Dalton Ross
August 29, 2014 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Welcome to the city of the dead.

That’s what they call downtown Atlanta these days. At least that’s what the cast and crew of The Walking Dead call it. Because death is about all you’ll find in these parts — either in the form of reanimated corpses or in the fate that surely awaits you if you linger too long or turn the wrong corner at the wrong time. But linger here we must, just outside suite 222 of the Grant Building, for filming is about to commence on a scene that will find crossbow-wielding warrior Daryl and wallflower-turned-flower-gazing advocate Carol investigating a particularly creepy hallway that stands between them and their secret destination.

The good news: Daryl and Carol are apparently back together! (Shippers, start your engines.) More good news: They’re not stuck in a train car! But also, bad news: This hallway is almost pitch-black, and there’s that dead walker on the floor to consider. You can’t help but feel it is not alone. The man who plays Daryl stands at the ready, waiting for the director to yell ”Action!” And then, well…Norman Reedus decides to start flashing people. (I’m going to just pause for the cause and give everyone a few seconds to stop hyperventilating.)

This particular flashing actually comes courtesy of a Daryl Dixon flashlight. (Sorry.) First it lands on an unsuspecting crew member, who just sort of chuckles, because what the hell else are you supposed to do when Norman Reedus throws a flashlight in your face? Then it is Melissa McBride’s turn to play victim. ”Hey!” she barks at her costar, who continues to whip the beam around, faster and faster, until the energy in the room changes. Reedus starts beatboxing to the rhythm of the light, simulating a club remix jam, heavy on the bass. ”DOOPH! DOOPH! DOOPH!” The throbbing beat is more infectious than any plague of the undead.

Now McBride feels it too. She turns this hallway of doom into her own personal Studio 54, dropping moves that would make Deney Terrio proud. Never mind that McBride currently has on her person a knife, brass knuckles, and a massive rifle — the woman just wants to get down! So there you have it. This is what season 5 of The Walking Dead has come to, folks: Zombie Dance Party.

Of course, things aren’t likely to be quite that cheery when The Walking Dead returns to AMC on Oct. 12. For one thing, the zombie apocalypse is still in full effect. For another, last we checked, our heroes were being held captive at Terminus in a train car, and, oh yeah, there was a good chance THEY WERE ABOUT TO BE EATEN! (More on that in a moment.) So if you thought watching Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) rip out a man’s throat with his own teeth in the season 4 finale was a sign of things to come, you were absolutely right. ”We’ve gone into this room,” says Lincoln of the season 5 vibe. ”And it’s a very dark room, and it’s a very scary room. And we’ve locked the door and you’re not allowed out. We’re going to the other side now.” Lincoln’s message comes with a warning, especially for parents: ”We’re really earning our rating this season. There are families that watch it together, but just so it’s on the record, guys — it’s a grown-up show this season.”

Reedus concurs. ”Episode 1 is insane,” he says while taking a break on a rooftop during filming. ”Andy and I were like, ‘This is crazy, this is never gonna make it to TV!”’ But while the AMC hit (which averaged 18.4 million viewers last season) will have its fair share of despair, there will be flashes of hope as well. And flashes of promise. And yes, even flashes of love. If they can just get out of that damn train car, that is. So let’s start right there.

Things ended last March in a bad way as Rick and most of the survivors had followed the tracks and signs to the promised safety of Terminus, only to be funneled by force into a train car by their less-than-hospitable hosts. But why? The popular theory is that the ”Termites” (as dubbed by Lincoln) are the TV version of a group from the Walking Dead comic called the Hunters, who decided Hey, maybe zombies have the right idea after all with this whole eating-people thing and therefore resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. Clues in both the season 4 finale and the season 5 trailer lend extra credence to the Hunters/Terminus comparisons. And so do these cryptic remarks from Walking Dead comic creator and TV exec producer Robert Kirkman: ”All I’ll say is this season is following the comic-book story line pretty closely. Possibly closer than we ever have before. And there’s a very popular, familiar story line in the comic books that happened immediately following the exodus of the prison, and it is entirely possible that we will be touching in some way on that very popular story line.” Cue the dinner bell.

