The Rise of 'The Walking Dead'

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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.

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