There’s rust flaking off the twisted metal bars surrounding the empty pool. The enveloping woods look as though they’ve been reclaimed by wildlife—unsurprising, considering the middle-of-nowhere drive required to get here. And the paint, faded and peeling off the signs at this long-abandoned water park just outside Richmond, Virginia, is too faint to give any indication of how many years have passed since anyone last set foot inside this now-empty hub of onetime youthful recreation. Or rather, it would seem empty, were it not for the dozens of people hustling around, trying to keep on-schedule as the cast and crew of AMC’s splashy new show struggle to make sure they’re not still filming when the sun comes up. But walk 30 yards south of where the cameras are set up, and all you’ll hear is the creak of decaying playground swings and the odd bird crying in the stillness. If you want eerie post-apocalyptic vibes, you’ve come to the right place.
Which is only fitting. The Walking Dead: World Beyond, the new spin-off series from AMC’s long-running (and soon-to-end) juggernaut The Walking Dead, is hoping to breathe new life into the world of the undead. The flagship program has seen sharply declining ratings over the past few years—it’s still the top-rated show on AMC, but at roughly 3 million live viewers per episode, it’s a far cry from the more than 17 million tuning in during season five. Some of the drop-off could be attributed to a dip in quality (many cite the ignominious send-off of Rick Grimes as the moment they checked out), but even if you believe the past two seasons under new showrunner Angela Kang have seen an improvement in storytelling, there’s no denying the steady attrition of interest. And yet AMC is doubling down on its belief in the viability of the Walking Dead world: Planned spin-off movies with Grimes, continuing to expand Fear The Walking Dead’s narrative ambitions, and announcing a show focused on Daryl and Carol to continue this story once The Walking Dead ends, all signal a firm commitment to the network’s equivalent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And the first big gamble in this expansion is World Beyond.
The new series certainly isn’t skimping when it comes to production value, which in this case means creating the look of a world more than a decade into the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse. The show focuses on a handful of teenagers—the first generation of kids to come of age in a world overrun by the undead (or “empties,” in the new parlance of the series, replacing the mothership program’s “walkers”)—venturing out into the now-unfamiliar and mostly vacant American landscape. As a result, the production design requires a look even more ramshackle and run-down than what we’ve seen before. And that goes for the zombies, too; as John Wrightson, the key makeup effects artist for the new series, explains it, there’s a fundamental aesthetic to all the undead you’ll be seeing: “Decay.”
Ironically, crafting a series set in an even more decomposed world than The Walking Dead (or Fear The Walking Dead) is all about injecting some fresh, youthful energy into a universe that’s been growing long in the tooth. There’s a distinct YA flavor to the tone of World Beyond that comes from transposing the life-or-death struggles of this reality onto teenage protagonists. Sure, they could be attacked at any minute by the hordes of jawing undead, but they’re still dealing with hormones, crushes, and the angst of figuring themselves out—zombies or no zombies. Personality changes that are big deals for adults are practically routine for adolescents. As Hal Cumpston, who plays 17-year-old Silas, puts it, “These teenagers don’t know who they are normally anyway!”
That goes double for Silas, a Boo Radley-like outcast in the community that’s evolved inside the fortified walls of a university in Omaha, Nebraska, where survivors have managed to build a thriving populace largely insulated from the terrors outside its gates. The angry and withdrawn young man gets roped into the narrative via teen sisters Iris (Aliyah Royale) and Hope (Alexa Mansour), who are spurred to action in the pilot, leaving the compound in search of their scientist father. Along with Silas, they also find themselves joined by Elton (Nicolas Cantu), an earnest overachiever eager to put his book learning to the test in the outside world. Hot on the kids’ trail in the pilot are Felix (Nico Tortorella) and Huck (The Americans’ Annet Mahendru); the latter is a former Marine, now a security guard at the university, while the former is not only her boss, but also an adopted older brother of sorts to Iris and Hope.
Beyond that basic outline, the travails of these kids and their older protectors are practically state secrets within the production. As all of us journalists sent to cover the show on this trip agree, this is one of the most zealously guarded set visits outside of a Marvel movie. At one point, after being assured that we’ve signed NDAs allowing her to speak freely about any and all plot points, actor Aliyah Royale begins to answer a relatively innocuous question, then turns to the publicist: “Am I allowed to talk about [a certain narrative twist]?” The answer is immediate: “No.” So much for those NDAs.
Still, some things are open for discussion, especially the distinctive personalities each of these kids brings to their group of travelers. Sisters Iris and Hope are the core of this makeshift family—and as is often the case with siblings, they’re a study in contrasts. “Hope is the girl that you will find drunk in a locker room; Iris is the one who’d be up all night studying,” as Mansour puts it. “Hope is an angsty teen. She doesn’t give a shit about anything. She’s pretty sure she could die at any moment, and I don’t think she cares.” Whereas Iris, Royale explains, goes the opposite direction. “I really like playing a person who is so giving,” she says, “who doesn’t have a selfish bone in her body.” As the pair’s journey progresses, both start to realize their respective worldviews could use some adjusting.
