10 Things We Learned On The Set of 'The Walking Dead' Season 9 [Set Visit Report]

As The Walking Dead zombie crawls to season 9, the question that's been on many fans' minds is how the series will keep things fresh and exciting after so many years. Turns out, the answer is completely turning everything we know about this apocalyptic world on its head. With the ascension of writer Angela Kang as the new showrunner and the impending departure of Andrew Lincoln as leader Rick Grimes, change is most definitely in the air.

Here are 10 things we learned while visiting the blistering Atlanta set.

The plot of season 9 begins 18 months after where we left off in season 8.

Comics fans may have already expected that a time jump would occur as it does in the books, but The Walking Dead has had a knack for even throwing comic book purists off by detouring from the source material or the point when a certain plot twist occurs. But true as the books, season 9 begins a year and a half later, which means things have drastically changed for the people of Georgia as supplies, resources, and even weapons have almost depleted which has forced them to get very creative when it comes to the characters' survival. "It kind of takes the show and the books into this interesting, almost western/agrarian vibe," Kang said. "That was something I really wanted to capture in the show."

If you were a fan of the pilot back in 2010, you’re in luck.

There have been countless zombie kills, cannibals, and other threats that have plagued our heroes throughout the series, and while the new season promises to keep the stakes high, Kang and the other writers wanted to go back to one of the things that really helped put the series on the map in the first season—the intimate dialogue between the characters. "I was such a fan of the pilot, and so I wanted to try to recapture some of that feeling of the silences and the beautiful, wide landscapes and the loneliness that can be in the world," Kang said. "Except now, we're in a part where we really see the characters have found this group and they're very tight with each other. So, you get to feel that warmth between them, while there are also conflicts." Greg Nicotero—who's worn many hats throughout the run of the series, including directing and spearheading the makeup and visual effects, agreed with Kang: "It's really about going back to what made The Walking Dead great when you started watching it. I want you to be able to lean in and listen to everything that [the characters] are saying because they say more than 3 or 4 f***ing things. They have real conversations, conversations that you give a s**t about."

The crust of the season will explore how these characters navigate a world that’s been ravaged by war.

Because of the time jump, what we'll see particularly at the start of the season is this the characters trying to rebuild, a "reset" as Kang called it. As you'll see even in the first episode, cars no longer run without maintenance, so the characters are on horseback. "I love apocalypse stories, and I think one of the things that's really interesting is issues of scarcity. So, when you do run out of gas that's really easy to work, when bullets are scarcer, when food is scarce. Canned goods aren't going to last forever, so now you have to farm," she said.

There are new opening credits this season that you should pay extra attention to.

Don't worry; the haunting and quite effective score remains, but the graphics of the opening credits have evolved. It was a change that Kang jumped at the opportunity to spearhead, so much so that she even made sure to add some surprises in it for the diehard fans: "We started building it and, toward the end, we started putting hidden objects in there. Hopefully it will be fun for our fans to be digging frame by frame of all the little Easter eggs that are buried."

Though Lincoln’s departure left a gaping hole in the hearts of the cast and crew, the writers have penned a worthy exit for Rick that will also serve as a jumping off point to elevate other characters on the show.

I'm not going to lie: Lincoln's departure announcement totally threw me for a loop too. I had many of the same questions other fans did: who will be the new leader? Will the show end after he leaves? The answers to those queries are it's unclear and no. Details of exactly when and how Rick will be written off remain hush-hush, but there is a plan. With sensitivity to the fact that Lincoln is no longer among the cast in later episodes of the season (airing in 2019), Kang wanted to give him a strong, memorable story to conclude his run. "The big story responsibility that I felt was how do we write a worthy exit for this person whose character has been so fun and compelling to watch and write for and brought us into the story," Kang said. "We are also personally fond of Andrew Lincoln. He's such a rare and amazing human being. We love working with him and we wanted to give him something that the fans love as much as he seems to that has a good story."

As for who will succeed Rick's leadership, it sounds like the rest of the characters. While the cast agrees that there can be no other Rick, his departure offers an opportunity for certain other characters to be elevate in a way we haven't seen before. "We have this great ensemble. It's been an ensemble from the start, even though he's been a character that has helped us frame some of the moral questions throughout the series. It's been an exciting opportunity to build up some of those characters and delve into some of those relationships that we've had going for a long time as well as introduce new characters or see people that we've seen for many years change." Kang assured. 

