“The Walking Dead” returns from a brief mid-season hiatus on Sunday night at 9 on AMC. Ratings-wise, the post-apocalyptic zombie drama remains an enormous hit for AMC, with its viewership actually increasing after the already successful first season. Creatively, though, there have been some bumps, with most of the season’s first half taking place during a relatively idyllic – or, as some viewers have put it, dull – stretch on a rural farm that’s been largely untouched by the zombie plague.
On top of that, there was the abrupt departure of showrunner Frank Darabont midway through the season, which left his number two man, “The Shield” alum Glen Mazzara, in charge of things. I spoke with Mazzara and Robert Kirkman – who created “The Walking Dead” comic book and has been a writer on the TV series from the beginning – about where things stand for Rick Grimes and friends as we head into the home stretch, about some of the complaints about the relative peace of Herschel’s farm, the timing of Darabont’s exit and more.
Also, one word of warning for those who have watched the show but not read the comics: at one point in the interview, Kirkman brings up a character who died early in the comic but is still alive on the show, and one who suffered the opposite fate in the transition from page to screen. I’ve generally discouraged discussion of events in the comic that have yet to happen on the show, but in this case it’s a situation where if it does eventually happen on the show, the context will have to be very different, so I left it in the transcript. If you don’t want to know, don’t click through.
What is the plan for this batch of episodes? I read the comic, but obviously you”ve deviated quite a bit from the comic already. What kind of story do you see yourselves telling in the back half of this season, thematically?
Robert Kirkman: Thematically I think that we were trying to lull you into a sense of security with the farm in the first half of the season and I think that the second half of the season is just reminding everyone how dangerous this world is. And there is a theme going throughout the season of Rick”s leadership role, how he comes into it, whether he”s able to assume the mantle of leadership and whether he does that. So that is going to be going with all the episodes, but it really is about how dangerous this world is and these new threats that they”re encountering.
Glen Mazzara: Yeah, I think that after the revelation that Sophia was in the barn, everything is just at a full boil on that farm, that the outside world now starts crashing in. The farm itself is not safe. People are turning on each other. It”s just the stakes are amped up as high as possible.
So far the farm story has deviated some from the version that”s in the comics, but in terms of the amount of time the characters have been there, it feels about the same as it is in the books. Have you found that it has been playing differently in TV and the way people are perceiving it versus when they”re reading six issues of the comic book?
Robert Kirkman: Yeah. There are definitely differences in it. I like the new elements that are thrown in if you”re comparing the comic book to the television show. I like that Shane is there. I like that he”s changing the story. I like the idea that Otis would be around if Shane hadn”t come to the farm. That”s a really interesting change to me, but as far as people interpreting it differently, I don’t really know. It seems like maybe a little bit, but I think it”s cool. I like the way it”s two different kind of worlds and you get to experience a similar story in two different mediums and watch the differences and see how it unfolds.
Well, the reason I asked is because there have been some people who felt that they”ve been at the farm maybe a little bit too long. Have you guys learned anything now that you”ve been doing this a while in terms of how much story to devote to things?
Glen Mazzara: You know what, I do. I’ll say that I don”t think the issue is necessarily “are they on the farm or aren”t they?” It”s that some of those episodes on the farm perhaps feel as a stall or perhaps feel safe and the danger is elsewhere. That changes in the back half of the season. Now there is no safe place and everything is a lot more heated. So it”s a matter of making the farm itself threatening, making threats to the farm, so it”s a matter of perhaps the storytelling wasn”t dense enough or threatening enough. People weren”t scared when they were on the farm and ultimately the show is a horror show. So that”s something that I think changes significantly in the back half of the season. So I’ll say this: I don”t think that what we”re doing is a course correction based on feedback. It”s the natural progression of storytelling over 13 episodes and if we had to do it again perhaps we would pull some more stuff up, but it”s just the way it came together.
Robert Kirkman: I think once you see this season as soon as whole and you”re able to look at the 13 episodes you”ll see that some of the things in the back half are more intense and more threatening because of the way those episodes in the first half were perceived. I think that that story will build into something that as a whole will be a pretty cool thing.
And I don”t want to dwell on this too much, but people keep asking me: Roughly at what point in the writing of the episodes did Frank leave?
