Even if you’re one of the naysayers who’ve complained about The Walking Dead’s recent lack of zombie mayhem, just admit it: You’re excited for tonight’s midseason return (set to air at 9 p.m. EST on AMC). Whether it’s to see if the moaning will continue, or if the post-apocalyptic hit is about to unleash all kinds of carnage on cable TV viewers, welcoming back The Walking Dead’s polarizing second season is something we’ve all been clamoring to do. Especially considering how the series left us back in November, when—SPOILER ALERT—the overlong, at times angering search for missing Sophia (Madison Lintz) culminated in the now-dead little girl’s emergence from Hershel’s (Scott Wilson) barn forced de facto leader Rick (Andrew Lincoln) to discharge a bullet into the kid’s skull.

Titled “Pretty Much Dead Already,” The Walking Dead’s intense and harrowing midseason finale exemplified one of the show’s narrative hooks (also present in the comic book source material, written by Robert Kirkman): In a desperate world overrun by the living dead, loved ones can quickly become flesh-craving ghouls, but can you do what’s necessary and put them down? And as tonight’s episode, “Nebraska,” makes abundantly clear, there’s also the danger of running across equally desperate survivors who’ll do anything to keep on breathing.

Yet, despite such ample ground for intriguing character and unpredictable characters arcs, many Walking Dead viewers want less talking and more flesh-ripping, a curious yet somewhat understandable gripe that executive producer Gale Anne Hurd totally gets—after all, it’s not like she’s a genre community newbie. Prior to spearheading The Walking Dead’s television adaptation with original show-runner Frank Darabont, Hurd produced countless sci-fi and horror classics, including The Terminator (which she also co-wrote with James Cameron), Aliens, Tremors, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Armageddon.

Along with behind-the-scenes Walking Dead colleagues Kirkman and new show-master Glen Mazzara (who stepped in after Darabont’s much-publicized exit last summer), amongst others, Hurd is using her experience and instincts to steer the AMC smash into Season Two’s pivotal second half. And, based on tonight’s intense “Nebraska” episode, skeptics should calm down. Complex recently chatted with Hurd about the show’s balance of intimate moments with all-out horror, what Mazzara has brought to the table thus far, why the character of T-Dog (IronE Singleton) has been such a non-factor, and how young Carl (Chandler Riggs) is on the verge of major developments.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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After that knockout of a midseason finale, it’s safe to say that fans of The Walking Dead have been clamoring for the show’s return. These midseason breaks aren’t all that fun on the viewers’ end.
[Laughs.] It’s funny, because we haven’t stopped working on it at all, so I get to spend time with it every day. That’s one of the joys of what I do: I don’t have that separation anxiety.

Going into the beginning of the second season, did you and the rest of the people involved behind the scenes approach it as two mini seasons, in a way, knowing that there’d be a break?

Well, we knew that we wanted a big midseason finale—we call that “Barnmageddon.” [Laughs.] But other than that, not really. We just knew that that episode was going to complete the story arc that made sense before we’d go off the air for a couple of months.

And I really have to give a lot of credit to the writers, who are tremendous, but also to Michelle MacLaren, who directed the episode. I think she did a remarkable job; when you think that she had, essentially, eight-and-a-half days to shoot that, I think it’s pretty impressive. We only have eight days to shoot per episode, actually, but how she was able to execute such big moments and great tension, to such a cinematic degree, in such a short amount of time is something that should be commended.

What was interesting about “Pretty Much Dead Already” was how it swayed some of the show’s haters back to the optimistic side. One of the big complaints from fans throughout the first half of Season Two was that it was very slow-moving, without enough zombie action, and that was primarily due to the search for Sophia. But once Sophia stepped out of that barn as a zombie, a lot of those skeptics were wowed. Were you and your team anxiously sitting around all season, thinking, “Just wait until you see the payoff we’re building towards here”?
We hoped. We hoped that they would feel that way, that the reveal of Sophia in the barn would have the kind of impact emotionally that it did. And I think part of that is due to how long you waited to see her. The sacrifices that so many of the characters made, especially Daryl (Norman Reedus), made that a real punch to the gut.

