To say it's been a rough zombie apocalypse for The Walking Dead's Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) would be like saying the polar vortex is making things a little chilly. Over the last three and a half seasons, he has suffered the deaths of his wife and best friend and lost track of his infant daughter as well as the group of survivors he had sworn to protect. On a late-August day in Senoia, Georgia, while filming the midseason premiere, Lincoln limps onto the set of the AMC thriller covered in prosthetic cuts, bruises and fake blood — with a giant grin on his face.
"You should see the other guy," Lincoln says with a laugh as he reinserts his bite plate to create the effect of a swollen jaw. That "other guy" would be the Governor (David Morrissey), who led an attack on Rick and his prison-dwelling community during December's midseason finale. The hand-to-hand combat between the men left Rick physically shattered as he fled the prison's ruins using his son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), as a literal crutch.
"They've gone through some horrible things, but now they're going to have to get over that to survive," says showrunner Scott Gimple. "The first half of the season wasn't a picnic for them, but this is much more difficult survival than we've ever seen."
But the pressure of the on-screen situation doesn't faze the actors when the cameras stop rolling. After director Greg Nicotero calls "Cut!" on a particularly intense scene in which Carl attempts to wake an unconscious Rick, Riggs hovers over Lincoln with a worried expression. "You all right there, Andy?" he asks. "I shook you down a bit." Lincoln wordlessly extends his bandaged right hand for a fist bump before feigning intense pain, causing both to break into laughter. "There are points in this half of the season that these characters actually do smile," Gimple promises. "It isn't all sunshine and gumdrops, but there is a great deal of stuff that feels hopeful."
Hope is an integral element of the second half of The Walking Dead's fourth season. The Governor's attack on the prison led to a splintering of the group, leaving the survivors without the luxury of shelter or the safety of numbers. "It's a brilliant choice on the part of the writers to cause displacement," says Danai Gurira (Michonne). "It's such an authentic truth of war: How will you ever connect again?"
The change of setting also takes the series back on the road, which the actors all agree adds a fresh element to the storytelling. "I always like us on the run," says Norman Reedus (Daryl), who compares the pace of this half-season to that of a Motörhead concert. "This show is constantly a moving target, and without a doubt, the back half of this season is the best bunch of episodes we've ever shot. You find out what makes each character tick and what they stand up and fight for."
One of the major players getting extra attention this season is Michonne. The sword-wielding warrior with a silent intensity was introduced in Season 3, but her backstory has mostly remained a mystery until this year. Viewers discovered during the Feb. 9 episode that, before the apocalypse, she had a boyfriend — whom she eventually transformed into one of her zombie pets — and a son. "The onion gets a couple more layers peeled," Gurira says. "The circumstances she's in force her to make a decision as to who she's going to be in this moment. The tough-chick stuff is there, but being thrown out of a realm where she was with people she cared about, the question is, what does that do to other parts of her?"
Daryl has reluctantly assumed a leadership role but finds himself struggling now that the group has dispersed. He must provide comfort to Beth (Emily Kinney), who witnessed the brutal murder of her father, Hershel (Scott Wilson), before being separated from her sister, Maggie (Lauren Cohan). "It's a very unlikely duo," Reedus admits. "They're getting to know each other on a different level, but not romantically. There are definitely lessons being taught in both directions." Maggie is determined to reunite with her fiancé, Glenn (Steven Yeun), who was last seen loading onto a bus that sped away from the prison. "Their first order of business will be finding each other," Gimple says.
But it's Carl and Rick who must reevaluate their relationship in order to survive in this new reality, which forces Carl to directly challenge his father's abilities and decision making. "He's like a fly buzzing around me, and I'm trying to swat him away," Riggs says. With Rick in no shape to walk, let alone lead a recovery team, he must relinquish some control over his son, who continues to transform into a child soldier. "But Rick has the resilience of a hundred people," Lincoln says. "If ever there was a human being who could lead again, it's him."
For more on The Walking Dead, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, Feb. 13!