The Rise of 'The Walking Dead'

The tortured history of TV's goriest show

walking dead
Frank Ockenfels 3
Andrew Lincoln on the cover of Rolling Stone.
By |

Rick Grimes is having yet another very bad day. Not a wake-up-from-a-coma-to-find-the-world's-been-overrun-by-zombies bad day or even a my-son-just-shot-my-wife-­after-she-gave-birth-to-a-child-that-may-have-been-fathered-by-my-former-best-friend sort of day, but still pretty awful. There's dirt smeared on his face, a gash over his left eye and a soiled white bandage wrapped loosely around one hand. He's gasping for breath as he trudges up a hill outside the prison he and the band of survivors he's leading call home. He looks like he might collapse.

Nine Walking Dead Villains We're Dying to See

Director Ernest Dickerson has yelled "Cut!" and some craft-services staff are handing out fruit cups to the cast and crew. But sweating hard under the hot August sun, Andrew Lincoln needs a little more than a small plastic dish filled with an assortment of cherries and grapefruit to shed the heavy burden of portraying Rick Grimes, ex-Georgia sheriff's deputy and the last great hope for humanity against the zombie apocalypse in AMC's monster hit The Walking Dead.

A few hours ago, Lincoln was walking out of his home in the trendy Atlanta neighborhood of Inman Park. At that moment, he was an unfailingly gracious 40-year-old British actor who until 2010 was best known in his native country for his roles in lighthearted romantic comedies and virtually unknown in this one. After an hourlong drive to Raleigh Studios near the small town of Senoia, where he trades his precise British accent for a rolling Georgia drawl, another hour in makeup, and plenty of time in the sticky morning heat, alternately rehearsing and listening intently to his iPod, he's ready to be Rick Grimes. Or almost ready.

"Action! Andy! Action!"

Lincoln is on all fours now, hands and knees in the dirt, and though he sounds like he's moaning in pain, he's actually singing along to his iPod, momentarily oblivious to the TV show waiting to be made all around him. A production assistant jars him from his trance. Lincoln hands over his music and runs through the scene once, then again. It's a short scene, mostly just Lincoln walking toward the camera and uttering a single line, but the actor isn't happy with how it's going.

Andrew Lincoln: I'll Play Rick Grimes Until They Bite Me

"Again. Again. Again," he says, shaking his head and staring fixedly at the ground as he paces back toward the spot on the hill where he started. One more time through, but still something is off. Lincoln emits a guttural wail of dissatisfaction.

"Let's do it again!" Now he's shouting. "Fuck! Fuck that! Shit!"

His earbuds go back in and he's on all fours again. A final take goes well. Or well enough to move on.

"There's something in me that's definitely masochistic," Lincoln tells me later. "If I don't feel it's true, the crew understands and goes, 'Keep rolling.'" This maso­chism sets an indelible tone on The Walking Dead, which shoots largely during the hot Georgia summers, frequently outside. The cast and crew brave the heat, dodge the rain, navigate woods and grasslands teeming with hungry ticks, chiggers and mosquitoes, and endure the punishing schedule required to make a high-concept, action-packed, effects-heavy 43-minute film in eight days, and do this 16 times between May and November.

"It's a tough job," says Norman Reedus, who plays the crossbow-toting reformed redneck Daryl Dixon. "We're out here running, getting bruised, with the heat and bugs. We've had people come do the show and halfway through, they're like, 'Fuck this! It's 120 degrees outside.'"

Lincoln's role here is beyond lead actor: He's a de facto producer, drama teacher, big brother and cheerleader. He frequently watches and comments on scenes he's not in. Others follow his lead. "Andy is what drives the show," says Steven Yeun, who plays Glenn, a resourceful ex­pizza-delivery guy. "Think about the conditions we're shooting in: You're asking people to be there for 12-hour days for seven months. You'd be like, 'I'm not doing that shit!' But there's a grace Andy comes in with where it's like, 'I'm number one on the call sheet, but I'm in early, staying late, watching other people's takes, taking this seriously.' That bleeds into the crew and cast."

