To any outsider setting foot on the Griffin, Georgia, set of The Walking Dead, the sense of heightened security and secrecy is immediately apparent. Production assistants string giant tarps across the entrance to a small alley, shielding any on-camera action from the eyes of dozens of gawkers who have parked themselves across the street in the 90-degree heat holding homemade signs professing their love for AMC's hit zombie drama. ("I <3 Daryl Dixon" is one popular sentiment.) Brief glimpses of the show's stars elicit the kind of eardrum-tearing screams usually reserved for the latest boy band.
It's a scene that perfectly illustrates the growing influence of The Walking Dead, which burst onto TV in 2010 with 5.3 million total viewers (the network's highest-rated premiere at the time) and, last March, for the Season 4 finale, drew 15.7 million total viewers and a staggering 8.0 rating in the 18-49 age bracket, making it the No. 1 show on television in the all-important advertiser demo. In addition to a successful after show, The Walking Dead has even spawned a companion series featuring a different setting and characters, expected to debut in 2015.
More ratings records will likely be shattered when The Walking Dead's fifth season kicks off on October 12. But the confidentiality surrounding the new episodes is also in full effect when talking with the show's stars. "We're not allowed to say s--t!" says Andrew Lincoln (who plays former sheriff and current group leader Rick Grimes) with a wry smile. However, a few tidbits can be revealed. After the evil Governor (David Morrissey) destroyed their prison sanctuary, the fractured band of survivors followed railroad tracks to Terminus, a haven that promised "Those who arrive survive." The premiere picks up immediately after last March's cliffhanger, which found the group imprisoned in a train boxcar by the community's mysterious residents. Viewers will be introduced to new characters from Robert Kirkman's comic book series, on which the show is based — including a priest, Father Gabriel Stokes, played by Seth Gilliam, formerly of The Wire. And in a throwback to Season 1, the majority of the action in the first half of the season will be set on the road in and around Atlanta.
The core of the series is still defined by the physical and emotional journeys endured by these characters at the end of the world. This season, Lincoln, along with costar Norman Reedus — who plays the crossbow-wielding biker Daryl Dixon — will share the leadership role. In mid-July, over a lunch of grilled shrimp, beets, and watermelon juice, the two actors gathered in Lincoln's trailer during a break from filming to discuss the profound friendship between their characters, preview the intense premiere, and speculate on their own fates as this apocalyptic universe grows even more dangerous.
TV Guide Magazine: So let's get the burning question out of the way: What exactly is Terminus?
Reedus: It's a nightclub!
Lincoln: [Laughs] A giant discotheque! Well, we're just in a box. Even though we're in the worst jeopardy we've been in for a long time, we're probably at our strongest. The last speech in the boxcar was a very important call to arms and a show of intent. I think people generally won't be disappointed with the opener.
TV Guide Magazine: Rick and Daryl pledged their brotherhood in the Season 4 finale. How would you describe their bond this year?
Reedus: Daryl looks at Rick as the brother that Merle [Michael Rooker] wasn't. To have somebody he looks up to and has a mutual respect for — someone he can trust — is a big deal for Daryl.
Lincoln: If it weren't for the apocalypse, they would probably be enemies. It's rad. I love their relationship. I think it's a true brotherhood. If you stand beside Rick and Daryl, then you're family; it's that simple, that black-and-white. But if you're not there, I'm sorry, you're in trouble.
Reedus: It's been such a smooth evolution. When I first came on the show, it was Rick and Shane [Jon Bernthal] looking at each other for answers to make decisions, and then Daryl slowly became part of it.
Lincoln: [Daryl] is incredibly important in survival. He's the go-to guy and the tracker. You are defined by your usefulness in this world, and he is ridiculously useful. But the last time Rick called somebody a brother, it was Shane. That's not saying it's all going to be roses. [Laughs] It doesn't guarantee s--t! But there is something incredibly strong between these two guys. He's always saved my ass. It's embarrassing.
Reedus: And you're always getting us in trouble! [Laughs]
Lincoln: I'm so indebted to Daryl Dixon!
TV Guide Magazine: What is your relationship like off set?
Reedus: I hate him.
Lincoln: He's an a--hole. [Laughs]
Reedus: The first time I met him, I threw squirrels at him.
Lincoln: He did! I had just been reunited with my wife and kid and Shane, and this a--hole shows up. It was the first time I laughed during a rehearsal. I couldn't believe it — like, who is this guy and what is he doing? [Laughs] It was his first day, and he just made me laugh. I'll always remember that.
Reedus: That's where it all started.
Lincoln: Squirrels, dude. Whenever anybody throws squirrels at you, it's love or hate. You go one of two ways.
TV Guide Magazine: Last season, the show really dove deep into these characters. Is that a theme that will continue in Season 5?
Lincoln: What we're doing is more action-packed. This is the first time we've picked up from a cliffhanger, so we don't need to explain anything. Let's just get on with it. And that was fun.
Reedus: There are a lot of different characters now and a lot of different personalities, so [the show] changes quite a bit. There are a lot of different flavors in the soup right now, which is great.