Glen Mazzara: It”s sort of impossible to say because there were scripts that were done and shot and then we went back and where there were things that were being prepped that new scenes were written for or something. I”d say at midpoint of the episodes that are there. Some people are saying that the first eight or first seven are Frank”s and the next are mine. It”s not that clear. I had a lot of input; we all did, into the episodes that were already aired. That midseason finale for example that was a script that I polished. That was a script that I think there was a draft done, but Frank never touched that script.
You only had six episodes to work with last year, so there was only so much you can do with the characters, and during this time on the farm, you spent quite a bit of time on characterization. Daryl, for instance, feels like someone who you”ve done quite a bit of work with from who he was then to who he is now. Talk about sort of your approach to him and what you want to do there, especially since he”s one of the few people who is wholly invented for this show.
Robert Kirkman: We really like that character. I think he”s a fan favorite, but I mean he”s also a favorite among the writers on the show as well. It”s just a really interesting character. The whole show is about how different characters exist in this world and how it affects them and how they change over time, and to see a character like him that to a certain extent his life has been improved by this dramatic change in civilization. I mean, he actually has friends now. He actually has a family for the first time and it”s just a lot of fun to explore. So I think that that drives us coming up with cool ideas for the guy.
Glen Mazzara: Yeah and I’ll say this that Daryl became Carol”s knight in shining armor. He took up this quest to find Sophia. The fact that Sophia was right there and that quest is lost, I think Daryl feels foolish that he ever thought he could take on this noble quest. That really affects him and turns him into a dark place in the back part of the season and it”s a matter of as we have the rivalry between Rick and Shane, obviously Daryl is a great asset, and it”s important to see where his loyalties lie.
Do you feel any more freedom in writing for Daryl or T-Dog or any of the other people who were invented for the series than you do for the ones from the comic? Obviously you”ve deviated quite a bit. But would you be willing to take the characterization of one of the Robert”s characters further afield as the show goes along?
Glen Mazzara: Yeah, I think these characters have been established with a particular voice. I think that the actors have done a great job of bringing them to life and the way that we approach our story is really like we did on “The Shield.” You know where is our character right now? What are the problems they”re facing? How do they move forward? That”s important, so the book is our guidepost, but really it”s about making sure that every step a character takes makes sense. So we”re really leaning heavily on a process where we are fully engaged with the actors and getting a lot of feedback and hearing what is the emotional work that they are doing and then tracking the story from an emotional standpoint.
Robert Kirkman: And if you just use Rick Grimes as an example, he”s the main character in the comic book series and his character has grown and evolved over the life of the comic book series based on the events that have happened to him and there has been some pretty horrible things that have happened to him over the course of that series. Whether or not those things happen to him in the TV show will dictate whether or not his character is brought to the level that it”s brought to in the comic book series. So it”s really much more about the shape the story takes and how these characters will grow over time. We”re not necessarily married to exactly how everything happened in the comic book series.
With what they found at the CDC and what they”ve been talking about a lot this season, there really is no hope here – at least that they”re aware of. The world is damned. How do you deal with a story in which characters have no hope? What is the objective?
Glen Mazzara: The story is the search for hope. As Rick clearly says, we were all facing death anyway, whether it was from this or that, so it”s about how does this group of survivors carry on? How do they find hope? How do they give each other hope? And right now I think that that”s coming out of a sense of their community about togetherness. I don”t think anybody would be successful going off on their own. I don”t think people consider that and so it”s a matter of how does humanity pick itself up after this horrific event and the show is not about dealing with the loss of hope. It”s about the search for new hope.
And obviously you”ve had to deal with that in the book. As you say, things get really, really bad as it goes on and all these terrible things happen. As you”re plotting out the journey in the book and now you”re doing it in the series how do you look at it in terms of what the story is? Is it just a series of awful things that happen to Rick Grimes or -?
Robert Kirkman: It”s important to me to do as realistic a portrayal of what life would be like in this situation as possible. I do believe that were this to actually happen life would be pretty bleak and so I want to not pull any punches. I want to continue to tell that story as I believe it would happen and that ends up being a fairly dark, really kind of at times, depressing kind of story, but I like to think that it is a story about looking for hope and searching for that and every now and then they do find it and I think that the comic book series does have these moments where they do think things are going to get better and there are signs that there are going to be able to survive and I think that that”s what keeps things going and that”s what keep people invested in seeing where these people are going to go and how they”re going to do it.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com