The Walking Dead

"I hate that word."

That's The Walking Dead executive producer Greg Nicotero's reaction when faced with the ever-growing online popularity of "Ricktatorship," a term that picked up steam after protagonist Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) proclaimed that the struggling group of zombie-apocalypse survivors were no longer living in a democracy last season. If they were going to survive, it was going to be under his authority. And thus, a Ricktatorship was born.

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That Ricktatorship is only implied when the AMC zombie drama returns Sunday (9/8c). The gang has been on the road for a half a dozen months at least, running as a well-oiled, if not exhausted machine. At this point, Rick's leadership is a necessity, not a burden. "It's been blown out of proportion," Norman Reedus, who plays Daryl Dixon, says of Ricktatorship madness. "There's a difference between having everything you're fighting for crumble around you and you getting pissed than being a dictator. It's definitely not like that. There's not one guy, Rick or otherwise, sitting up on a mountaintop commanding people to do things against the world."

After two seasons of hopeless meandering — and the disastrous events that took place on the farm in Season 2 (RIP, way too many people to name here) — Rick has finally gotten to a place where he just commands the respect needed to keep everyone alive. "I think he's proved himself," Lincoln says. "You get a real sense of where Rick has gone and the extremities that he's willing to go to in order to keep the family alive." Still, inside, Rick is slowly imploding under the ticking time bomb that is Lori's (Sarah Wayne Callies) pregnancy. "Rick goes down the rabbit hole this season, and you start him off in a very dark place."

It's her growing baby bump that forces the group to seek salvation in the infamous prison spotted in the closing moments of the Season 2 finale — which will make the farm look like Club Med once they begin to clear each cell block overrun by walkers. "He sees potential at this place," Lincoln says. "And he sees that it could essentially be the safe haven that they've been waiting for."

Rick may be grasping at straws when he sees the prison as salvation. "It's not that safe," showrunner Glen Mazzara is quick to point out. "It's interesting to see that that prison is not as safe, or can't be made as safe as Rick wants. And that's something that will play out all season. That prison is always a problem for them. But they have no place else to go."

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After battling the outdoors and heat for the last two seasons, the cast discovered that filming the prison scenes wasn't exactly the picnic they were hoping for. "We were all worried that you go to a soundstage where it's air conditioned and it's going to be a little bit difficult to act in those situations. They made it somehow just as equally terrible inside. So, cool. Good on them," laughs Steven Yeun, who plays crafty marauder Glenn.

Furthermore, this new location does little to help the crumbling façade of Rick and Lori's marriage, which took a beating in Season 2 as Rick learned of Lori's indiscretions with his best friend Shane (Jon Bernthal), whom Rick murdered in the penultimate episode. Now, "It's a question of whose baby is it? Is it Shane's? Obviously that's still hanging out there," Mazzara says. "You see that they are both heartbroken by this situation. That if they could, if the world wasn't always crashing in, maybe they could work it out."

Little does the group know, salvation lies not too far away in Woodbury, where a man known as the Governor (David Morrissey) holds court — alongside the long-missing Merle (Michael Rooker)! Fans of the comics should forget what they know of Woodbury because the show's version, which will be introduced by the third episode, "is an alter ego of the graphic novel's," Nicotero says. Whereas the prison is bleak and grim, Woodbury is an oasis where normalcy has returned. "It's shot much brighter," executive producer Gale Anne Hurd explains. "Everything is functioning there. People are going about their daily lives. That's contrasted with the prison, [which] never feels safe, and it's always dark, and it's always dank, and it's always dirty."

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Still, there may be darkness beneath Woodbury's shiny veneer in its leader, who, as comic book fans know, is far from good company. But Morrissey insists this is a different man altogether. "In the comics, we get to meet The Governor later on in his genesis, and later on in his life. He's fully formed, really. He's arrived as this sadistic person," he says. "My Governor isn't like that. We see him much earlier on in his genesis. He's dealing with the problems of leadership, which are trying to keep people fed, and safe, and comfort them, provide things for his people. So he isn't the sadistic man that we see in the comic books."

That's not to say he won't eventually devolve into that sadist; this season will merely be the first step on that journey. "If the governor is just hacking people apart and raping them right from the jump, it might throw some people off," Mazzara says. "But if you go along on the ride that one day that makes sense to you, that's actually a real horror to have the audience buy into that." 

"He can't be so dastardly that you wonder why anyone would follow him," Hurd adds. "Why wouldn't they just go, 'Okay, time for a coup?' Woodbury initially does seem like hope for humanity, hope for a community that can survive and ultimately thrive in the post-zombie world."

While Reedus insists there's no one taking on the role of dictator, that may not be true with the Governor, who will stop at nothing to take over the group's prison refuge. "He is somebody who has an iron fist and a kid glove and he rules like that," Morrissey says. "If he needs to come down hard on people he will, but he's also somebody who's not averse to putting his arm around someone to get the best out of them as well."

Woodbury is also where we'll soon find lost group member Andrea (Laurie Holden), who was separated from Rick & Co. last season after nearly falling prey to walkers while escaping the farm. It was the katana-wielding Michonne (Danai Gurira) who saved her life and with whom she has formed an unbreakable bond in the ensuing months. "They're had a tough go at it," Holden says. "They've obviously bonded and become the best of friends battling the elements and the apocalypse together."

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Part of the reason why Woodbury looks so appealing to the duo — besides the obvious — is that Andrea is deathly ill when the series returns. "Andrea is close to dying," Holden teases. "Michonne's taking care of her. Andrea doesn't know that we're all infected. It's interesting to pontificate why she's so sick, what's going down, because it could be a lot of things. She and Michonne come across this wonderful place, this nirvana where she's able to hope and dream for the first time in her life since the apocalypse happened. It's intoxicating to be in a place where you don't have to struggle, where people have it figured out."

Despite their desperation to lean on a new leader in their time of need, consummate survivor Michonne won't be as quick to accept the Governor's helping hand. "She doesn't trust him," Gurira says. "When her gut tells her something, she doesn't not listen to it," Gurira says. "I think in the past she didn't and she regrets it. She can see right through him and she can't refute what she's seen."

So, can the Governor really be trusted? We'll find out when The Walking Dead returns Sunday at 9/8c on AMC.

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