Having seen the next episode, “Nebraska,” I can confidently say that the aftereffects of the Sophia incident are going to have some major payoffs and personality changes for all of the characters, especially Daryl, like you said. The episode picks up immediately after Rick kills Sophia, and everyone on the farm instantly reacts in volatile ways. Daryl, as we see in “Nebraska,” resents the fact that he’s been putting his life on the line to search for a girl who’s been zombified; at one point, he flat-out tells Lori that he’s done sacrificing for everyone else.
It’s really tough on him. He’s not a guy who sees himself… Not even sees himself—he’s not a guy who can easily be around other people. He’s a loner. He’s a successful survivalist, more so than anyone else, and yet he really connected with Sophia, a child out on her own and from a dysfunctional family; her father was abusive. I think it’s as wrenching for him as it is for her mother, Carol (Melissa McBride), which I don’t think anyone could have expected. But there are a lot of layers to Daryl, and we have such a great actor to play him and bring him to life.

When plotting a show with as many characters as The Walking Dead has, is it difficult to give each of the characters his or her fair amount of attention, and make his or her arc really impactful without shortchanging the others drastically?

You know, that was one of the reasons why the first season being only six episodes was such a large task—we didn’t really get to know much about the characters. That’s why it’s been so helpful, especially the first part of the second season, to have a bit of downtime, and yet have the continuing search for Sophia set against the fight for leadership within the group, as well as the love triangle of Rick and Shane over Lori. That all allowed us to really dig deeper into the characters. That’s also why we needed to do the same thing with the new characters, especially Hershel (Scott Wilson) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan).

Yet it seems that many of the show’s more outspoken fans wanted less of that character development and more zombie carnage and action. Did that collective, negative reaction surprise you at all?
No, it’s a delicate balance between character moments and really cool scenes with zombies, but those scenes aren’t really cool if that’s the only reason for being there. The threat and the danger of the zombies is really reflected in how much you care about the characters—if you didn’t care about the characters, it would just be an “Oh, cool” moment, as opposed to the kind of jeopardy you feel when a character you care about is threatened. Or, in Sophia’s case, has died and come back. Or even going back to the first season, when Amy (Emma Bell) died—that was another really powerful moment, I think, in the series so far.

What’s interesting about the “Nebraska” episode is that it’s just as zombie-light as the first half of the season. There’s been a lot of speculation as to whether this next batch of episodes would speed up the action and make those fans happy, yet “Nebraska” is all character development save for a moment early in when Andrea (Laurie Holden) drives a pick-ax through a walker’s skull, which, admittedly, is quite badass. But is this season building toward a total explosion of action and mayhem? By the end of “Nebraska,” it’s easy to assume that will happen.
One of the points that “Nebraska” makes is that the threat is not just from the zombies; we can ratchet up the tension that our survivors are facing from the humans that are out there, which we haven’t done as much of. So it’s nice to be able to have a threat that you can’t as easily predict the behavior of; with zombies, you know what they’re after. You kind of know what you can do to be safe from them, but you also know that they’re going to kill you. With human outsiders, though, you really don’t know any of that, for sure. You really don’t know if they’re friend or foe.

That will certainly be an element of the rest of the second season, but, obviously, it is a show about surviving in the post-walker apocalypse, so we won’t be forgetting the walkers either.

And we also get another term for the zombies, in “Nebraska”: “lame-brains.”
Yeah, and from the comic book they’re also “roamers.” [Laughs.]

One of the characters who really seems to be developing and coming into his own, finally, is Carl (Chandler Riggs); at one point in the episode, he tells Lori that he would have shot Sophia, too, which is a rather hardcore thing for a little kid to say. He’s growing up extremely fast. Is Carl a character who’s going to play a major part in the rest of the season?

Absolutely, and it’s part of the whole thing in the conflict between Shane and Rick, with Lori caught in the middle: Who really is a better father figure for Carl? Shane certainly thinks it’s him—he’ll make the tough decisions. He believes the end justifies the means, and that’s not true of Rick, although we begin to see Rick developing his own harder edge, especially by the end of “Nebraska.”

Which we won’t spoil here, but let’s just say that it’s the most cold-blooded we’ve seen Rick get yet.
Definitely, and his actions there are really going to dictate where Rick goes emotionally throughout the rest of the season, as well as the series itself.