But while Kirkman will not go so far as to outright confirm the cannibalism rumors, he does have good news for fans who have spent the entire summer trying to figure out just what the heck is going on outside train car A. Who are these jerks? What’s the deal with their leader, Gareth? And where are Carol, Tyreese, and baby Judith? These questions will be dealt with — immediately. ”As a viewer, one thing that I really hate is when you have this big cliff-hanger moment and then it’s the end of episode 3 before you get any real answers as to what we left you hanging on,” says Kirkman. ”We’re definitely not doing that. By minute 2 or 3 of our season premiere, I think the vast majority of our questions have been answered and five or six more have been presented, so you’re very much going to be invested, well-informed, and ready for the ride that we’re going to take you on.”

The first stop on that ride for Rick & Co. is dealing with this Gareth character (played by Andrew J. West), who is vastly different from the group’s most recent adversary. ”Gareth isn’t really the Governor,” explains West. ”He’s a guy who’s searching and struggling for a new way to exist, because he has accepted that the old way just doesn’t work anymore. The world is different now, and the old rules need to be reexamined. And he’s willing to do that.” There is definitely a showdown brewing between the cold and calculating Gareth and the newly refocused Rick. ”He doesn’t blink to protect who he loves,” says showrunner Scott M. Gimple of Grimes 2.0. ”And he can get pretty scary pretty quick.” Though we don’t know how this battle of wits and wills ends, we do know one thing — somehow, someway, the gang will exit Terminus. Then at some point attention will turn toward a new group goal: getting to Washington, D.C. It is a mission that Sgt. Abraham Ford (Michael Cudlitz) gave himself after scientist Eugene (Josh McDermitt) said he knew how to stop the plague if he could just get to the nation’s capital.

The trip offers the group hope — hope to put a stop to the madness and hope for a new way of life. But you have to ask yourself: How does that usually work out for people on this show? The CDC journey in season 1 was a dead end — literally for some, like Jacqui and Dr. Jenner. Hershel’s farm appeared to be a refuge from the dangers of urban zombie warfare…until a herd of flesh eaters happened upon it. A new society was forged behind the gates of a penitentiary, but that society crumbled alongside pieces of the prison blown up by the Governor and his tank. Finally, the lure of sanctuary at Terminus turned out to be nothing more than a human cage. You don’t have to be an avid reader of the comic on which the show is based to sense that Abraham and Eugene’s mission might not be a ticket to salvation.

That journey to D.C. — and the side trips sure to accompany it — will take the group through some terrain it has not encountered since season 1: downtown Atlanta. The past three seasons have all been set outside the city, and as exec producer and monster-makeup guru Greg Nicotero (who is directing four upcoming episodes, including the season premiere) concedes, ”After a while, running through the woods does feel a little repetitive.” Also, exec producer Gale Anne Hurd notes, ”You’re never going to find the cure to the zombie apocalypse in the sticks. Now they have to reenter the City of the Dead, and there are many cities of the dead that they’ll have to encounter to complete their mission.”

If that sounds scary for the characters, it has been pretty harrowing for the cast as well. ”In the last couple months, I’ve had my first real apocalypse nightmares,” admits Lauren Cohan, who plays farmer’s daughter Maggie. ”I don’t know if that’s because we’re now shooting in the city, but now it’s this sense of like, I know there’s an apocalypse, and nobody will flippin’ believe me. And in my dreams I’m walking up to people, and sometimes it’s, like, Melissa McBride, but she’s sitting in a café and she has no idea there’s actually an apocalypse, and I throw her espresso out the window and I look at her and shake her shoulders, saying, ‘What are you doing sitting here?! There’s an apocalypse! Everyone’s dead and they’re walking around! You have to go!!!”’

While heading back downtown will feel like a bit of a throwback to how it all began, with Rick riding his trusty steed into a sea of walkers, Nicotero says we should expect to see a very different-looking Atlanta. ”Imagine what the city would look like after having been abandoned for a year and a half versus the six weeks we established in the very first episode. So having the city be even more decrepit-looking, and more windows have broken out, and plants and vines growing — it was fun.”

