Gene Page/AMC
Dalton Ross
March 31, 2014 AT 04:00 PM EDT

[SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched the season finale of The Walking Dead.]

The Walking Dead ended season 4 with a good news/bad news situation. The bad news: Most of our survivors had been captured and were being held in a train car by the folks at Terminus, who may have just exaggerated their hospitality by a weeeeeeee bit. The good news: They have their leader back. There will be no more shunning of violence by Rick Grimes, who got the party started by biting marauder Joe’s neck off and then gutting the thug who had Carl pinned down. Now he needs to get his group out their latest jam. We spoke with Walking Dead showrunner Scott M. Gimple to get his take on the finale, the return of Rick, whether the folks of Terminus may indeed be cannibals as speculated, the location of Carol, Tyreese, Judith, and Beth, and what may be in store in season 5. (Read though both pages for the entire interview. Also make sure to read our finale interviews with star Andrew Lincoln and creator Robert Kirkman.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start with the unique framing you gave this episode. You’ve done flashbacks before but never as much back-and-forth between present and past as you did here. How did you come upon the decision to go that route and really frame not just the episode but the entire season as this evolution of Rick Grimes?

SCOTT M. GIMPLE: Yeah, there you go. Actually, I think that’s it. It was really to show that evolution of Rick. If he had wound up in that train car at any earlier in the season or in his story he would not have been prepared for what he might need to do to get out. He would not be as confident as he is at the end. And this was all about that journey to that moment and really it was to show the contrast of where he was at the beginning of the season.

EW: You’ve had a lot of deep, profound, introspective dialogue this season, but then for the very last line, you just went pure badass with “They’re screwing with the wrong people.” Was that important to get that almost triumphant moment in the midst of this terrible situation, especially to show that Rick Grimes was back?

GIMPLE: You know what, man? You are speaking my language here. It’s a massive cliffhanger. It is. But from an emotional standpoint, that is the conclusion of Rick’s story this season. He has completed the journey to that moment. He has become the Rick Grimes that can face this impossible situation. And it’s weird. They’re locked away in a train car by a group of extremely organized and well armed people, and yet I believe it is a triumphant moment for Rick because he’s certain he can deal with it. And the guy he was at the beginning of the season probably wouldn’t have been so certain.

EW: You guys don’t really do cliffhangers on this show so this was a bit of a departure for you in that sense.

GIMPLE: I think it was a question of completing the emotional story being the most important thing. We knew about this very, very, very early in the process. We knew what that last line was. It is a cliffhanger. But we’re gonna launch right into season 5 sort of full-speed this way. I will say the end of season 1, though they weren’t hanging on by their fingernails or anything, it was cliffhangery. We did have that lovely Bob Dylan song but still they had no idea where they were going or what they were doing at the end of season 1. The end of season 1 is, like, what the hell are they going to do? And the end of this season is, like, what the hell are they going to do? But, I will say, again, Rick has never been more prepared to face something like this.

EW: Ever since you introduced the concept of Terminus everyone has been theorizing who those people might be. A lot of people, including myself, have guessed they might be a new version of the group of cannibals we met in the comics. There certainly seemed to be some hints in this finale that could be the case — at least the way I took them. What would you like to say about that speculation?

GIMPLE: I think the speculation is totally fair. I wouldn’t jump to that myself. The hard thing in my head that I try to sort of do is ask, if I hadn’t read the comic would I still be jumping to these people being cannibals? I can neither confirm nor deny. We have done stories that are different from the comic that lead to the comic stories, like the illness storyline in the prison is certainly an example of that. Though we are following the comic, and as far as where the story has turned in the comic it is right around the time of the cannibals and all, but there might be some stuff in the show before that.

EW: Is it safe to say that Gareth is the leader of Terminus?

GIMPLE: It really might not be entirely true, but he certainly was the leader in this situation. So getting into the power structures of Terminus beyond that probably isn’t very exciting anyway. But we know what we know, and he definitely was the guy in charge in this episode.

EW: Until the finale, the past month or so has featured the least amount of Rick Grimes that we’ve ever seen. With him being the protagonist that we started this journey with, were you guys concerned at all about being away from him so much?

GIMPLE: That’s a great question. I would say it’s not going to be the usual thing. This half-season, I feel so lucky to have been able to do this incredibly unusual season for a show. A lot of shows would never do this sort of thing. It’s a tribute to AMC and the support of the executive producers and the ingenuity of the writers and an incredible cast and the most incredibly generous actor I have ever met in my entire life, Mr. Andy Lincoln, that we were able to do this. This show reinvents itself every eight episodes. And I love that about it. It is an incredible challenge as we are doing a new television program every eight episodes. But that was an awesome TV show and I loved that TV show and now that TV show is going to be very different.

And there will be some times where you don’t see Rick Grimes. It is a big ensemble. But I told Andy for this half-season, chill out, play some golf, hang out with your family, because season 5 there is going to be a whole lot of Rick Grimes and you are not going to be lying unconscious on a couch for any of those episodes. So that was an unusual thing, but we all had a pretty good idea for our structure of season 5 back when we were starting season 4. I’m not saying I had everything completely locked down. But I knew generally what the structure for season 5 was going to be. And I knew that we could do a chapter of this story where we didn’t see quite as much Rick, to feature the other characters, focus on the other characters, build a relationship with those other characters. So when we see all these people together, we know who those people are even if they don’t get a whole lot of screen time in an episode.

NEXT PAGE: Where are Carol, Tyreese Judith, and Beth?

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