'Walking Dead' EPs Glen Mazzara, Robert Kirkman on Season 3 Ride: 'Buckle Up'

Gene Page/AMC

"With Shane being gone, some of those responsibilities are on Daryl," Norman Reedus previews. "There's more responsibilities, alliances, people, dangers and threats. He has more responsibility but Daryl doesn't want the responsibility of taking over a group. He's really just trying to fit in." 

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from season three of The Walking Dead and the Image Comics series it's based on.]

AMC's The Walking Dead has arrived at the moment in the Image Comics series on which it's based that executive producers Robert Kirkman and Glen Mazzara consider the sweet spot.

With the addition of two beloved characters -- the sword-swinging bad-ass Michonne (Danai Gurira) who saved Andrea in the season two finale and Rick's major foil, the Governor (David Morrissey) -- the zombie drama is heading into a season where the walkers are no longer the biggest threat.

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The season will mark the series' first with Mazzara at the helm from Day 1 and without co-star Jon Bernthal, whose Shane was killed not once but twice last season. In addition, the ragtag group of survivors are without Andrea (Laurie Holden), who was split from the group after the fracas that ensued at Hershel's (Scott Wilson) farm. This year picks up after winter has passed, with Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) very pregnant and Rick (Andrew Lincoln) poised to lead everyone into a bloody battle to claim a nearby prison as their home.

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Mazzara and Kirkman to talk season three, how the comics will be a roadmap for the season, what Shane's loss means for Rick and Lori, Merle's return and if they'll stick to their guns and not explore the cause of the outbreak as part of our seven days of Walking Dead coverage leading up to Sunday's return.

The Hollywood Reporter: With the additions of Michonne and the Governor, how much are you using the comics as a roadmap this season?
Robert Kirkman: As much as it ever has been. There's definitely stuff that we're adapting and staying true to, even stuff that we originally intended to adapt exactly how it happened in the comic. But as you get into the writers' room and as you start to work on it, things change and things evolve. I don't think any season in particular will be more or less of the comic or completely original. There's always going to be some elements where you go, "I remember that," and, "They've done that, but it's done in a little different way." This season continues that.

How will Shane's loss play into Rick and Lori's storyline this season?
Mazzara: Rick will always care for Lori and that baby whether or not it's his. Lori is tormented by her role in Shane's killing; she's been wrestling with that and tormented by her guilt. How does she find redemption? How does she make things right? That's a central question for that character this season.

Lori and the baby don't make it out of the comic alive after the battle with the Governor. Does she need to die to redeem her role in Shane's death?
Mazzara: You'll have to find out. We're going to tell the story our way. It has to make sense for all of our characters. We can't spoil anything but it'll be a very interesting story.
Kirkman: Anybody can die at any time. Also, anybody can live. We're not really tied to the events of the comic book series as far as lives and deaths go. There's definitely an effort in changing that specifically just because those are really the most important elements that you wouldn't want spoiled. There's definitely going to be some radical changes to that.

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After news of Shane's impending death -- and Jon Bernthal's departure -- was leaked early, are you more guarded this season about that sort of thing?
Mazzara: We realize that our fans want a lot of information. Unfortunately, we're working in an age where it's tough to keep information under wraps, whether it gets out by design or by accident. We do our best and we've been working with AMC to make sure that we are very involved in what information gets out, what photos get out, what information is released. We've been very mindful to make sure that none of that is going to spoil fans' experience. We're really protecting our secrets, twists and surprises that people come to expect from the show.

The Governor is more of a politician than he is in the comics, how similar will he be to his comic counterpart?
Mazzara: The governor is a political term, so I could argue that that was even part of the book. The people of Woodbury had one view of him and yet the comic book readers had another. That's consistent with what we're doing in the show. However, even though we are arcing that character's development, the Governor is the Governor from the comics. That is something we feel we have an obligation to show: a character that is willing to do anything for his purposes. Whether or not the events play out exactly the same, the core of that character is certainly true to the comic book.
Kirkman: To a certain extent, a lot of the events are going to play out pretty different from how we experience the Governor. We definitely arrive at the Governor in a different way than we did in the comics, which you'll see eventually. There are certain storylines involving the Governor that cast him in a much more devious light just because he is being somewhat more two-faced and is appearing a lot nicer to some characters than he did in the comics. But at the same time, he's appearing a lot harsher to other characters. We're kind of heightening both sides of him as things go along in this season.