Also fun for Team Walking Dead was getting the cast back together. After the destruction of the prison in season 4, the survivors scattered. That meant smaller stories with episodes focusing on just a few people at a time. The actors appreciated the opportunity to do deeper character studies, but they also missed one another. ”It’s back to school!” says Chad L. Coleman, who plays Tyreese. ”The gang’s all together. It’s been a long summer, and we’re coming back to wreak havoc. We miss each other when we go off into that splinter storytelling.” For newer cast members, the season represents their first real chance to work with the full ensemble. ”Last year I felt like a guest invited into the house, and everyone was very gracious and allowed me to sleep on the couch,” says Cudlitz, who joined in season 4. ”This year they built me a room.”

Of course, the introduction of these characters into the fold has the potential to add some conflict. It’s possible the old guard might not all agree with this mission to D.C. ”Michonne’s a person who doesn’t go for things easily,” notes actress Danai Gurira. ”There’s really that question: Will she or won’t she buy the Eugene story?” And then there may be other personal speed bumps on the road to Washington: Rick and Abraham have a particularly combative introduction in the comic, and Maggie could lose it if and when Rick identifies Tara (Alanna Masterson) as a member of the group that decapitated her father, Hershel. ”That conflict could be a bit of a powder keg,” acknowledges Kirkman. There is also that whole Rick-and-Carol reunion to worry about, after he exiled her from the prison. ”I can tell you that she is very certain with some of her feelings,” says McBride. ”And she’s got some mixed feelings.” (Memo to Rick: Don’t start looking at any flowers, buddy.)

But we will see love as well, beyond just Maggie and Glenn (Steven Yeun). Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Bob (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) appeared to be close to a love connection last season, while Abraham and Rosita (Christian Serratos) are definitely paired up in the comic. ”There are certainly more couples,” confirms Kirkman. Could that also finally mean a match for Daryl Dixon? Kirkman recently responded to a fan’s query about whether Daryl could be gay by answering in the letters section of his comic: ”All I can say is that it’s been discussed.” As for season 5, Kirkman warns, ”Sadly, I would say that Daryl’s situation remains somewhat ambiguous.” He pauses and takes a deep breath, considering the scores of fans who have been clamoring for Dixon to find his soul mate. ”I’m going to regret answering that question.”

The Daryl-Carol shippers at least seem to have the advantage over the Daryl-Beth (Emily Kinney) ones, seeing as how we know the first pair will share some screen time together in season 5, while Beth…well, where the hell is Beth anyway? The trailer for season 5 shows her still separated from the main group and on the receiving end of a vicious blow to the face. It looks like she might be in a hospital of some sort, but then again, maybe not. This is the one lingering mystery from last season that Kirkman concedes may take a bit of time to unravel. ”I wouldn’t expect it too terribly soon,” he says as to when we might get answers. ”There’s been a lot going on with her while she was missing and we’re definitely going to see a lot of that, so all things will be revealed Beth-wise. It’s going to have some far-reaching ramifications for all the characters.”

And that could include new characters as well. Jumping from the comic book to the screen this season is Father Gabriel Stokes — a priest who, in the source material, offers his church as shelter for the group while also attempting to atone for past sins. He’ll be played by Seth Gilliam, the third alum from The Wire to join the series, after Coleman and Gilliard. For Gilliam, appearing on one of the most watched programs in the world has definitely been an adjustment. ”This is the first time I’ve actually been on a show where it’s popular while it’s airing,” he laughs. ”I was not prepared for that, and I’m not sure that I ever will be, actually.” Showrunner Gimple teases that Father Gabriel will be far from the only fresh face: ”We are going to see a bunch of new characters, people of significance to the show, even during the first half of the season.”

