By Darren Franich
March 19, 2012 at 09:01 PM EDT
Gene Page/AMC
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Say, have you heard about this Walking Dead finale? AMC’s breakout-sensation zombie drama closed out its second season last night with a slate-wiping hour of television. An undead herd invaded the much-despised farm which has housed the cast of survivors for most of this season. Then, in the episode’s closing minutes, there were two big developments. We got on the phone with Dead showrunner Glen Mazzara, who’s preparing to speak at the 2012 NAB Show in Las Vegas — alongside fellow Dead producers Dave Alpert, Gale Anne Hurd, and Robert Kirkman — on Tuesday, April 17, for a panel called “Walking Dead: Creating a Thinking Person’s Zombie Drama.”

Mazzara famously took the reins of Walking Dead after original showrunner Frank Darabont departed at the season’s halfway point, and he summed up his stewardship of Dead in simple terms: “I had a clear-cut goal to put Rick first, to pay off stories that we had been telling, to make the world around them seem more threatening, and to get them off the farm and out into that threatening world.” Read on for more information about new characters, new storylines, and T-Dog. (A note on spoilers — I’ve mostly kept questions relating to the Dead comic books confined to common-knowledge information, but there’s one plot point in particular that I’ll frame with a spoiler warning. So keep an eye out. Or just read the comics already.)

I tried to keep track of how many zombies got killed in the season finale, but I quickly lost track. By your estimate, how many walkers did we just see get shot in the face?

Not enough.

Based on that last speech, Rick is clearly in a much darker place now than he was at the start of the season. Is the responsibility starting to get to him?

I think he feels that he has sacrificed for this group, and that sacrifice hasn’t really been appreciated. His confession to Lori did not get the reaction that he had hoped. He thought she would be supportive. Instead, she reacts in a particular way that he feels is hatred and disgust. I think that’s really affecting him. Let’s not forget: This is taking place hours after he murdered his best friend. So he is still reeling. He’s trying to keep that a secret. He opens his heart to his wife, and it doesn’t go well. So I think that he’s just done with these people. I think he doesn’t want to be the leader. As he says: If they don’t like it, they’re free to leave.

I will also say, it’s interesting that he’s in that place going into season 3. Because there will be antagonists for him to face in season 3.

We’ve heard about the casting of David Morrissey as The Governor. What’s your vision of how the Governor plays into the TV show?

In the comic, the Governor is a villain. Our Governor is also, clearly, a villain. He may not be as readily apparent as what’s in the comic book. We will certainly put our spin on that. But we have a dynamic, compelling character that we’re excited to bring into season 3. We expect to tell a story about two different groups of people: Rick’s band of survivors, and the Governor’s world of Woodbury.

That’s interesting, especially since the most common critique of this season is that the world of the show felt hermetically sealed, with just the characters in Rick’s gang.

I think we’ve told our story about this group. The story about the love triangle of Rick, Shane, and Lori, and about trying to find a safe place, and life on the farm. We’ve given that story more than enough screen time. Moving forward, we want to open this up. To introduce new characters, new stories, new locations, new dynamics. I think next year will feel like a radically different show. We’ve improved the pacing drastically. We’ll still have our characters, and still tell stories about people that we care about. I think that everything we’ve done so far has been a warm-up, and I think our best episodes lie ahead.

NEXT: On Rick, and how Walking Dead can be more like Breaking Bad

Coming into the back half of season 2 as the new showrunner, what were the steps that you felt you had to take to speed the show up, or add a certain level of tension?

I’ll tell you exactly. My first concern was to put Rick front and center. He’s a leader, and we need to care about him. In the first episode of [the second half of the season], “Nebraska,” I played down the zombie action to really focus on Rick as a character. He makes a clear decision to shoot those guys in the bar. That also opens up the world, and introduces new threats.

I wanted to resolve the Shane-Rick-Lori storyline in a way that made Rick as active and compelling as possible. I wanted to raise the stakes by killing off main characters. I wanted to make the world around them seem threatening. And I knew we were driving toward this climax of the farm being overrun.