One character who’s yet to do all that much, on the other hand, frankly, is T-Dog (IronE Singleton). He hasn’t had much time to get his big character arc—is he a character that we’ll see really come into his own and have a major impact in the near future?

Oh, absolutely. We have a lot of things planned. And he’s also one who hasn’t formed a close bond with anyone yet. I think he’s another one who feels estranged in the way that Daryl has, and he hasn’t made that commitment yet that Daryl made to finding Sophia. He’s still affected by the encounter with Merle (Michael Rooker) in the first season—it’s hard to trust after you’ve been through something like that.

That’s a good point. One thing about the show that gets taken for granted, I think, is that not a lot of time has transpired since the first episode, in terms of the character’s world. Viewers have been watching The Walking Dead for over a year now, but the characters themselves have had what’s probably no more than a few weeks, so it’s logical to think that T-Dog hasn’t been able to really bond with anyone just yet. It hasn’t exactly been three calm weeks of vacation.
Exactly! You’re exactly right. It’s been a very short period of time, so those kinds of encounters, like the one he had with Merle, are still in his mind, especially with Daryl, Merle’s brother, still in the group, even though Daryl has shown a side of his humanity. It’s still a frightening place to wonder how you fit in.

Switching gears a bit, this new batch of Season Two episodes is where we’ll get to see how new show-runner Glen Mazzara’s contributions and influence will really effect the show. In your eyes, how have things changed now that he’s at the helm, if they’ve even changed at all?
Well, Glen started under Shawn Ryan on The Shield, so he’s very seasoned at show-running, and has a specifically honed skill set when it comes to working with the writers in the writers’ room. He has a great deal of trust for the writers in the writers’ room, and he even has the writers come to the set while we’re shooting. Since we shoot in Atlanta, and our writers’ room and post-editorial and sound are all in Los Angeles, having the writers on set allows them to develop a much closer connection with the actors, which I think makes it much easier for them to write for the actors’ voices and their characters. That’s, I think, something that Glen brings to the show.

It’s been really great. And now that we have the third season writers’ room open, any of the actors who happen to be in L.A. are welcome to come in and talk with the writers, all in the room together. Regardless of the time, day or night, Glen always has his cell phone on him, so if we’re shooting all night and an actor has a question, he or she can always reach out to Glen directly, which is great.

Speaking of having the third season writers’ room open, is it daunting to know that you’ll have a whopping 16 episodes next season?
[Laughs.] I know. It’s more than your typical cable season—your typical cable season is 13 episodes. But I think it provides us with an even greater opportunity to get to know each and every one of the characters, more so than we’ve had in these 13 episodes. I haven’t heard yet what the pitch of Season Three is just yet, though, so I’m really looking forward to hearing that.

Was it difficult to get those extra episodes from AMC?

They, actually, suggested it. We didn’t go to them, hat in hand, saying, “Please, please, please!” [Laughs.] They said, “We’d like to extend it to 16,” and we said, “Thank you very much! So would we!” I think it’s more about the fan reaction for AMC; so, if there is a hiatus next season—and those decisions haven’t been made yet—but should there be one there will be eight episodes, a brief hiatus, and then another eight episodes, as opposed to what we’re doing this season, with seven episodes and then six.

Getting back into this current second season, is there any one character that you think is going to really surprise or shock people by the season’s end?
I can’t talk about that! [Laughs.] I’d like to, but I can’t!

OK, fair enough—it was worth a shot, though.
[Laughs.] I don’t blame you for trying, believe me.

I’m still sticking to my theory that Carl will do some crucial things by season’s end, and I won’t elaborate on what I’m thinking exactly, only because I know you won’t confirm or refute it.
Makes perfect sense. [Laughs.] But I will say that Carl is indeed at a crucial point. He plays right into the whole triangle between Rick, Shane, and Lori. Carl has a real affinity for Shane—Shane is a really good buddy to him. Shane is a lot fun, and Carl can have more fun with him than he can with Rick. He’s caught in a really difficult place. Remember last season, in the “Tell It To The Frogs” episode, when Shane and Carl are catching frogs in the quarry—he doesn’t have that sort of easygoing relationship with Rick, his own father. So that puts all four of them in a difficult situation. And that’s really going to impact the rest of this season.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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