SPOILER WARNING: The following story contains mild spoilers for episodes of AMC's "The Walking Dead" up to but not including last night's broadcast.
After a record-setting first season introduced the flesh eaters of Robert Kirkman's acclaimed Skyboundn series at Image to millions of viewers last fall, AMC's "The Walking Dead" seems to have inspired a hunger for more of its mix of human drama and inhuman gore.
The ratings for the Sunday night horror drama have remained strong as the second season has progressed, and AMC has already committed to a third season. On screen, the series has gained mileage out of changes from the "farm" storyline of the comic including a protracted disappearance for young Sophia and an expanded (and recently murderous) role for Rick's best friend Shane.
With only two episodes left before the show goes on hiatus until February, CBR News spoke to "Walking Dead" creator and executive producer Kirkman about the stories to date. Below, the writer delves in to how adapting his own comic stories have changed them drastically, what a full-time role for Shane has meant to the series, why zombies won't always be a part of the picture even as he tries to outdo himself on the horrific aspects of the show in upcoming episodes and what fans can expect to see resolved by the time the mid-season finale airs on November 27.
CBR News: It's been very interesting for fans of the comic to watch the show this season and see how elements we're familiar with like the farm play out in the reality of the TV series. Despite the fact that this is a relatively safe spot, there is a sense of unease about the proceedings. Did you and the writers want to focus on an over-arching theme for this season or this first run of episodes that plays into that?
Robert Kirkman: You know, almost every character has their own little arc, but the main thrust of the season that we're trying to focus on most is Rick questioning his leadership role and the characters around him questioning his leadership role. It's all about him trying to prove his worth, and over the course of the season, that's really what we're trying to establish: whether or not he is the ideal leader for this group or if it's going to be somebody else.
You co-wrote the first episode this year, and it opens with a monologue set firmly in Rick's doubts delivered via radio to the still absent Morgan. Was that your work pitch on how to engage the viewers after a year off?
I think technically Glen Mazzara wrote a good portion of that. It's just how TV writing goes [when people not credited for a specific episode contribute portions]. We just wanted to push in and reestablish the world of the characters very quickly. And that was actually originally meant for later in the episode, but since some things were moved around to make that episode a 90-minute pilot, it started it out. I think it was a much better choice to get things moving on that -Â reestablishing Morgan and that situation and just getting people up to speed. I was really happy with how everything was directed. The very quick shots we did in the scene where they're loading up the car, and Shane sees Rick and Lori embracing. Then Rick looks over, and Shane completely changes his personality and smiles. There's some very fast character work that's done in that scene that I think was remarkable on the part of the actors and the director.
Overall, the comic breaks down more or less to around six-issue arcs, and the rhythm of how plots break down within that format has been one of the things that really defines "Walking Dead" on the page. What's the difference been in pacing this story for TV?
We always try to give the important moments enough breathing room to have weight. The pace is very methodical at time in order to establish a lull so that when something big does happen it's jarring like we want it to be. It's a fun back and forth to try and figure out how you want to alter the pace from scene-to-scene. That's always on our minds when we're working on the show. But like the comic book, it's going to be frantic sometimes and very slow sometimes. It's a fun seesaw game to play with the audience in terms of expectations.
Speaking of unexpected turns, I think the biggest creep out moment from the year to date has been the Walker trapped in the well and its gory finish. Do you try to structure the episodes around one specific zombie scene?
It's actually something we don't necessarily focus on. I've always been an advocate -Â even from the earliest issues of the comic - of striving to do issues with no zombies in them. I've been trying to work toward the series being strong enough to not need them. The comic has had many issues without zombies, and I'd like to get an entire trade without any zombies just because it's interesting to me how that can push the limits of the genre, and it drives home the fact that this is a story about the characters. On the show, the zombies are always there, and they naturally work their way into the story. It's never a case of us going, "Oh, we really need a zombie...shit. I guess there's one in the well?" We never plug anything in to just have a zombie in the episode. It just works out that there are one or two.