The result is the hottest show on television and probably the industry's most surprising success story of the past dec­ade. Born from Robert Kirkman's popular comic-book series of the same name – which in 10 years has risen from an upstart independent title to outselling offerings from industry giants DC and Marvel, turning Kirkman himself into something of a comics-world deity – The Walking Dead spent years going nowhere as a TV project, rejected by pretty much every major network, before AMC ordered the six-episode first season that aired in 2010. In doing so, the network plunged a show about the last survivors in a world taken over by zombies – known only as "walkers" – into a television universe that had shown little interest in anything undead that wasn't a vampire. Since then, The Walking Dead has racked up a body count behind the camera that almost matches the one in front of it, enduring, among other things, the not-at-all-amicable dismissal of its first showrunner, Frank Darabont, acclaimed director of The Shawshank Redemption, and the less contentious departure of his replacement, Glen Mazzara. Online brouhahas have flared over the show's wavering fidelity to both Kirkman's comic and Darabont's original vision, characters' demises have been mourned and celebrated by fans in a way unseen since the first season of Survivor, and the show itself has occasionally struggled to balance Shakespearean plotlines, high-minded political philosophy and the indescribable pleasure of watching a shuffling zombie get shot in the face. Through it all, ratings have continued to soar – the series is the most-watched drama in basic-cable history, with a record-shattering Season Three finale, and AMC recently announced a spinoff coming in 2015 that will follow different characters through the same end-of-days hellscape. The Walking Dead has come to resemble the fictional zombie plague it documents: relentless, bloody and always getting bigger.

Kirkman still writes the comic – issue No. 100 was the bestselling comic of 2012 – while also working as an executive producer and writer for the show. He believes The Walking Dead owes some of its success to the world's misfortunes. "Apocalyptic storytelling is appealing when people have apocalyptic thoughts. With the global economic problems and everything else, a lot of people feel we're heading into dark times. As bad as it is for society," he says with a laugh, "I'm benefiting greatly."

A few days earlier, when I first meet Lincoln in a funky coffee shop in the aggressively bohemian enclave of Little Five Points, he's sitting at a table toward the back, doing his best to blend in. His curly hair, brown with streaks of gray, is mostly tucked under a green John Deere baseball hat, and he's got a couple of days' worth of salt-and-pepper stubble on his face. Lincoln lives nearby, and most of the people who stop by the table actually know him, at least vaguely, as a regular here. For those who don't, he seems to shift from his English diction toward a molasses twang, as he collects their compliments – "Oh, thank you, ma'am" – fearing perhaps the discovery that Rick is a Brit could puncture The Walking Dead's peculiar magic for them.

In person, Lincoln is polite and self-deprecating, almost to a fault. His tendency to lean in, lock on you with his piercing blue eyes and look fascinated as you babble whatever nonsense you're babbling about your life seems like it must be an act, but he either does it so well you can't help but go along with it, or it's not.

Lincoln spent his early years in the north of England, near Hull ("Voted the worst place in the United Kingdom," he says), with the considerably less leading-man-friendly last name Clutterbuck, but moved as a young child to Bath, in southwestern Britain. He got his start as an actor on the rugby pitch, where, as a teenager, a teacher spotted him and decided he was the guy to play the Artful Dodger in the school's production of Oliver! He took to acting immediately, thriving, he says, off the "live buzz."

Nine months after graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Lincoln landed a starring role in the TV show This Life, a romantic dramedy about twentysomethings in London that captured the generational zeitgeist in mid-Nineties England. This led to subsequent British film and TV roles, including a hit comedy series, Teachers, in which he starred and met his future wife, Gael Anderson, a production assistant who is also the daughter of Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson.

"I didn't know who Jethro Tull was," he says, as if admitting a terrible secret. "Then one weekend she said, 'Come back to my parents' place.' That's when I realized he was a rock star. We hit it off. He's a rare breed."

Lincoln's career was humming along nicely in England, and after a sizable role in the film Love Actually, he was antsy to try his luck in the U.S. But the scripts sent his way were dispiriting.

"I didn't want to do more romantic comedies," he says. "I was very interested in working in America, but I didn't want to be Hugh Grant." He was desperate to break from his niche. When he read the script for the Walking Dead pilot, he seemed an unlikely choice to play a Georgia lawman, but the producers were looking for a fresh face, so his failure to cross over in America was suddenly an asset.

