Shane’s dead, Lori’s pregnant and Rick’s a wreck — The Walking Dead executive producer Glen Mazzara offers clues to the hit show’s third season.
In 2010, when it was announced that AMC was going to adapt the Robert Kirkman-Tony Moore-Charlie Adlard comic “The Walking Dead” into a TV series, there were plenty of skeptics. There’d never been an ongoing zombie TV series, and even with heavy-hitter executive producers such as Frank Darabont and Gale Anne Hurd on board, it was a very big risk for AMC, which is best known for Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Then something strange happened: The Walking Dead was an out-of-the-box hit. With only six episodes for its first season in 2010, the show allowed anticipation to build for its second season of 13 episodes, which hit a high of 8.1 million viewers — far better than some series currently on the five major networks.
Part of the success of the series is the great storytelling, engaging characters and zombie-chomping action, but another part of the equation, according to showrunner and executive producer Glen Mazzara, is the fact that the show has broken new ground by having a singular monstrous threat throughout the series’ run. “There have been other horror shows, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files and Supernatural, but in those cases it tends to be more of a monster-of-the-week,” Mazzara says. “I’ve not seen a long-running horror show that’s about a single threat. So to have one particular threat week after week, without shying away from it, is new territory, particularly for me as a writer.”
The series centers on a disparate group of survivors following a zombie apocalypse. Spearheading the group is Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), a former deputy sheriff who has been trying to keep order in his family, consisting of wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and young son Carl (Chandler Riggs), who is angling for some of his own zombie-killin’ action as his innocence erodes.
Surprisingly, Rick’s main antagonists were often not the zombies themselves, but his former best friend and fellow officer Shane (Jon Bernthal). Their opposing views on how to handle the zombie holocaust, as well as Shane’s post-apocalyptic affair with Lori, created plenty of friction throughout the first two seasons. Everything came to an explosive head during season two when Rick had to kill his friend to save the others. And there was that little thing of Carl having to put down the zombie version of Shane, too.
“Shane’s death is the baggage that they’re all carrying around into season three,” Mazzara says. “Let’s not forget Lori is pregnant and not sure whose child she’s carrying – Rick’s or Shane’s. Rick murdered his best friend, and she had an unexpected reaction to it. It’s affecting everyone and that will certainly be a significant part of the character dynamics in season three.”
As the anticipated third season kicks into gear in October with a 16-episode commitment (to be split into two chunks of eight), we know the group, after having left the safety of the farm that took up all of season two, are getting close to the prison that will become their potential safe haven. The season is also sure to continue on an arc that is arguably one of the most dynamic and story-rich from the comics.
“The gist for season three comes directly from the comic book itself,” Mazzara explains. “I like that Rick and the group fight for that prison and they spill blood for the prison. And the Governor will spill blood for that prison. That’s a great story — two Alpha males with each group rallying behind them, fighting over that small parcel of land is something I hope to mine for as long as possible.”
Additionally, the prison arc also brings fan-favorite comic characters into the mix with their own TV show counterparts, including the aforementioned Governor (David Morrissey) and, of course, the warrior Michonne (Danai Gurira), who was glimpsed in the season finale when she saved Andrea (Laurie Holden) from a zombie attack after Andrea was separated from the main group. “We’re going to make those characters our own because that’s what we do on the series,” says Mazzara, who adds that comic book fans won’t be disappointed in the way the new characters are portrayed. “Comic book fans expect Michonne to be a badass and the Governor to be a villain, and I promise we deliver on that.”
One of the other things Mazzara is proud of is how, during the last few episodes of season two, the series finally figured out how to balance the three most important things driving the show: character moments, comic book source material and horror. “The series really needs to have that balance and an integration of these three elements,” Mazzara says. “I’m happy to say that by the end of season two, we achieved that and it’s propelling us forward into season three and we’ve hit the ground running. The show is well-paced, and it also has a lot of very poignant moments. I think, thirdly, it’s scary as hell. Our season [three] premiere is just as good as any horror film out there today and I’m excited for the audience to see that since it will be the case for all of season three.”
When drawing a parallel to what he’s trying to accomplish with The Walking Dead, Mazzara looks to The Exorcist. “If you look at The Exorcist, it’s a very simple story,” Mazzara explains. “There’s a monster in a little girl and all we have to do is buy into that. I’m interested in telling simple stories that have incredible emotional impact. I really want the show to feel simple and immediate. I have no intention of making this show heavily mythologized or heavily serialized, because I don’t want people to say, ‘I don’t understand what’s going on.’ That can be built up and that’s a trap for any TV show, because you have to be invested. At any point [with The Walking Dead], you can jump in and understand what the dilemma is and that’s why it feels immediate and we have such a mass audience.”
A perfect example of this, according to Mazzara, is the revelation that Sophia (Madison Lintz), the little girl the group had been looking for throughout season two, was in fact a zombie living inside the barn on the very farm where they had all taken short-term shelter. And it was up to Rick to kill her zombie incarnation in one of the series’ more shocking moments. “It’s heartbreaking to the group and it shatters hope, but it clearly defines the world,” Mazzara says. “Our characters are willing to massacre Hershel’s family. That is a full-on massacre and they’re participating, but what’s unique about our show [is that] our audience can put themselves in our characters’ shoes in a way you can’t in a procedural. You can’t say, ‘If I were a cop, I’d do this.’ Yes, I would be the first one there and gun them down, too, and one of their own comes out. This is what we have just done to this man. Now we’ve experienced that loss and the audience experienced that loss at the same time. That was really, really important for us — to make the show as immediate as possible and emotionally as frightening as possible. That is the true nature of horror.”
Mazzara also feels this moment helped The Walking Dead avoid a pitfall of many genre series that give vague answers instead of creating more questions. “This is a challenge all serialized dramas face: How do you push the story forward in new and exciting ways and not lose new audiences?” Mazzara asks. “I think we have a very specific vision of the show on The Walking Dead, so each episode revolves around a particular emotional core. An audience can sit down and enjoy that episode. And, I’ll be honest, the material that we’ve been writing – I’m not worried at all.”
Despite having a comic book that is evolving concurrently with the show (with writer Kirkman involved in both), Mazzara feels he won’t run out of material any time soon and that the series will continue that mix-and-match feel of both media. “We don’t want to upset fans, but we don’t deliver exactly the comic book either because that might bore people,” he notes. If we had introduced the Governor or Michonne in season two, that would have collided with the Sophia story, and those characters would have gotten short shrift. There’s only so much screen time, so it’s about what is going to be satisfying. I look at it and I don’t feel in any rush. We have a long-term plan for the show and I’m excited. I hope we go to 100 episodes and by the end of those episodes everyone will be happy.”