For all of its creative highs, The Walking Dead has always been a series in flux. Launching as a cinematic, slow-burning zombie horror serial under original showrunner Frank Darabont, the drama soon evolved into, well, a lot of talk about postapocalyptic morals. Glen Mazzara took over halfway through season two and got the survivors out of their own heads and the hell away from that farm and turned the show into a nonstop battle zone: the prison vs. Woodbury, Rick vs. the Governor. In its fourth season (premiering Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC), the series undergoes another evolution that includes a bunch of new characters, a new scary (if not monstrous) threat, and yet another new showrunner: Scott Gimple, another promotion from the writers' room. Vulture spoke to series executive producer and author of The Walking Dead comics Robert Kirkman about where the show has fallen down, what he and the writers have learned along the way, and what to expect next.
When Glen Mazzara exited the show last season, he said it was over “creative differences” about where season four would go. How is the show different now from what Glen would have done?
Every season of this show has been an evolution, and we’re continuing to improve. Specifically when it comes to season four, I would say there is a lot more character depth. In season three, for example, maybe we didn’t do enough with Beth. We lost T-Dog, and maybe we never did enough with him. This time, we are trying to make sure that every character on this show is on the show for a reason.
A lot of new characters are introduced in Sunday’s premiere, adding to an already big cast. How do you balance deepening characters with being able to service all of them?
In season three, we were still building this world, introducing new locations. That took precedence. Now a lot of that is done. We’re paying things off. We’re not opening in a new place, or moving into somewhere new. We’re there. And the characters have evolved within that location. Because of that we’ve got a little more room to focus on the characters. Also, a lot of them are gonna die.
How do you make up for killing off both of the show’s most developed female characters, Lori and Andrea? Was there extra emphasis on fleshing out the remaining women?
Absolutely. First, in the comic, the cast is always changing, so you’ll see a lot more female characters this season, a lot of them stepping up into prominent roles. Sasha, who we introduced last season, will be very important. She’s part of the council, leading people on runs, stepping up. We’re doing a lot more with Michonne. She’s the liberator in spades, and there’s a lot of stuff we’re counting on her for. Getting rid of Lori and Andrea in the same season definitely leaves quite a void as far as female characters go, but I think we’re filling that void with more stuff for people like Carol.
Give me some idea of what you mean when it comes to Carol.
There are a few characters like Carol, and like Daryl, whose lives have been somewhat improved by the apocalypse. She did lose her daughter, so vastly not improved in that way, but prior to the apocalypse, she was with an abusive husband and living a life very subservient to him. If you watch her in season one, she’s not making a lot of decisions, she’s following everyone’s lead. You’ve seen her step up and emerge and be herself in the past two seasons, and that’s going to continue. We’re going to deal with the fact that she did lose her daughter, which will inform her behavior greatly this season. She doesn’t want any of the kids in the prison to suffer the fate Sophia did. She wants to prepare them. To an extent, she’s becoming the mother to all of these children, maybe not in the way you think, and that’s going to weigh on her.
Looking back, does it surprise you how vilified Lori and Andrea were? Is that something you’re mindful of as you write for and create new female characters?
It was surprising and disheartening, in Lori’s case especially. I feel like the infidelity turned a lot of people against her from very early on, so whatever she did from that point on was suspect and made people dislike her. As writers, we felt that the infidelity was fairly justified. It was the end of the world, she thought Rick had died, Shane lied to her a little bit and let her believe that more than she should have. I always viewed her as more of a victim than anything else in that situation. It’s odd sometimes to see how the audience perceives certain things. It’s something we’re certainly trying to be mindful of more in the writers' room, how female characters interact with male characters, and what the potential for the audience is to misinterpret things the female characters are doing. It’s a pretty big danger in television writing. You look at Skyler in Breaking Bad and you think, No, guys. She was the one who was right. I understand that the show is trying to get you behind Walt, but it’s not supposed to get you so behind him that you hate everyone who disagrees with him.
Viewers seemed to really turn on Lori after she got upset with Rick for killing Shane.
I don’t really understand that either. She was someone who was in the middle of these two guys who were at odds and doing bad things. They were doing bad things. Again, it’s a lot for a person to deal with. To read that she was somehow manipulating that situation? People have issues. I will say I think it’s the vocal minority. The Internet is very loud. I get nasty words thrown my way, but it’s fine. The minority hates almost everything. “New Batman movie with Ben Affleck? Boo!”
In the finale, Carl shot a kid, point blank. I don’t think it’s too spoilery to say in the premiere he seems okay!
The show picks up a few months after last season’s finale. I think the problem, as you see, is that Carl is well-adjusted. That’s something that’s going to be a very big part of the season, the fact that Carl is handling that well when he shouldn’t have been able to handle it well. It’s really inspired Rick to step back from the leadership role and focus on raising his son. I wouldn’t be surprised it if caught back up with Carl, though. It’s not something we’re sweeping under the rug.
Why not kill the Governor last season? Everything seemed to build to that point. Why keep him around?
One of my pet peeves, other than the term pet peeve, are cable shows that bring on an awesome character for a season and in the last episode of the season are like, “Well, the season’s over! This character is magically going to disappear now!”
You’re referring to just villains?
Like, stunt casting. John Lithgow on Dexter, for example. Glenn Close stayed on The Shield, and so did Forest Whitaker. I always thought that was cool, to bring a good character in and actually keep them around. It’s something people don’t expect. The fact that most people expected the Governor to be one of those one-season characters — I like playing against expectations. And it was always planned that he would live on in the show for quite a while. In the season finale, he killed all his people, he lost a massive battle, he lost everything. When he returns we’re going to see a very different guy. He’ll have two eye patches. We’re trying to do new things. I love that this show never goes, “Well, this works. We’re going to keep doing this.” There isn’t another love triangle this season. We’re not going to a new place to set up camp. We’re not introducing another big bad like The Governor. The threat is very different this year. We’re not just doing the same thing over and over again.
You’re working on a spinoff. How will that work? Will it be something entirely different, like Breaking Bad spinning off a Saul Goodman comedy?
Well, the spinoff takes place in space. No. I can say we’re not going to pull any characters from The Walking Dead, or the comics. It will be an all-new cast and an entirely new setting. To a certain extent, I’m competing with 24-year-old me to create a new Walking Dead thing. I think it will be vastly different. It won’t be a comedy or, like, a lawyer show. It will be about survival in some way but in order for it to justify its existence it has to be different in significant ways from the mothershow.