Rick Grimes is a complex character. He's not a brooding male antihero à la Tony Soprano, Don Draper or Walter White, but an old-fashioned Gary Cooper type, albeit with a twist – a good man forced to make awful and violent choices. To play him, says Gale Anne Hurd, an executive producer pivotal to the show's development, they needed "someone who could get away with doing brutal things. You had to really buy, at the core, he was an honorable man thrust into these incredibly brutal times."

Jon Bernthal, who was already cast as Shane, Rick's best-friend-turned-nemesis, says when Lincoln walked into series showrunner Frank Darabont's office, "he was so clearly the guy."

With a new baby at home, though, Lincoln and his wife were reluctant to uproot for a role that hardly looked like a great bet. He loved AMC's Mad Men, but mostly he trusted that if anyone could turn a story of murderous rotting corpses overtaking the Earth into a tale about our collective humanity, it was Darabont.

"Frank talked us into getting on that plane," he says.

It's almost impossible to look at Robert Kirkman and not think that this is what The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy would've looked like if he'd had a little less bitterness and a little more can-do spirit. Kirkman, 34, is an affable guy with a sandy-brown beard and a bulky physique. His only real ambition growing up was to be a successful comic-book writer, and when I meet him in his small office on set, he seems like a guy still surprised at how far that goal has taken him. Sure, he's a writer and producer on the show, but he admits when it comes to the nuts and bolts of TV, "I'm learning."

During earlier seasons, "I would be in meetings, but I wouldn't really know what we're doing or why we're doing these meetings," he says. "Now I'm much more attuned to what makes a television show."

Kirkman grew up in Richmond, Kentucky. When he first became serious about writing and publishing comics, he didn't have the nerve to tell his parents he'd quit his job at Kentucky Lighting & Supply. For about a year afterward, he maintained the fiction that he still had a day job. Even after his mother called and discovered he no longer worked there, he didn't come clean.

"I was like, 'Oh, yeah, now I work at UPS,'" he says, shaking his head at the memory. It was at least two years of these charades – during which time Kirkman was writing his own comics and freelancing for Marvel – before he finally brought a box of his comics to his parents' house and fessed up. "They just thought I was weird."

Secrecy is kind of a thing for Kirkman. He kept his marriage from his parents for a while, too. "The month we got engaged, my parents decided to get a divorce," he says. "It didn't feel right to go, 'Oh, you're getting a divorce? That's funny, I'm getting married.' So we didn't tell them."

At around 14, Kirkman first saw George A. Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. Although zombie stories had existed for centuries, Romero's film established the modern archetype – the shambling, single-minded corpses that spread their virus by biting the living and could only be dispatched with a shot to the head. To watch it now, despite the low production values, is to see the template for what Kirkman, and later Darabont, would do with The Walking Dead.

"A story about vampires or werewolves is a story about people going through that transformation," says Kirkman. "But zombie stories are about human beings doing relatable things: protecting your family, finding food, building shelter." Zombies, too, provide a handy metaphor – for the brain-dead masses forever hungry to feed their selfish appetites; for the relentless pressures of the world weighing down on us; for nearly anything beyond our control that scares us to death.

Max Brooks, author of The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, says Night of the Living Dead and later Romero films like Dawn of the Dead introduced a philosophy that underpins most good zombie fiction.

"Zombies are a mirror for our own weaknesses," he says. "When zombies are slow, stupid and easy to kill, how do they win? Their inherent weakness exposes our stupidity, our greed, our panic. It's like Hurricane Katrina. It was just water. But the story of Hurricane Katrina is a story of unbelievable human mistakes, and that's what an interesting zombie story is."

Kirkman loved zombie films, but had one problem with most: their endings. After 90 minutes or so of struggle and bloodshed, a couple of characters survive and walk off into the sunset. To him, that didn't feel like the end of the story, it felt like the beginning. "I started to think, 'What if one of those stories continued indefinitely?'" he says.

That question spawned The Walking Dead, the first issue of which appeared in 2003. The comic became an underground hit, and soon Kirkman was meeting with people interested in adapting it for film. None looked promising until Darabont called in 2005.