The well zombie in particular, I'm not sure how we got that on the air. That was absolutely insane. The effects work on that from Greg Nicotero and the people at Stargate Studios was absolutely top notch. I just think it's ridiculous that AMC lets us air stuff like that. I mean, it's great, and I absolutely love it, but that stuff even shocks me. And it drives me. My main goal for the rest of this season and the third season is to find something that they won't let us put on air. [Laughter] I just want to know what our limits are! If we can put something like the well Walker in the show, it makes me go, "What the hell? Are we holding back? What's our limit?" We need to find that limit.
On the subject of limits, Shane's character has been pushed close to the edge of most people's. It's interesting to see that character develop and the love triangle aspect play out. Shane has had to take more on his plate than almost any other character. Has he become such a central part of the show because that story is new to you at the same time as it is for the other writers?
Yeah. He really is the driving force of what's going on just because he is this powder keg that's pushing a lot of boundaries and crossing a lot of lines. For me in particular because I wrote the comic book, to have him thrown into the mix and altering stories drastically even when we are adapting them directly from the book, it gives me no end of excitement to sit down and look at the stories to see how him being in the mix absolutely changes things. The Otis situation is a very good example of that. I'd like to think that maybe something similar to that would have happened if Shane would have survived in the comic book series. That's fun for me to explore. Projecting these things out into the future to other stories from the comic that aren't the farm which Shane could alter, that's really exciting. I think it's a great element in the show, and it keeps the comic book readers engaged because they can't go, "Oh, I know what's going to happen next." Shane changes that. And I also think Jon Bernthal is a great actor, and what he's doing with Shane is absolutely amazing.
The other standout of how the season has developed is that you guys aren't afraid to let some plot threads remain unresolved for a stretch of time. Aside from the Lori/Shane affair, this season has centered on Sophia's disappearance over this opening set of episodes, and Merle is still out there somewhere. What have the discussions been like around that? Do you drop some elements out while saying "We're not sure when we'll get back to this"?
Well, we always know what we're doing and have things planned out. It's not a matter of going, "Ah, we don't know what we're doing here so let's just push this off." One thing that's important to remember is that each episode doesn't cover a week. It's not like Sophia's been gone for months or the weeks it's taken us to get the episodes out there. Some of this takes place over a very short span of time. The poor girl has really only been missing for a few days at this point, though it feels like it's been a while. And there's an interesting question there. They still haven't found this girl. How could she still possibly be alive, and what could have happened to her? Who could she have encountered that would have been able to help her stay alive? And would we drag this on so long without some kind of a cool payoff? What will this all lead to? Those are the questions people should be asking themselves. That's the stuff we were most excited about -Â having this mystery of why they haven't found her yet and why they keep looking for her. That leads to a lot more questions, which keeps people on their toes.
There's a break coming up for new episodes in a few weeks here, but before we hit that point, you've got two episodes with very ominous-sounding names: Â "Secrets" & "Pretty Much Dead Already." [Kirkman Laughs] Does this last run complete a certain amount of story? Did you write the episodes with an eye towards a built-in hiatus?
Yeah. We were aware of the hiatus as we were writing, so we always knew we were going to be taking a break after this seventh episode. So we were able to write to that, and while I can't necessarily say that a lot of plot threads will be tied up by then, there will be a mid-season finale, if you will, to tie some things up and also ramp up towards our eventual mid-season premier and the final six episodes of the season, which I can say are jam-packed with absolutely crazy stuff.
Wrapping up: You've got "Talking Dead" every week. You've been on "The View." Is "Letterman" next? Seriously, what's on tap for Robert Kirkman: Media Personality?
[Laughs] I just go where they tell me! Who knows? I was hoping to host the Oscars this year, but it didn't quite work out.
"The Walking Dead" airs Sunday nights on AMC.