The Walking Dead's first season ended with a number of unanswered questions, but as the zombie drama lumbers toward its Season 2 premiere (Sunday, 9/8c, AMC), there's really only one question to be answered: Can the show live on after the exit of executive producer Frank Darabont?
Darabont, who spent years developing Robert Kirkman's graphic novel series for the small screen, was suddenly relieved of his showrunner duties in the middle of production on Season 2 and replaced by his No. 2, Glen Mazzara (The Shield). Even more confounding, the change came days after Darabont appeared at Comic-Con to promote the show. But just like the survivors of the zombie apocalypse, the show's cast and crew keep moving.
"It's definitely been a difficult process, losing Frank the way we have," Kirkman tells TVGuide.com. "While Frank was the guy initially who seemed to understand The Walking Dead more than anyone else, we've been lucky to be able to get Glen to step into his shoes. ... He was there working with Frank and I from the very beginning of this season. So it has been a pretty smooth transition. I feel like the show is in a good place.
"It's a very interesting behind-the-scenes problem, but I am happy to report that it's going to stay very much behind the scenes," Kirkman continues. "When you're actually sitting down watching an episode, you're not going to notice that anything has changed at all."
Mazzara says his first order of business was to push the show's main character, Deputy Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) even more front and center. "I wanted to really hang the show on our central hero," he says. "Rick is a man who is a natural-born leader, but who is going through a crisis of faith and has unbelievable circumstances facing him. Rick's problem is that he needs to lead his band to safety, and the truth is, there really is no safe place in this world."
Adds Kirkman: "Rick's going to find out if he's capable of leading these people. Are the decisions he makes the right decisions? This is something that is really weighing on him at the very beginning of the season."
Rick's personal crisis will also rub up against the continuing hush-hush relationship between Rick's wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and his best friend Shane (Jon Bernthal), who began sleeping together when they believed Rick to be dead. "Both Lori and Shane choose to believe what they want to believe," Mazzara says. "Even if the audience has a certain understanding of how events unfolded between those two characters, Lori and Shane continue to revise history. [But] all of these secrets can't remain secrets for long. When you have a small group of people, everyone is going to know everyone else's business. And certainly things will be revealed when people don't want them to be."
Interestingly, it's Shane who may choose to remove himself from the uncomfortable situation. "I see [Shane] as this hugely tragic figure," Kirkman says. "He's basically gotten the short end of the stick at every turn in this world, and we're going to see that weighing on him. He cares for Lori immensely, and he cares for his best friend immensely, but... it's just driving him crazy. So we're going to get to see him making some very strange decisions that are brought on by all this pressure."
And Shane may have a sidekick in Andrea (Laurie Holden), who is miffed at Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) for talking her out of staying behind to die at the Centers for Disease Control. The group's resolve (or lack therof) to survive, will eventually lead to fracturing.
"Certain people are just going to be of that mindset of 'Why carry on living in a world that's so hopeless?'" Kirkman says. "And that's really a central theme to this season: How do we keep a sense of hope against all these horrible events... and what is the point of all of this? After a while, surviving on a long-term basis becomes such a daunting task that you do start to think of other alternatives no matter how dark they may be."
But the group won't only face internal conflict. A medical emergency will lead the group to the farm of veterinarian Hershel Greene (Scott Wilson), where another group of survivors aren't keen on welcoming newcomers. "It's like going to a completely different planet," Kirkman says. "[Rick & Co.] are encountering people that have encountered zombies in a different way. The population is less dense, it's a somewhat more manageable threat, and they have a different outlook on how to handle these things. There's going to be tremendous conflict trying to coexist, but also having these huge fundamental differences on how they're going to carry out their lives in this world."
Adds Mazzara: "We really wanted to put Rick in a situation where he is caught between trying to do the right thing by Hershel and trying to do the right thing by his group. From Hershel's point of view, Rick and his group are a plague. Hershel's life would be a lot easier if Rick just moved on."
But just like in Season 1, Mazzara says viewers shouldn't expect the Hershel's farm story line to stick strictly to the original version from the comic. "We have a lot of tricks up our sleeve," he says. "We're constantly pitching stuff that surprises Robert Kirkman, and he is surprising us with his pitches. ... It's not necessarily that we feel any obligation to the comic book to be a strict adaptation. That was never part of the game and in fact, we find the show is more successful when we deviate with a wink and a grin from the comic book."
The Walking Dead's 90-minute Season 2 premiere airs Sunday at 9/8c on AMC.