"He understood the comics," says Kirkman. "They weren't about gore or zombie scares. It was a realistic survival story about human beings."

Darabont – who declined to be interviewed for this story – wrote a pilot and spent several years trying to drum up interest. NBC signed on for a spell but never put the pilot into production. Other broadcast networks felt it was too violent. Premium cable passed. Darabont had basically given up on the project by the time Hurd – who'd gotten her start working for B-movie titan Roger Corman and later co-produced The Terminator and Aliens – called about it. Together they brought the show to AMC, which greenlighted it in 2009.

Expectations were modest. AMC was concerned about it getting pigeonholed as a genre piece. Early promos and ads emphasized Darabont's résumé, AMC's reputation for serialized dramas and that it wasn't really about zombies.

They needn't have worried. The pilot, which Darabont directed, is a gorgeous, warped, 67-minute fever dream that resembled nothing else on television. It premiered on Halloween 2010, with ratings that immediately made it AMC's most-watched show, besting the network's twin totems, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. From there, the phenomenon has only grown. Most of the cast and crew I spoke to explain the show's appeal by talking about the way the audience sees itself in the characters while also identifying with the broader feeling these days that societal breakdown isn't so far-fetched. That, and the nonstop action, suspense and well-executed gore. But there's also a sense that in stripping away civilization's niceties, The Walking Dead is tapping into its viewers' worst fears: Am I a shitty parent? Is my wife sleeping with my best friend? Do I value my own life more than that of those close to me? What does it mean to be human? And can I figure this all out before that gnarly-looking zombie sinks its teeth into my neck?

The show's relationship to Kirkman's comic makes for a particularly complex web of intrigue. While the TV version isn't married to the comic's plot, it employs many of the same characters and frequently follows the same basic outline. But some characters that have survived in the comic have already been offed on the show; others who succumbed quite quickly on the page have had longer runs on T V. The comic offers a detailed road map (not to mention storyboards) for the Walking Dead writers, but it's a road map they're free to throw out the window. So everyone on set lives in fear of leaking spoilers. During multiple scenes I watched being filmed, an assistant director mandated that the dozens of crew members put away their phones before filming could start.

"I watched Shane's death get spoiled," Kirkman says. "Two weeks before the show aired, photos of him in zombie makeup were all over the Internet." But like many seeming catastrophes with The Walking Dead, the impact was negligible.

"People were freaking out, like, 'It's going to ruin the show!'" Kirkman continues. "Ratings went up."

The Walking Dead is a story about survival, but in releasing a ravenous horde with purposefully unexplained origins on the human race, Kirkman was offering an implicit commentary on the world he was destroying. "A hundred years ago, we were living in houses we built, growing food we ate, interacting with our families," he says. "That's a life that makes sense. Now, we're doing jobs we don't enjoy to buy stuff we don't need. We've screwed things up.

"It's fun to look at The Walking Dead and see those things taken away," he adds. "A lot of people think the show is bleak and depressing, but I can see where it's going in the next 10 years, and I think about it optimistically. Maybe it's going to make us better people by the end of it."

Orman Reedus answers his trailer door at the studio's base camp, gripping a switchblade and wearing his Daryl Dixon uniform: dark, dirty, sleeveless button-down shirt, brown pants. Daryl was a backwoods survivalist before the zombie apocalypse, and, as such, a pretty useful guy to have around when civilization crumbled. Fan drawings of him paper Reedus' trailer walls, and on the desk is a gelatinous breast implant one woman sent. Reedus uses it as a phone cradle. He shows me a letter and accompanying nude crotch shot that arrived recently.

"I just read it. It's basically like, 'I love you. I'll wait for you. I'm doing anything to find you.'" He shakes his head. "Holy fuck."

The show engenders serious fanaticism, the most intense of which focuses on Reedus. He thinks people identify with Daryl as an underdog who needed the apocalypse to become his best self. Reedus plays Daryl with a brooding smokiness that seems to attract the unhinged. The week before, a 32-year-old Mississippi woman dragged her three kids on a road trip to find Reedus. She made it to Georgia, where she ran out of gas, was placed in a shelter with her family, ditched the kids, broke into a nearby house and was eventually arrested.

