Last October, as Glen Mazzara was readying himself for the premiere of the third season of AMC's hit drama The Walking Dead – his first full season at the helm of the show that chronicles the tribulations of the survivors of a zombie apocalypse – he was feeling pretty invincible. "I'm very happy," Mazzara told RS, after taking over for the series' creator, Frank Darabont, the year before. "Everybody is on the same page. I feel like a kid in a candy store." Two months later, Mazzara was out as showrunner, replaced by one of the lead writers, Scott Gimple. The parting wasn't particularly bitter, but surely, the midseason shuffling suggests a floundering show that has lost its way, right?
Not exactly. The Walking Dead continues to be a ratings juggernaut. It's the most watched basic-cable drama in history, and currently draws more 18-to-49-year-olds than any show on TV. Mazzara chalks up his departure to "creative differences," but it didn't seem to impact the series any more than his predecessor's considerably less amicable parting did the season before. It's as if The Walking Dead is much like the shambling undead hordes it documents: Sure, you can pick a few off, but as a whole, this is a relentless, unstoppable force.
As the show closes in on the Season Three finale, two camps of survivors – one in a prison led by Rick Grimes, a small-town cop; the other in a walled town ruled over by a sly sociopath known as the Governor – are seemingly on a path toward all-out war. "We have two ghettoized communities fighting for their lives," says David Morrissey, the actor who plays the Governor. "If only they could join forces, but egos are not allowing them to."
Grimes, who is played by the show's star, Andrew Lincoln, has spent the better part of the season going batshit crazy, chasing visions of his dead, adulterous wife. In recent weeks, though, he has emerged from his PTSD haze to guide a band of misfits through the challenges of end-times survival, a not entirely unwelcome development for Lincoln himself. "It's nice to be ass-kicking again," he says. "Rick is a leader. He needs to be in action, saving people."
According to Robert Kirkman, a writer and executive producer on the show, who also writes the graphic novels upon which it is based, the remainder of the season will continue at the breathless pace that it has built to so far. "The episodes are all about ramping up the conflict between the Governor and Rick," he says. "It's about finding out where allegiances lie. There are a few surprises in store as to who is going to be doing what on which side. Those reveals are going to be startling."
For the season finale, Lincoln promises, there will be blood. "Twenty-seven people die," he says. "It's safe to say it is all hands to pumps. It's a crazy season finale." It's a good bet that among those 27 casualties will be some central figures in the cast. Part of The Walking Dead's mojo is its willingness to dispatch even its most beloved characters. "The reality is nobody is safe," says Morrissey. "But that's the ticket we bought." Next season, Kirkman says, viewers should expect changes. "We're not going to slow things down, but if I had a criticism of Season Three, it would be that we didn't focus on character development," he says. "We're going to try to step it up a notch in that department." He points to "Clear," one of the most well-received episodes this year, which focused on a road trip by Grimes, his son, Carl, and the samurai-sword-wielding warrior Micchone, as a template for the coming shifts in tone: 'We're going to focus on fewer characters per episode." Not coincidentally, "Clear" was written by new showrunner Gimple. Lincoln has had some discussions about where his character will go from here, but as he puts it, "I can't disclose any of them because they will kill me."
This story is from the March 28th issue of Rolling Stone.