Lincoln: It's just a story that keeps moving forward because people die and new people come into the world and the world changes, so it is this constantly changing beast. It's difficult to say what the theme of this season is because we don't know. We haven't done it yet. We're in the middle of it. I can tell you some things about where I think Rick is, but that's about it.
TV Guide Magazine: So where do you think Rick is?
Lincoln: He's in the most powerful place he's ever been. He's incredibly uncompromising, and he's a dangerous man. Not in a vindictive, malicious way, but in a pragmatic way. Are you a problem? Then you must die.
Reedus: There's no seesawing as much.
Lincoln: No, the doubt is gone, which makes him incredibly dangerous.
TV Guide Magazine: What about Daryl?
Reedus: He's always getting little hints that it might be OK, and then they get taken away from him. The fire that's burning inside him is slowly going out. He's becoming more hardened and darker, which also makes him more fiercely loyal. You can only beat a dog so much with a stick before he bites you, and he keeps getting beaten with the stick, so I think he might snap.
TV Guide Magazine: Daryl's relationship with Beth (Emily Kinney) last season could be viewed as fatherly, brotherly, or romantic. How do you interpret it?
Reedus: At the end of a dark tunnel, she was the flicker of light when Daryl didn't think there was any light at that time anywhere. She gave him a little hope that there's something good left. But I think if he had any sort of romantic notions toward Beth, he didn't know what it meant. Just to have the little butterfly feeling for a second is something. It might have been like one tiny moth, but it was a flutter, and that was good enough for him.
TV Guide Magazine: Carol (Melissa McBride) is still out there, and both of your characters have complicated relationships with her.
Lincoln: You're telling me!
TV Guide Magazine: Rick banished her from the group, but Daryl has always had a fondness for her. How will her presence affect them in the future?
Lincoln: If she is alive and if she does return for this season...
Reedus: We'll split her right down the middle! [Laughs]
Lincoln: We'll take an arm each, see what's left. No, I think Carol is a fantastic character, and I think she's probably got a lot to do this season.
Reedus: As far as Daryl and Carol are concerned, Carol is his girl. I think there's a common trust and respect amongst that threesome.
Lincoln: We're all very close in personality types. Rick looks in Carol's eyes and knows that's a person who can pull the trigger. So there's a commonality that plays out between the three of them that makes it really interesting to act, because there's an almost telepathic thing where you go, "I know what you're thinking because I'm thinking the same s--t."
TV Guide Magazine: An ongoing theme of the show is finding moments of hope in a hopeless world. Has the chance for lasting happiness passed?
Reedus: I don't think it's ever going to be like Logan's Run or anything.
Lincoln: What is that? What does that mean?
Reedus: Where there's paradise. But little bits of hope, when you string those together and have as many of those in a row as possible, it's kind of like real life.
Lincoln: The thing that always attracted me is the push and pull. You pull people through their darkness, which is very much like what you do in life.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you think Rick's son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), still represents a form of hope, or is he too far gone?
Lincoln: Oh, he's certainly the future, which is a personification of hope. He's being formed by this world, which scares Rick. But these are big, meta questions that you can only answer when you're safe, so maybe we need to find a safe place so we can answer some of these. I don't know. There's a point at which you can settle, but maybe you can't settle for long. The prison was the safe place, if it hadn't been for that pesky Governor.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you prefer being out on the road, as in this season, or in a defined location, like the prison?
Reedus: I like being in the woods and being on the move.
Lincoln: Yeah, I don't like getting too comfortable. I don't think that's our show.
TV Guide Magazine: Even as the stars of the show, do you worry about getting the call that your time is up?
Reedus: Everybody does. I know it's so cliché to say it, but it really is like a family. I've heard crew members bitching at each other, actors bitching at each other, and I've probably bitched at everyone — I'm the worst. And then, five minutes later, you're hugging it out. If you spend this much time and work this hard on something, you cut people so much slack on this job because everybody tries so hard and you really love them.
TV Guide Magazine: The death dinners that you all have after somebody perishes on the show must be getting harder, then.
Reedus: Are you trying to trick us? [Jokingly] We've had six of them.
Lincoln: [Laughs] We've had a lot. Just pick a number. No, I said to [showrunner] Scott Gimple that I miss Scott Wilson [who played Rick's moral adviser, Hershel] so much. And he said that was the point. Like in life, when you lose a dear friend, you carry them with you.
TV Guide Magazine: Where do you see your roles in the show's overall longevity?
Lincoln: It's a very, very good question and a question I've been asking myself as well.
Reedus: We talk about that a lot.
Lincoln: Only because of the responsibility that we have to the fanbase and ourselves. I want to put down a marker in my career with something that I am so proud of that we got right.
Reedus: But there's a lot of story to tell still.
Lincoln: There are a couple of very cool characters from the comic book that I want to meet. And in the last few scripts, it feels like we've got a lot of story, so I think there's a ways to go yet. Whether or not we're in it is another question!
The Walking Dead returns Sunday, Oct. 12 at 9/8c on AMC.
For more scoop on this fall's hottest cable shows, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, Sept. 25!