"I've been followed home over half a dozen times," he says, tossing his knife into the wood floor. "I've had somebody break into my backyard. A guy from the FBI is coming down here to talk about security."

There's a knock on the trailer door.

"Yo! Reedus, you've got visitors!"

It's Lincoln with Melissa McBride, who plays Carol, the steely widow who lost her daughter in Season Two. The three are the show's diminished old guard. Besides them, the only principals that remain from Season One are Yeun and Chandler Riggs – Rick's son Carl.

The cast members all talk repeatedly about "the culture of The Walking Dead," which is to say, the tight-knit atmosphere and no-bullshit attitude on set. Lincoln, Bernthal, Sarah Wayne Callies – who played Rick's wife, Lori – and others worked deliberately to develop this culture from Day One, but some of it's just down to the peculiar alchemy that happened when Darabont cast the show and set them to work on a story that dictated most of them wouldn't be around to see its conclusion. McBride says she actually got the call last season from then-showrunner Mazzara that Carol was to be killed.

"I said, 'It's really a shame because there's a lot to her,'" she says. She then explained to him what Carol still had to offer this hellish world. "I never heard words come out of my mouth so fast and so sure. I was defending my life. "I don't know if that had any impact on the decision to keep her alive," she continues, but she's still here.

The idea that nobody is safe binds the actors together in the same way it does the characters. Bernthal, who, as Shane, was killed in a Season Two showdown with Rick, says his final scene reinforced how special this job was.

"At the end of the night, the entire cast just held each other," he says. "I ain't gonna bullshit you, I was crying my eyes out. I told them, 'Stay strong. Keep squeezing all the bullshit out of this thing.'"

While it may be true The Walking Dead isn't only about zombies, at 5:45 a.m., in the makeup trailer on set, it kind of is. Bethany Murphy sits in a chair waiting to be transformed from an attractive young actress into a ghastly bag of molting flesh, or in the show's parlance for featured zombies, a hero. Murphy has played numerous walkers on the show, going back to the pilot: When Rick shuffles down the hospital hallway toward the double doors that read don't open/dead inside, those are Murphy's gnarled hands reaching through the doors toward him.

"I am on Walking Dead trading card Number 1," she says.

Murphy is one of three actors going through this morning's nearly two-hour makeup session, which requires a foam latex mask, rotting false teeth, an assortment of paints and glues, and – for Murphy – the "zombie conditioning treatment," i.e., globs of TRESemmé conditioner worked into her dark hair until it looks appropriately awful. Hands and legs are also painted, but the costume department generally keeps walkers from exposing too much skin to cut down on turnaround time (hence the predominance of long sleeves among the show's undead). Today, there are 16 heroes to cycle through, plus a handful of midground walkers who get elaborate paint jobs but no prosthetics, and several deep-background zombies, who only require a light dusting of death.

Occasionally, the script will specify something about a walker's appearance, but often the makeup artist just looks at the actor sitting in the chair and wings it. The zombies look horrifying, no doubt, but the real horror comes from the fact that even with the most gruesome of them, you can still clearly see the outlines of the humans they used to be. These are not simply monsters; these were once our neighbors, our friends and our family – a point driven home in Season Three by the otherwise sociopathic Governor, who hides away his zombie daughter and hopes for a cure that never comes.

A little before seven, Greg Nicotero bounds into the trailer, wearing a gray shirt with a picture of a zombie fighting a shark on it, a tribute to the obscure Italian film Zombi 2. Nicotero, an executive producer in charge of makeup, examines the three heroes and makes adjustments.

"As the show progresses, the zombies are decaying more and more," he says. "We always do the rotted-away lips because I've done research in terms of cadavers and corpses, and when the skin tightens, it pulls away. I always think about that stuff."

Nicotero grew up in Pittsburgh and got his start working with fellow Pittsburgh resident Romero on 1985's Day of the Dead. Since then, he's become an icon in his field, working on films like Pulp Fiction and Boogie Nights. When Darabont was pitching AMC, the network's executives were concerned the scale of what he was attempting with the zombies wasn't financially feasible. Nicotero, who'd worked with Darabont on The Green Mile and 2007's The Mist, was his ace in the hole. Still, there's been an intermittent tug of war over the show's budget – which has made Nicotero's job a challenge.

