Jaw-dropping confessions. Throat-slashing cannibals. Murderous adversaries. And, of course, legions of flesh-munching zombies.
The weary band of survivors in AMC's top-rated "The Walking Dead" endured all that and more during the first half of its fifth season, which concluded in November with a particularly wrenching blow — the killing of longtime survivor Beth Greene (Emily Kinney) just moments before a would-be reunion with her older sister, Maggie (Lauren Cohan).
For the Record
Feb. 10, 11 a.m.: An article in the Feb. 8 Calendar section about "The Walking Dead" gave executive producer Scott Gimple's middle initial as A. His middle initial is M.
Fans still reeling from the surprising death may think that producers will let the dust settle when the series returns Sunday and establish at least some relative normalcy before again ratcheting up the tension of the zombie apocalypse.
They should think again.
The second-half launch centers on another harrowing turn that may well have viewers squirming and debating. And it's just the beginning of what two of the show's key forces — star Andrew Lincoln and executive producer Scott A. Gimple — contend will be the most gut-wrenching installments yet.
"This season is the most nerve-racking that we've shot since the first season," said Lincoln, who plays Sheriff Rick Grimes, the leader of the troupe of survivors, in a recent visit with Gimple to the show's high-rise offices on Sunset Boulevard.
Gimple promised more late-in-the-season shake-ups as well.
Added Gimple, speaking slowly and deliberately so as not to reveal any spoilers: "Things just … change."
The show runner acknowledged that the opening moments of the fifth season — particularly a gruesome scene in which several captives' throats were cut by cannibals — were horrifying. That intensity may be matched in upcoming episodes where the human threat may exceed the one from mindless zombies.
"We've all been very nervous about it," Gimple said. "There are some really rough things that happen in this back half, some incredibly rough things. But I feel that our people are the scariest."
Said Lincoln: "That's been one of the most exciting things, realizing that perhaps we're the poison."
It's all part of the plan for the remainder of the season, added the actor.
"There's a reset happening — a lot of the characters reinvent themselves within very quick moments," Lincoln said. "It's very unnerving, but it's also very thrilling because it feels like a new show. It feels like we're walking into a new chapter."
When "The Walking Dead" kicked off its fifth season in October, it attracted its largest audience ever — 17.3 million viewers. Its widespread popularity, which is spurred by the comic books on which the series is based, only continues to grow. A pilot for a possible spinoff series, which will be set in Los Angeles, is expected to start production soon.
Gimple's and Lincoln's enthusiasm about the immediate future of "The Walking Dead" and their clear affection for each other was on display as they bantered in a conference room. At one point, Lincoln offered to take Gimple to his tailor in London — if "you don't kill me off this season."
"What if I did kill you off?" Gimple replied. "Will you still take me?"
Lincoln would lose a lot if the zombies, or human survivors, did actually overtake him in the series.
"It's personally been the single greatest job of my career," said Lincoln, whose previous credits include "Love Actually." "To have lived with this character for five years and still have these great arcs written for him is a great honor. It's very difficult to put into words how extraordinary my life has become because of this thing. It's everything to me, everything to my family. It's more than a job. It's a journey."
He said he is still uncovering complex layers of his character: "Rick feels like a man who has truly let go of all of his emotional anchors, his memories of what happened before the apocalypse. He's made peace with all of that and as a result is a very formidable leader. But the more you untether him, the more terrifying he becomes."
Between bouts of teasing, Lincoln and Gimple talked about the tremendous responsibility they feel in working on the series.
"I feel the pressure that comes from this show, I can see how dedicated everyone is and how hard they are working," Gimple said. "Yes, the fans are a big part of it. But at the end of the day, it's about not letting down this production for everyone on our staff and crew who just give everything to the show. I live in constant fear of letting them down. The show is my 'Great Santini' — without the abuse."
'The Walking Dead'
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language and violence)