One of those characters who will ascend in the ranks is Darryl.

Though actor Norman Reedus insists that Darryl is certainly not a leader, he does step up his game this season, particularly post-Rick. When we meet Darryl in the first few episodes, he's stuck in between a rock and a hard place because the natural fighter in him wants to get as far away from "suburban, neighborly" Alexandria as possible, but understands he has a duty to protect people and create a safe environment that aligns itself with Rick's vision. "He's taken the values that Rick has shown everyone as an example and he's trying to do the right thing. He's trying to be a better person," Reedus said.  

While Rick is focused on creating a sense of community and replenishing resources, his other half Michonne is mapping out a new, safe world for all of them with rules and regulations.

As actress Danai Gurira said, "[Rick's] mind deals with 'let's build a bridge" and [Michonne's] mind is like, 'let's create a system of law and order that could last for generations.'" With that in mind, Michonne is in the midst of creating a charter in which rights and privileges will be specifically defined; something Danai said exemplifies the savviness of the character. "Before [we] were just trying to survive. [We were] thinking of the smartest ways to deal with savage attacks and daunting threats. And now, [Michonne] is able to pull from another part of herself, which I find really fun to do."

That said, expect women to rise up in a major way this season.

In addition to Rick no longer being on the show in the later episodes, Maggie's (Lauren Cohan) storyline may run scarce beyond this season as Cohan moves over to the upcoming ABC series, Whiskey Cavalier. Despite that, Kang confirmed that "we still have story for Maggie." In fact, she's going to be kicking some major ass this season. "We definitely have a very strong Maggie arc this season," Kang said. "Lauren has always been such a great actress for us and has done some spectacular work this season. There is some stuff that just blew me away [in upcoming episodes]."

And she's not the only one stepping up her game this season. As Reedus said, "the train this year is being driven by women—from the showrunner, to the directors to the writers to the actresses. I think the last couple of years have been driven by men. And you've ended up with two guys in particular chest-bumping. There's none of that happening right now." Melissa McBride, who plays Carol, echoed Reedus: "Women are being put into positions of leadership and making really hard choices. [They're] not backing down, [they're] keeping the people safe and that's exciting to play."

Gurira is especially proud to be a part of this rising feminist army, of which she said was one of the things that always made the series so great. "From its beginning, it's had this fantastic arc for women. There were some very traditional gender roles. The men [would do] that, and the women would do this. That got broken down throughout the course of the series, which I think is fantastic. The whole idea of there being a division between who does what based on gender got completely decimated [as they've] adapted to the threat of a world of the dead." She added that Angela's influence as the showrunner also reflects that in a new way. "Angela brings a nuance to it. What I love is that the women characters are engaging each other very deeply this season. You see the power that they possess and how they exercise it and what they do when they're in conflict."

Negan’s bloody reign has been ceased…at least for now. But it’s come with a cost.

Ever since he stepped onto the scene, Negan has been knocking folks off left in right with a swing of his spiky bat and a twisted grin on his face. But as we saw at the end of last season, Negan has finally been captured and has remained in a cell at least through the first few episodes of the new season. And as actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan revealed, the intense solitude has taken a toll on him. "I think Negan is going insane, truthfully. I think the four walls have closed in on him and he's battling trying to keep some sense of sanity. And it's not going well." He added, "He's fighting some demons." While Negan might be mentally deteriorating (though one could easily make the argument that the man was never quite there to begin with), Morgan assured that he's been quietly keeping his ear to the activity above ground: "He's kind of aware of what's going on. He sees that people are making mistakes or doing well. He's very hip to what's going on outside his jail."

Carol is in a new romance with King Ezekiel.

Carol has had to endure being a domestic abuse victim, losing her daughter to the zombie apocalypse, and almost losing her self as well, but at this point in her story, she has found love with a familiar face in the group—none other than King Ezekiel (Khary Payton). And she seems happy.  How long will it last? Who knows. But McBride did say, "The time jump is significant [because it] flings whatever little sparks were there. Working together to build these little communities brought them a little closer together." Still, Carol has always been guarded, having lost so much in just this time throughout the apocalypse. So, she's definitely not rushing into anything serious at the moment anyway. "He's very different from anyone she's ever encountered, most people have encountered. They have that understanding," Carol explained.