"Would I love 10 more makeup artists?" he asks. "Hell, yeah! Would I love another unit that could just shoot close-ups of zombies? Sometimes we have that. But we've found a way of making a great show within the parameters of the money we have."

Budgets were undoubtedly a factor in Darabont's departure, but it was hardly the only tumult during his tenure. Just before Season One's finale aired, Darabont reportedly fired most of the writing staff, save Mazzara. (Producers at AMC contend they left of their own accord.) Darabont had written, co-written or rewritten every script to that point; several people told me most words uttered that season were his. Jeffrey DeMunn, who played the aging RV owner Dale, says some of the initial scripts "needed a lot of help. But then I would get the rewrite and it was extraordinary."

Despite great Season One ratings, AMC cut the budget-per-episode for Season Two by about $500,000, according to a former staffer. Kirkman says that the budget wasn't an issue, pointing out it was still "30 percent higher than most shows on television" – though allegedly less than half of the rumored cost of HBO's Game of Thrones. AMC president Charlie Collier has asserted that pilot episodes usually cost more money and the Season Two cuts were just the normal course of business. But according to Gregory Melton, the production designer for the first two seasons of the show and a longtime associate of Darabont's, these economic decisions had significant impact. Darabont had planned to open Season Two with a backstory explaining how Atlanta was overrun by walkers.

"It was going to be like Black Hawk Down, following an Army Ranger unit as the city succumbs to the zombie plague," says Melton. "That was thrown out due to cost," and instead, by Episode Two, the survivors are camped at Hershel's farm. Another former staffer on the show says the decision to keep the group at one location for most of the season was at least partly financial.

AMC has maintained that budget decisions were made with an eye on the show's long-term fiscal health, but Darabont wasn't buying it.

"Frank would just say that they're greedy bastards," says Melton. "They just wanted to keep the money. They felt they could save this money and the show would still perform at the level they wanted."

Still, most assumed the tension between Darabont and AMC wasn't irreconcilable. In July 2011, Darabont and the cast broke from filming Season Two to make an appearance at San Diego's Comic-Con. Darabont returned to Los Angeles Sunday afternoon. On Monday, AMC fired him.

The cast and crew were stunned, as was Darabont. According to Melton, the cast had to be dissuaded from quitting en masse, partially by Darabont himself. Several people made it clear he wanted the show to go on. No real explanation was offered for Darabont's termination, and many are still unsure why it happened.

"I asked and got some pretty vapid answers," says DeMunn, who has a long relationship with Darabont that runs from The Shawshank Redemption to his upcoming TNT show, Mob City. "I became acerbic but could get very little information. I have a theory that there are no grown-ups, and people got in a pissing contest."

Melton says Darabont could be abrasive, which didn't help. "I heard Frank was being very difficult and there were inappropriate e-mails," he says. "He's good at writing a pretty rough e-mail. I just think certain people at AMC wanted him out of the way."

AMC's Collier didn't discuss the reasons behind Darabont's firing, saying only that "we've made every decision with an eye on keeping the story as relevant as possible."

In a move that mirrored the lonely moral stance his character Dale took on the show, DeMunn declared he wanted off The Walking Dead.

"Frank and I have been friends for over 20 years," he says. "I had no respect for the way the whole thing was handled. I try to conduct my life in a way that if you have disagreements, you work them out. If not, bring in a mediator. I don't regret my decision to tell them to get rid of me."

DeMunn got his wish. Closing out a Season Two episode, DeMunn's character is bitten by a walker and then – in a moment of art imitating life – he leans his head toward Daryl's gun, as if asking to be put out of his misery. Just as in the show, the rest of the cast carried on.

In the wake of the firing, Mazzara, who'd been Darabont's second-in-command, stepped into an almost impossible situation, but Season Two finished strongly, with ratings continuing to climb. By the second half of Season Three, though, more problems were arising.