We’ll also be treated to a slew of new zombies — ones that are gnarlier than ever. This season, Nicotero’s goal was to ”show the passage of time by seeing how rotted and decomposed these walkers get,” he says. ”You can see that some of the zombies are missing noses and parts of their faces.” (Sounds delightful!) One such situation we can look forward to is ”a room filled with water that has had walkers in it for a year, and what that would do to the zombies in terms of their skin flopping off.” This is the type of discussion that turns Nicotero giddy — somewhat disturbingly so. ”I use the rotisserie-chicken description,” he says of the waterlogged walkers, ”with the meat sliding off the bones.” (Second memo, this one to self: Never, ever eat rotisserie chicken again.)

Between dealing with Terminus, whoever is holding Beth, and the walking rotisserie chickens, the harsh reality is that not everyone is likely to make it out of season 5 alive. But the question of who will be among this season’s dearly departed is not one Yeun cares to consider. ”Ultimately, what I think it ends up doing is making fans choose people,” he says of audience speculation. ”And they go, ‘Oh, I like that guy and I want those two to live and everybody else to die.’ And it becomes like a dramatic episode of Survivor. That’s not what our show is, because the moment you do that, that’s the moment you check out.”

The cast members themselves have no desire to check out (although Gimple and Kirkman may have different plans for them). You simply don’t find the restlessness among the Walking Dead actors that you see on other programs when they get to season 5: ”That is something a lot of people in episodic television struggle with,” acknowledges Yeun. Many actors have bailed from successful shows due to burnout and the desire for a new challenge, but don’t look for that to happen here. ”There is a side of me that is actively looking to fill the hiatus,” says Lincoln of pursuing other work in his downtime. ”But this is like no other job I’ve ever experienced. I’m ready for the long term.”

But how long will that long term be? ”Me and the other actors have talked about that,” says Reedus. ”But we’re so wrapped up in not getting bitten that we’re not really thinking about when the show’s gonna end.” Kirkman’s inspiration for the Walking Dead comic (which just published issue #130) was to create ”the zombie movie that never ends,” but all prime-time shows not titled The Simpsons eventually do fade to black. Has the creator thought about how long this ride can last? ”I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon,” says Kirkman, who also has a Walking Dead spin-off series in the works for AMC. ”Scott Gimple and I have many, many seasons mapped out. I think we’ve got at least another year or so before we have to start talking about what the endgame is. Shows have lasted a crazy amount of seasons before. Maybe this will be one of those. Or maybe people will be reading this interview in a couple of years and be like, ‘Wow, that guy was a dope.”’


How Do You Want to Die?

Andrew Lincoln: Maybe a kid should take me out. I texted Scott Gimple yesterday and said, ”Promise me, when I die, on the credits sequence, you play Johnny Cash’s version of ‘Hurt.”’ And he said, ”I can’t make that promise.” So when I die, even if Scott Gimple decides not to do it, please everybody [at home] play ”Hurt.”

Lauren Cohan: Maggie and Glenn are running through a forest, and there’s a horde behind them, and there’s nowhere else to go — just a cliff. They hold hands and jump off the cliff and scream all the way down. [Laughs] And it freeze-frames on them with their arms up in the air.

Norman Reedus: If I had my druthers on how I would go, I would just walk away. You would just see me walk down a road like Mad Max and I’d get smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller, and then a little dog would run on the road with me and just start following me off into the sunset, and you’d never know what happened to him.

Chad L. Coleman: I know I would want it to be heroic. Sacrificing myself for the others would probably be the most compelling way to me. One of those ”Everybody go! Just go!” [Laughs]

Danai Gurira: She’s not going to go down without a pretty epic fight. That’s how I see Michonne. That’s what I want for her.

Michael Cudlitz: As with everyone, I know it’s coming. At some point everyone dies on The Walking Dead. I would hope that his death would be befitting of his life, and Abraham did everything hard. As they say in Spinal Tap, it goes to 11.

Watching Dead
Whether you’re catching up or just diving in, follow our timeline of TWD‘s most shocking, disgusting events — and can’t-miss episodes. (Spoiler alert!)

Season 1
Episode 1: ”Days Gone By”
The show’s first-ever scene sets the tone as Rick Grimes encounters a little girl wearing bunny slippers and holding a teddy bear, and then proceeds to shoot her in the face. Okay, she was a zombie girl who was going to eat him, but still…

Episode 2: ”Guts”
The Walking Dead establishes its grody factor early on as Rick and Glenn spread zombie guts all over themselves to avoid detection while shuffling through an army of the undead.