Are you worried about backlash from fans who miss Jon Bernthal's Shane?|
Mazzara: We told that story. Rick ended that story and it propelled us into the new season. So, I'm glad we told that story and now it's time to tell a different story.
Kirkman: The fact that viewers, after the end of the second season, are concerned with what this show will be like without that character, that they can't really imagine what the show would be with the absence of that character shows that we did our jobs and made that character as cool as we possibly could. They haven't yet seen what we're going to be doing in his absence. Once that happens, those things will die down. Even if they don't, there's always going to be new elements that they can get just as excited about as they did Bernthal's character.

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Last season featured the killer one-two punch of Dane and Shale's deaths. How deadly will season three be?
Mazzara: We will top it. The entire writing team has just come up with some stuff that is just pretty exciting material. It's going to be a hell of a ride.
Kirkman: For the comic fans that will be reading this, Glen has thrown in a couple of zingers this season that will actually, to a certain extent, overshadow a few things that I've done in the comics. That's something that really excites me; the fact that we have things in the show that can top some of people's favorite moments from the comic book series makes me really proud of the show. So buckle up.

There are so many stories to explore with Merle's return. Is he still harboring a grudge toward Rick's group and T-Dog?
Mazzara: Merle does not forgive or forget. He had to cut off his own hand. I'm sure he has a lot to say to T-Dog and Rick and the rest of them and that will put Daryl in the middle. Daryl is now fully integrated into this group. With Shane gone, Daryl has found a nice role. It's going to put a lot of pressure on him.

When push comes to shove, Daryl has stepped up and found a home with this group. How will Merle's return change him?
Mazzara: It screws everything up, doesn't it?
Kirkman: It's important to note that Daryl has changed quite a bit over the course of these seasons and definitely over the amount of time that Merle has not been around. But Merle has also changed. It's a complete unknown as to who these characters are now and how much they've both changed and what their relationship will be.

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Andrea wasn't looking so good in the Comic-Con trailer. You've said that you won't be exploring the cause of the outbreak. Is this just a common cold or is there more to it? Mazzara: That you'd have to watch and find out. One of the things that we talk about are health issues in this world; all your systems would probably breakdown. It's an interesting problem of how do you even just care for the sick. It's something we know the audience thinks about and they kind of ask these questions. So it's something that we think is worthwhile exploring.

So you'll continue to not explore what caused the apocalypse?
Mazzara: That's not part of the comics. We're telling a story that we want to tell about these people who have limited information and who are trying to survive and coming up against other groups. To go back and explain, there's many apocalyptic films and zombie movies that have given those answers. We've got an exciting story. To go back and explain something that is just going to be our version of something that's been done before, that's not interesting to me.
Kirkman: These characters are living a life and surviving. That's much more interesting than the thought of them trying to solve a problem like this or trying to find answers for this. That kind of story has been told and it's very interesting, but that the path that we're on watching these characters survive is a lot more engaging and is definitely the kind of story that we want to tell.
Mazzara: Some monkey got loose. We've seen that.
Kirkman: A satellite fell to Earth with a space spore on it. Who cares?
Mazzara: We've seen it. This story feels fresh because we're picking up after the fact when there are no answers to be had. It's all about kind of re-establishing a new world order. So, that's fresh territory. I think it's exciting.

What are you looking forward to seeing in season three? Hit the comments with your thoughts. The Walking Dead returns Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC. Check back to THR's The Live Feed every day this week for the Seven Days of The Walking Dead preview and after the finale for more from the EPs.

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@thr.com; Twitter: @Snoodit