I’m happy to say that everybody here, on the cast and crew and at the network, supported that agenda. And I think we told that story. In six episodes, I think we’ve been able to deliver a show that critics and fans realize is reaching its potential. Part of that meant burning down what came before, and leaving fans wondering what could possibly come next. At the end of that finale, that is the major question. What comes next? Our characters face that. Our fans face that. And we as writers and producers are excited to answer that question.

You’ve worked on different types of shows — some that are procedural, and some that have a strong serialized narrative through-line. With 16 episodes in Walking Dead‘s third season, are you conscious of building that larger story? Or do you focus more on the individual episode-nodes?

Our audience seems to get frustrated if a story is played out over too long an arc. It’s been important to me that every episode deliver a punch. For the larger story, I would consider Breaking Bad a great model. I think Vince [Gilligan] is a huge talent. Each episode of Breaking Bad is incredibly well-done, and yet, there’s a longer arc. You never feel any of his episodes are filler. So I think that’s something that hopefully we can achieve, and I think that’s something that we’ve been doing.

As a protagonist, how do you see Rick? On one hand, being a leader seems to come naturally to him, but you’re also describing how – at this point – there’s times when he’s a little over it.

Let’s not forget: Rick almost lost his life, and was in a coma. He wakes up to this world in which everything he knows has been pretty much stripped away. Even the fidelity in his marriage. I think that he’s been trying to piece it together, and trying to figure it out. I think now he feels like he has an answer. But as we’ve seen, every time Rick has an answer, it turns out to be the wrong one. [Laughs] So we look forward to continuing to torture our lead throughout season 3.

[SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SKIP AHEAD NOW]

Speaking of torturing Rick! In the comic books, Rick lost a hand during his first meeting with the Governor. Are you going to keep that plot point in the next season?

There’s material in the comic that does pose challenges to us. When we deviate from the comic book, it’s because we really feel it would not translate onto a weekly TV show. If he loses his hand, and he ever meets Merle, how do they shake hands?

[END SPOILER END SPOILER END SPOILER]

NEXT: Merle, Michonne, and that darned helicopter

On that note, Michael Rooker is saying that he’ll be back next season as Merle Dixon. Is that true?

I’ll say this: I believe that Merle is alive and kicking, and he’d be a great addition to the show. I don’t want to confirm it, but I would answer that question with a wink.

We got a very quick introduction to Michonne, when she rescued Andrea. Can you talk about how you see her fitting in with the ensemble in season 3?

Actually, it’s interesting. We have a great storyline that ties her in in a surprising way. Whether or not she gets involved with the ensemble from the farm remains to be seen.

In the season finale, we got out second look at that mysterious helicopter that we saw back in the series premiere. Is that something that comes into play next season?

We are very interested in finding out what that helicopter is about. That’s all I can say.

You killed off two main characters in two consecutive episodes. One thing that comes up constantly in the Walking Dead is the notion that anyone can die at anytime.

We believe that here at the TV show. As we continue to kill off characters, we have to bring in new characters, and get the audience invested in them. That’s part of the goal of season 3: To open up the world, make it less claustrophobic, and make sure that we have a much larger population of characters that everyone cares about.

T-Dog managed to survive the season finale. I think it’s fair to say that, of all the characters, I think we’ve gotten to know him the least. Is he more of a presence next year?

There is a plan for T-Dog. Given all of the things that I had to focus on to develop the show in a way that I felt was best, I will say that T-Dog got short shrift. We took care of business, and now we can delve into Michonne and the Governor and T-Dog and all these other characters. T-Dog fans will be happy. We’re no longer interested in having a character in the background only saying one line per episode. We’re done with that. But again, we only had so much real estate, and it was very important for me to tell Rick’s story.

Is there anything else, now that you feel like you’ve established this foundation, that you want to work more on in the next season?

I think the key for season 3 is to open it up. To continue to find new ways to terrorize the audience, to frighten our fans. I think by the end of this season, people were saying, “How much more can I take?” We want to continue that. We want to make sure that you’re really immersed in the world of The Walking Dead, and you never know what’s going to hit you.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

Read More from EW:

‘The Walking Dead’ season finale recap: At My Signal, Unleash Hell

‘Walking Dead’ writer Robert Kirkman talks about tonight’s game-changing season finale, ‘Beside the Dying Fire’

‘The Walking Dead’ Casts Sword-Wielding Heroine Michonne (SPOILERS)

AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.
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