Episode 6: ”TS-19”
The CDC blows up, but not before Dr. Jenner whispers a later-revealed secret to Rick: They’re all infected. Every last one of them.

Season 2
Episode 8: ”Bloodletting”
Rick seeks medical help and refuge at Hershel’s farm. What could possibly go wrong at an idyllic locale like this?

Episode 10: ”Cherokee Rose”
And the award for most disgusting zombie ever goes to…

Episode 13: ”Pretty Much Dead Already”
Barnageddon! Shane opens Hershel’s barn and a stream of walkers pile out, the last of which is zombie Sophia, reducing Carol and viewers alike to a quivering mess.

Episode 18: ”Better Angels”
Love triangles don’t usually end well. Exhibit A: Shane lures Rick out to the woods to kill him, but Rick stabs Shane instead. Shane turns into a zombie, so Carl guns him down. Why must we always get the kids involved in these petty affairs of the heart?

Season 3
Episode 20: ”Seed”
The gang arrives at the prison and makes the West Georgia Correctional Facility its new home.

Episode 22: ”Walk With Me”
Michonne and Andrea enter Woodbury and meet the town’s leader — the Governor. Andrea thinks he’s swell. Michonne doesn’t. Guess who’s right?

Episode 23: ”Killer Within”
Walkers attack! And they kill T-Dog in the process. But the biggest shock is Lori dying during childbirth, and then Carl having to shoot his own mom to prevent her from turning.

Episode 31: ”Clear”
Rick, Carl, and Michonne go on a supply run and encounter a now-loony-tunes Morgan. An example of how the show can use smaller character stories to make a big emotional impact.

Episode 34: ”This Sorrowful Life”
Whether he had one hand or two, Merle was always kinda bad news. But that doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking to watch a sobbing Daryl have to kill his zombified brother.

Season 4
Episode 43: ”Too Far Gone”
The moral of The Walking Dead: Never act as the conscience of the group. It didn’t work out so hot for Dale. Nor for Hershel, who is beheaded by the Governor in front of his daughters at the final prison standoff.

Episode 49: ”The Grove”
So what do you do if one of your adopted daughters stabs the other in the belly? If you’re Carol, you tell her to look at the flowers while you shoot her to death.

Episode 50: ”Us”
Glenn & Co. are offered a welcoming plate of food at Terminus. But a plate of what?

Episode 51: ”A”
Rick proves his moping days are over as he rips out a marauder’s throat…with his teeth! He’ll need that appetite for destruction to deal with his captors at Terminus.

Next Stop: Alexandria?
If you’re wondering what may be coming up on the Walking Dead show, then look to the Walking Dead comic for clues. While the TV version does bounce around in terms of following the comic’s timeline, showrunner Scott M. Gimple notes that ”generally it’s on the same linear path. Maybe we’ll get ahead a little bit, maybe we’ll fall behind a bit, but it’s generally in the same place.”

To sync up the two versions, consider this: Rick’s final line of season 4 — ”They’re screwing with the wrong people” — was a sanitized take on the final line of issue #64. The Terminus gang on TV appears to be an adaptation of a group of cannibals from this period known as the Hunters, while Abraham and Eugene’s mission to D.C. comes straight from the comic as well (but as readers can attest, there could be a big twist to that along the way). And we already know that Father Gabriel Stokes (introduced in issue #61) will be showing up in season 5.

As for who — or what — else might be jumping from page to screen, our bet is on Aaron, whom we met in issue #67. He’s a recruiter for a walled-off postapocalyptic community known as the Alexandria Safe-Zone, which also acts as the next major destination point for the group after Hershel’s farm and the prison. (Aaron might also join Tara as one of the show’s few gay characters.)

So will our survivors reach Alexandria this season? ”I will say that’s a very big point in the book,” responds Gimple. ”I don’t think anyone who reads the comics will be surprised that we eventually get there, but whether it’s this season or not? It’s possible, I suppose.”

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