The Walking Dead has gone through some growing pains over the last three seasons. Under former showrunner Frank Darabont, some viewers complained that the story was lagging, while under other former showrunner Glen Mazzara, the breakneck speed arguably gave some people whiplash. That's not to say each chapter didn't have its own merits, but under new showrunner Scott Gimple, the fourth season will take a more nuanced look at the zombie apocalypse that will really get to the root of each character.
In order to accommodate that, it won't necessarily be humans or zombies as the main antagonists in Season 4. Instead, a new threat will force Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and the rest of the prison residents to reexamine the downsides of post-apocalyptic life. TVGuide.com turned to executive producers Robert Kirkman and Gimple to get the scoop on what's in store:
Talk about getting the focus back on the characters.
Scott Gimple: There was something I always liked about the show and about the comic back in the day. It's not Lost where we really dig into these character's pasts, so you have to show who they are now to show how it's affected them. To give each character something, it's tough. When I was doing the architecture for the stories I wanted to tell, I very much approached it first from, "What do each of these characters go through this season? How did those characters affect each other? And how does the plot fit into that?" And weave that all together to make sure every character has a story. Not every character is going to have as big a story as all the other characters, but every character has one. That was the way we tackled it.
Robert Kirkman: Characters are vastly changing from season to season and are definitely a really cool unit that are working together within these walls and does accomplish a lot together. All the characters are always learning and will continue to learn as the season progresses. To me, it's really fun seeing Hershel (Scott Wilson) now teaching Rick how to farm. I know it's not exciting to watch someone farming on a TV show, but if you think of it from a survival standpoint, those two guys are kind of doing the most important job. Being able to sustain a food source inside those walls would be the thing that would keep them there for the rest of their lives, and that's something that's very important. I love the fact that they have gotten to the point where this prison is a place where new people are coming in and they could live there possibly forever — unless you've seen the billboard — but it's entirely possible.
Gimple: A big theme of this season is: Are we too far gone? Have we gone through too much? Have we endured too much? Have we experienced too much horror? Too much loss to be people again, because they start in a situation where they can be people? It's a pretty ideal situation at the prison. They're in a good situation for it, but have they been through too much to actually do it? To be human beings again.
What are some of the new threats we'll be seeing this season?
Kirkman: Mother Nature is rearing it's ugly head at a time when we're completely incapable of combating it. This new threat is this Spanish flu-type sickness that is ravaging these people. That's really wrecking things for them. Aside from having The Governor (David Morrissey) looming on the horizon or any other kind of human threat that is out there, or zombies — which is something they're always fighting — they've also got to deal with this thing, which is possibly more deadly than anything they've faced yet.
Gimple: As far within the prison, there's a threat that doesn't come from the outside world, it comes from within the prison. We have a whole panel of threats this season. A virtual smorgasbord of threats.
They're also dealing with having a bigger group. What are the challenges of that?
Kirkman: It's kind of a Catch-22 in that having more people around you makes you safer, but maintaining that new pocket of civilization is difficult. You're always going to be running low on resources. Also, each person brings with them their own unique challenge. So it is possible that they let somebody into this prison or somebody snuck into this prison that shouldn't be there, so there's another threat on the horizon.
It seems like it won't be long before the prison is not a viable place for them anymore. Will we see them leave and venture to other locations from the comic book?
Kirkman: It's always a possibility. I think we'll see other places, but it doesn't necessarily mean that we won't be going back to the prison. There will definitely be new locations that will be introduced and new environments that are explored. Whether or not they will leave the prison remains to be seen.
Since Rick is no longer the leader this season, what will he be dealing with?
Kirkman: Rick's trouble this entire show is figuring out how it is to continue living in a way that is not going to destroy the lives of his children. He got them in the prison, he went a little overboard, he was able to drive Carl (Chandler Riggs) to the point where he was able to shoot that kid without being too upset about it. Now he's trying a different way and that's something that is going to be a central theme to this season. What is the right thing? What is it that Rick needs to do to protect his children? And maybe he has it and maybe he doesn't. His main goal isn't, "I have to find a safe place for these people, I have to keep these people safe." His goal now is, "These people are safe, we've found this place, now I've got to work on my son and daughter and make sure they're OK."
Gimple: Yeah, we see him at the beginning trying to live a life that is fully dedicated to coming back from this. He's not the leader anymore, he's not going out and killing zombies and killing people, he's not making hard choices. He's staying away from the brutality and really focusing on his son and daughter. He is dedicated to coming back from this, and he is getting the message, "No, no, no, you don't get to come back from this." I doubt that the world is going to be like, "Oh yeah, it's cool. Fair play. You go chill. We'll relent. No problem." Zombies putting their hands up and backing away will not be happening.
Because we'll see more character-centric episodes, will we get any flashbacks?
Kirkman: I will say that we are definitely going to see flashbacks. I wouldn't say more or less or longer ones or with any particular characters, but there is a flashback or two.
Gimple: We will be clued into pasts. There may be some implying about flashbacks, but not quite in the way that we're talking about. We're definitely not going to the Lost place. This is a show that very much exists in the present.
Will the group be hoping to get vengeance on The Governor or has that ship sailed?
Kirkman: Michonne (Danai Gurira) is much more intent on making The Governor pay for what he did to Andrea (Laurie Holden). This is something that is wounding her. She wants to make it right and so that's something that I think is causing her a little bit of distance from the rest of the group. Just because everyone else is happy to be in this safe place living their lives, she's a little bit more in tune to this larger threat that she thinks is out there, so we'll see.
You've said before that you got really excited to get into Rick and Tyreese's (Chad Coleman) relationship this season. What are we going to see for them?
Kirkman: It's a really great relationship between these two men in the comic books, and we're trying to get a lot of that onto the screen. We didn't have a lot of room to do that in Season 3, so I'm happy we're coming around to that now. It's these problems in the prison. These issues that have come up are going to bring these two together, and they're going to have to work together to solve this. There's going to be a mutual respect between them like we see in the comic books.
The Walking Dead returns Sunday at 9/8c. Will you be watching?