escape from New York, Jorné also planted plenty of Easter eggs. (Keep an eye out for a special Cadillac.)
Eli Jorné serves as showrunner and executive producer on The Walking Dead: Dead City, which is overseen by Scott M. Gimple, chief content officer of The Walking Dead universe. Cohan and Morgan also serve as executive producers, along with Brian Bockrath. The series is a production of AMC Studios.
To read the rest of the story, pick up a copy of emmy magazine HERE.
This article originally appeared in its entirety in emmy magazine, Issue No. 07.
The interview for this story was completed before the start of the WGA strike on May 2.