David Boyd, the show's cinematographer during most of the first season and part of the second, as well as a director of several episodes, including one late in Season Three, says there were problems with the scripts. "During the episode I was doing, production was shut down for a week, I think to get the scripts in order. It was well-known AMC was unhappy with where things were going." There were other reports of production delays and disagreements over how the season should end. One former staffer suggests Kirkman may have been bristling about his scripts being so heavily rewritten.

Nonetheless, after breaking records for viewership, Mazzara seemed on strong footing. But shortly after shooting wrapped, AMC announced Mazzara was out as showrunner, to be replaced by Scott Gimple, a writer since Season Two. Both parties called the split amicable, citing creative differences and declining to elaborate. But within weeks, the rumor was that Kirkman had orchestrated Mazzara's exit, an opinion fanned by Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter, who'd worked with Mazzara on FX's The Shield. In a YouTube video, Sutter contended AMC was letting Kirkman control the creative process because he owns The Walking Dead's rights. "The reins keep going back to him . . . and he doesn't know how to run a show."

Kirkman denies this. "It's unfortunate when someone of his stature starts saying stuff because it seems like they're in the know, but they're really not," he says. "It's definitely awkward because it wasn't like I had someone fired."

When I spoke to Mazzara in March, three months after his departure, he emphasized that there wasn't one specific reason for his exit. "I can't say I wanted to do this, they wanted to do that," he says. "It's just an accumulation of differences in tone, approach, storytelling. There wasn't any common ground. It was better to split amicably."

Collier is vague on the details behind Mazzara's departure, but insists that, as with AMC's other hits, the goal with The Walking Dead has always been to honor the intent of its auteur. "The creator of Mad Men is Matt Weiner, the creator of Breaking Bad is Vince Gilligan and the creator of The Walking Dead is Robert Kirkman, so I do think we've remained true to the core of this show, and that's what's in the DNA of the comic book, which is Robert's vision."

Mazzara's exit was less seismic than Darabont's. Danai Gurira, who was cast as the glowering, sword-wielding Micchone, says, "At this point, there's a confidence in the show's ability to keep moving."

With Gimple, a longtime fan of the Walking Dead comic and a former editor for Matt Groening's Bongo Comics, the show seems to be realigning itself more closely with Kirkman's vision after some complained it had jagged too far away from it last season. Gimple admits when he got the nod "it was a little scary," but describes his role now as "viewer-in-chief." As he's steered Season Four, he's had occasional differences of opinion with Kirkman, but not the ones many might assume.

"He's been more about diverging from the comics and I've been more about being faithful to them," Gimple says. In the end, story lines from the comic are being applied in new contexts to different characters or altered enough to keep hardcore fans guessing. "It's a bit of a remix."

Two weeks after our initial meeting, Lincoln invites me to play golf with him one morning. Just before he lines up a putt on the fourth hole, he tells me, "The most daunting part of leading this thing is that we lose so many key members that established the culture of the show. It's terrible when you lose people." He's talking about his co-stars – Callies, Bernthal, DeMunn and others who've fallen victim to The Walking Dead's apocalyptic universe – but clearly, the thought extends to Darabont and Mazzara, too. "It feels somber while we're shooting now," he says. "Which is right! This is what it's about. Everybody hunkers together, somebody else joins the family, and we get through it." He sinks his putt.

If history's a guide, The Walking Dead will roll through its latest changes without losing a step. There's a sense that, at this point, it's a force of nature and the most important thing its handlers can do – whether it's Gimple, Kirkman, Lincoln, AMC or anyone else – is not screw it up.

On the next hole, Lincoln crushes a tee shot that lands in the center of the fairway. He's a good golfer – "There's something about hitting a ball that's meditative," he says – and plays with the same sort of grace he seems to do everything else with. He looks toward the hole, about 150 yards away, and grabs an eight-iron.

"An eight is a bit short, but I'm going to try to whack it. We'll see what happens."

His backswing is perfect, and then he leans into the ball, tops it, and hits his worst shot of the day. The ball skitters along the slick grass toward a bunker.

"Oh, you son of a bitch," he says. "Stop!" For a moment, it seems as though Rick Grimes might bubble to the surface, but then Lincoln laughs.

"There you go! That's what happens when you try to whack it."

This story is from the October 24th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1194: October 24, 2013
x