Now that Breaking Bad’s epic fourth season is over, AMC has a daunting amount of slack to pick up on Sunday nights. Luckily for the cable network’s brass, last year’s biggest surprise hit is finally returning this Sunday for a full 13-episode season. The Walking Dead, based on Robert Kirkman’s adored Image Comics title, premiered last October to massive ratings, maintaining solid numbers throughout its six episodes and opening the door for other networks to give scary genres a fair shake; it’s logical to think that FX might not have been so quick to green-light American Horror Story before AMC’s zombie apocalypse performed so well.

Folks who’ve grown up on the gory living dead films of George A. Romero and Lucio Fulci will no doubt fess up to initially giving The Walking Dead a look for one simple, still unbelievable truth: There’s actually a show about flesh-eating zombies on television. Not to mention, a worthy addition into the catalog of legitimately scary TV shows.

The reason why viewers have stuck with the series, though, is its eclectic cast of human survivors, including the crossbow-wielding southern tough guy Daryl Dixon, played by Norman Reedus (The Boondock Saints). Unlike most of the show’s other characters, Daryl isn’t in Kirkman’s books—he’s the creation of Walking Dead creator, and last season’s showrunner, Frank Darabont. The lack of fan awareness hasn’t hurt Reedus, though, since Daryl and his weapon of choice have become viewer favorites.

With The Walking Dead’s long-awaited second season premiering this Sunday (at 10 p.m. EST), Complex caught up with Reedus to find out what’s in store for Daryl and his cohorts, how the show has changed in Darabont’s absence, Daryl’s evolution into a trustworthy hero, and the strangeness of having your own action figure.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Complex: Has the vibe on set been any different this season, now that the show is a proven hit and the stakes are much higher?
Norman Reedus: Yeah, I think AMC put out the first six just to see what a zombie show would be like; they had good material, but they wanted to test the waters. And since it was a big hit, they’re really going for it with this second season. All the characters are doing major things, the zombie stuff is turned up to the fifth gear. Everything is more adrenaline-based now, and more emotionally driven, as well. The second season is heavy—really heavy.

Being that it was this risky zombie show at first, were you nervous at all about its potential for success?
No, actually. It had all the right elements. It had Gale Anne-Hurd, who’s produced some of the best movies out there; it had Frank Darabont; it had the best pilot that I’ve ever read in my life. And it had a huge fan-base from the comics books. So I thought it was going to be a big deal, and once I saw Greg Nicotero’s work on it, with all the makeup and zombie work, I knew it was gonna be a big deal.

With this second season, what’s driving the show, and specifically the characters, now?
Well, we move locations. We left Atlanta at the end of the last episode, with the CDC blowing up, and we end up on a farm. We come across a family that’s doing just fine without us; they have a set-up there at the farm where there’s natural barriers to this farm—there’s swampland on this side, and there are hill ranges that zombies can’t get through, so they’re surviving well enough on their own. But something happens and it brings us to this farm, and we sort of destroy their lives by accident.

There are all of these alliances that form, there are certain conflicts that happen, there’s a certain love triangle that plays out. It’s basically just people trying to decide whether to leave or to stay—what kind of life is there anymore, and is it even worth living at this point? People want to kill themselves. It's just really dark and really heavy.

In a recent interview, Glen Mazzara, the new showrunner (and former producer of The Shield), said that the characters are the real villains this season in a way. Meaning, if you took the zombies out of the equation, Rick and the whole crew would be the antagonists and the family on the farm would be the victims.
Absolutely. You see good people become really bad, and you see bad people become good sometimes. If you took the zombies out of the show completely, this season would still roll totally smoothly, so the zombies are just an added thing. It’s also about the disease; it’s not just monsters, it’s the infection. How do you live in a world that’s infected? Your clock is always ticking. Sooner or later, you’ll be infected, or you will have no one left, so where is your hope in the world? Is it worth even hanging around? It definitely takes you to those places.

If you were put into a similar situation, how do you think you’d handle it in real life?
Man, you could always go to an island. You could always try that out; you could hop on a boat and stay out at sea, but, then, where do you go? What’s it worth? Your food supply would run out, and there would be nobody left. So I don’t know.

It’s a hopeless world. You can always hope that someone would come up with a vaccine or something, but who’s doing that? Are there other pockets of people still surviving? Who knows where the show will take us. Maybe it will end up in other countries. So in real life, I don’t know how you could prepare for something like that. Maybe just keep your loved ones close and arm yourself to the teeth.

Wherever the show takes us now, it will come from a different perspective now that Frank Darabont is out and Glen Mazzara is in as the new showrunner. Did Frank Darabont’s exit have any negative effects on the cast or the production?
Well, I’ll never really know what that was all about, to be honest with you. That happened in offices where they have air conditioners. [Laughs.] We’re out there sweating our faces off, killing zombies, and trying to get along. I don’t even know how all of that works, but the show hasn’t slowed down one bit. If anything, we’re killing it even more right now. It’s not going to slow us down at all.

What has Glen Mazzara brought to the show so far?
Glen’s been kicking ass on the show. He came in and was sort of put in this difficult situation, so he made the best of it. He came to the cast and was like, “Look, this is where I stand.” This season, we had an opportunity to go to the writing room, which is sort of unheard of on television shows. So we got to develop our characters a bit. They’d ask me, “How does Daryl feel about Andy? How does Daryl feel about Rick Grimes today? How does Daryl feel about Dale?” So, we got to have input; Glen gave us the freedom to do that.

I have no complaints with Glen, and everyone really likes him. He’s doing an amazing job. The show never skipped a step—it just picked up speed. And it’s been maintaining that with amazing scripts and really good storylines. The acting is superb, and we have the best crew and special effects team out there. So we’re kind of killing it right now.

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