Rick gets to finally meet up with King Ezekiel, the Shakespearean actor and zookeeper with the tiger who managed to create a viable society far more benign than Negan's. That particular Kingdom episode, which aired as episode two of season seven, was purposely placed there after the ultra-violent season debut featuring the (does this even count as a spoiler if you're reading this?) deaths of Glenn and Abraham.
"It was a little bit of a palette cleanser," Nicotero said. "It was a very different episode for me to direct. I was coming off that episode that was so dark and so heavy. Then you're setting up a world where things are brighter things are vibrant, children and people are flourishing. Carol's looking around and saying, 'What is this place?' That place hasn't existed."
Alexandra was a good place when Rick's group arrived but Deanna, the mayor, knew they lacked fighters and ways to be self sustaining that the Kingdom has been able to pull off. '
Negan's Saviors are ably functional, too, but in a purely autocratic way: "Negan figured out his own version of how to make it work."
The risk, of course, is Rick might tip off Negan, which could have dire consequences for his group. Negan, in fact, has warned Rick about trying to buck the system. "Rick needs to be careful and cautious about it. There's no way you ever want to tip your hand."
While the show has made it clear the Hilltop and Kingdom will help out Alexandria in the fight against the Saviors, he wouldn't say that the all-female crew that Tara saw will also get in the mix. (That probably means they will in some way.) And he said we will we find out what happened to Heath, played by "24: Legacy" star Corey Hawkins.
A couple of actors (Lenny James and Sonequa Martin) have signed on with other shows, which has fueled speculation their "Walking Dead" characters are going to die. Nicotero said some existing actors have found time to do other work during their hiatus, including Norman Reedus' motorcycle travel show. He said it doesn't necessarily mean they're dead.
Nicotero, by the way, is still loving what he does. He doesn't even acknowledge a whiff of burnout.
"We're all there to push each of us forward," he said. "I get a tremendous amount of strength from the cast. Andy Lincoln has been there since day one on this show. We support each other. This season was by far the hardest."
Nicotero said "there were times I wasn't having the greatest time of my life but I had a blast once we got out of it and finished. I was, 'Oh s***! We made it through. Shooting the finale, everybody was happy. Everybody had a great time. The script was fantastic. Actors were excited.We ended on a high note. We started the season so low. There was no way to go down any more."
He said he knows there is a contingent of the world that is always looking for spoilers and he accepts that. (There were widespread rumors before this season's debut about who was dead and who wasn't.) "Of the 17 million people who watch the show, we hope the majority of our viewers do what I would do, which is go on that journey. Spoilers are like buying a book and reading the last page. It robs you of the discovery. That's what I love doing. I love going on the journey."
Nicotero is honored and gratified that showrunner Scott Gimple gives him the "big" episodes to direct, including season seven's 12th episode and 16th episode (as well as this Sunday's episode). "I understand the actors," he said. "I know their motivations. They trust me and Scott puts the most difficult episodes in my lap. He knows I can do it."
He also said he isn't affected by social media and fans' reactions to what they do. "We've never veered from the stories we want to tell. If we started taking direction from external outside sources, we'd never kill anybody on the show. We want Herschel back! We want Beth back! Experience the emotions when they're watching the show. When it's over, they say, 'That was really uncomfortable. I feel that emotion.' "
Nicotero appreciates how fervent fans are, that they care enough to get emotionally invested in the characters and fight about it. "What would be worse is if nobody said a thing. That would really suck."
Although the show's ratings are down versus season six, it remains the No. 1 show among 18 to 49 year olds and third overall behind only "The Big Bang Theory" and "NCIS." It appears to have plenty of life left although it can't possibly be as indestructible as some of the godforsaken zombies on the show itself.
Nicotero said he plans to take this ride as long as the fans let him. "I'm proud of what I've done. And I'm now paying it forward. As a young film fan, I met
[both of "Night of the Living Dead" fame]. That changed my life. I have the opportunity to do the same with young future filmmakers. I get to meet them and hopefully inspire them to go and do something stupendous with their lives. That's the greatest compliment I can get ever."
"The Walking Dead," season 9 midseason return at 9 p.m. Sunday, AMC