One thing all the actors we spoke to hope is that this series will connect with kids in a way that its forbears didn’t. By focusing on a younger cast, there are opportunities to explore YA issues in a manner the original show wouldn’t or couldn’t. One of the series’ key themes is isolation, that sense of feeling like you’re all alone that many kids experience—a feeling that can be blown out to a much more symbolically significant degree in the wasteland of a zombie apocalypse. “As cheesy as it sounds, I hope they realize that they’re not alone,” Mansour says of the potential audience of kids checking out the show. Explaining how she was intensely bullied at a young age, the actor admits it wasn’t hard to connect to Hope’s angst and disillusionment, that lack of self-esteem that makes her dismiss her own value. “It’s important for kids who are watching this to see that it’s okay to be open about what you’re feeling... It’s not the end of the world, it’s going to get better.”
Nicolas Cantu, who plays 14-year-old Elton (and therefore the default younger brother of the gang), agrees. “I really do relate to Elton. The world is brutal, and he’s just come to accept that.” Cantu thinks the view of reality as a cold and cruel place is one that a lot of teens can relate to, unfortunately—but also one they often refuse to let prevent them from living life. “Elton sees it as a positive nihilism,” he offers, tying his character’s attitude to that of people he’s known in real life. “Whatever happens, he wants to be there to observe it.” As similarly genre-specific books and films like The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner have demonstrated, sometimes seeing life-or-death predicaments through the eyes of young people can spur fresh and insightful narratives out of well-worn tropes.
But there are other draws to the series, ones that further the advances made by the original series. Nico Tortorella, who comes to World Beyond after four years on the TV Land dramedy Younger, was attracted to the inclusivity woven into the series—especially his character, Felix, a queer man in a loving relationship who also happens to be a total badass. “Felix is very much a hero. He protects the people around him, in a way that’s contradictory to the stereotype of what a gay character usually is on television.” Tortorella is no stranger to LGBTQ activism—he was in Bali working with queer youth when he got the call about joining the Walking Dead universe—and was energized by the way the show works to create not just a plausible zombie apocalypse, but also a model of future progress that has evolved since the original show began a decade ago. “This show coming out 10 years later, it’s different. The art that we create is a mirror of what’s happening, and this binary divide that exists in the country and the world has never been stronger. And what Scott [Gimple, executive producer] said to me that really grabbed my attention was, ‘The only binary that really exists post-apocalypse is dead and alive.’ That just really struck a chord with me. I wanna live in that world. I wanna know what that feels like.”
Even though the show filmed before the pandemic—World Beyond was originally set to premiere in late March (and this set visit occurred almost a year ago now)—some of the themes have become uncomfortably relevant to our current predicament. As the world tries to figure out how to restructure itself in the face of an ongoing threat, a show about carrying on with life in a satisfying way despite the ever-present specter of danger carries more than a whiff of timeliness. True, it’s all too easy to repurpose culture, to look at it through the lens of the present, but some of the comments made on set can’t help but feel oddly prescient. “Life has been so dire,” Annet Mahendru says of the world of the show. “We all have these strong ties to what life was like before, and we’re all trying to figure out who we are now, and is there a future, and what we can do about that.” It’s enough to make one consider taking notes on her character’s survival techniques.
Still, it would be silly to get too somber. This is a show about fighting off zombies, after all, with all the attendant thrills and larger-than-life adventurism that premise entails. If anything, the edge-of-your-seat excitement World Beyond is going for can only be helped by the youthful perspective. “The show is through the eyes of teenagers, so everything is more exaggerated, everything is more intense,” Cantu says. “An empty threat might not be that much of a threat to a more experienced person, but Elton is very new,” Royale agrees. “The minute that [Iris] encounters the first walker, it’s just absolute fear. As much as you can prepare, as many books as you can read, you can’t prepare.”
AMC is presumably hoping that that sense of newness extends to the audience, as World Beyond premieres to a culture getting ready to bid farewell to the series that spawned it. It makes sense as a gambit: If the audience is tuning out from the very adult themes and scenarios that defined the original, why not go the opposite tack? A little bit of wide-eyed wonder and heightened emotion might be the key to reinvesting viewers in a universe they think they already know. As Mahendru notes, if the audience is wise to the ways of this undead land, so are the characters. “The world is still the same, if not worse, because time has gone by. Everyone’s gotten stronger because of that.” Still, as she warns with a laugh, “So have the walkers—they’ve been walking for awhile now!”
Travel and accommodations for this set visit were provided by AMC.