In an apocalypse of the undead, hope can be a harsh mistress.
The beleaguered survivors of AMC's "The Walking Dead" have confronted that cruel lesson time and again in the pulse-pounding drama that has become one of TV's hottest shows. Just when it appears Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his comrades-in-arms have finally shielded themselves from the latest mortal threat — flesh-eating "walkers," malevolent humans or some combination thereof — a more virulent one arises.
Not surprisingly, Sunday's fifth-season premiere finds the survivors once again in dire circumstances — this time in a remote outpost called "Terminus." Lured by promises of "sanctuary," the band is imprisoned in a railway box car surrounded by a butcherous tribe of cannibals.
But even waist-deep in a swamp of blood, gore and moral depravity, don't get the wrong idea about the show, insists its key creative team. Contrary to any surface bleak impressions it may register, the show actually is anchored in faith, trust and family.
"The cycle is hopeful — we never see these characters give up," said show runner and executive producer Scott M. Gimple. "That this group hasn't become cynical with all they have faced is true affirmation as opposed to nihilism."
Added Danai Gurira, who plays the dreadlocked, katana sword-wielding warrior Michonne: "I had a friend tell me this show is about death. But that's just wrong. These people have chosen to live."
"The Walking Dead" and its zombie minions are alive and well indeed. The show successfully climbed over a pile of macho cop procedurals and dark-themed dramas to become TV's top-rated drama for a second consecutive year in the advertiser-coveted 18- to 49-year-old demographic. The show averaged more than 13 million viewers last year, and its season-ender set a record for the series finale as about 15.7 million watched the shoot-out at Terminus.
Surprising perhaps only in its timing, AMC on Tuesday renewed the series, based on the comic book series from executive producer Robert Kirkman, for a sixth season. Meanwhile, the network seems poised to launch a spinoff zombie series and has already ordered a pilot, slated to begin production this year.
Its popularity with viewers, however, has yet to translate into any nominations in the major categories from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Unlike many programs that ignore character development, "The Walking Dead" is widely celebrated by critics for its rich, nuanced and complex take on the human condition. Times TV critic Mary McNamara has repeatedly called the program's omission from Emmy's best drama category "absurd."
Out on location
Under a blazing hot Southern sun, the "Walking Dead" company set up on a recent day in a quiet tree-lined area of Senoia, a small town about an hour's drive south of Atlanta. Freight trains periodically roared by on a nearby track as technicians made preparations to film a revelatory exchange between Rick and Michonne — for a show that zealously guards its plot turns, that's about all that can be said without spoiling what's ahead.
Despite the heat, cast and crew did not seem to be sweating the rising temperatures. Crew members deposited fistfuls of leaves along a slightly damp road, enhancing a feeling of isolation and desertion.
Lincoln, Gurira and Chandler Riggs, who plays Rick's teen son, Carl, were going over their lines while Michael Cudlitz, one of the newer members of the ensemble, finished off a bottle of water. Nearby, Norman Reedus, the crossbow-firing survivalist who has become the show's sex symbol, was standing atop a broken-down recreational vehicle, surveying the forest surrounding him.
The scene was one of the first in a long day of shooting that would stretch into the late afternoon. Later, Lincoln found himself in a delicate scene involving his on-screen daughter, Judith, portrayed by twin infant girls. Because of crying and other behavior common to babies, he and the crew had to be patient.
But finally when Lincoln and one of the twins made a clear on-camera connection during one take, the cast and crew erupted in quiet celebration.
At day's end, Lincoln moved quickly to his trailer at the "Walking Dead" command post. As he marched, screams erupted from fans a small distance away — many of them had kept vigil all day hoping for a glimpse of their favorite actors.
"I am so excited about what's to come — it's like every episode this season keeps raising the bar," the 41-year-old British actor said as he took off his boots.
"There's a lot of human-on-human psychological drama," he added. "There has to be all the action stuff, but if you don't have an emotional heart to the story, there is no story."
In terms of emotion, Lincoln's Rick went through his own harrowing trajectory last season. His attempts to abdicate his role as leader could not be sustained in the life-and-death world of the apocalypse. One of last season's most defining moments for Rick came when he fought back against a thug who had threatened his son, ripping the attacker's throat out with his teeth — not unlike a zombie.
"There's less indecision in Rick," Lincoln said. "As far as his internal struggle about what is right and wrong, that struggle is over."
And to hammer away again at the positive, Gimple pointed out a host of key developments from the end of last season: Glenn (Steven Yeun) was reunited with his wife, Maggie (Lauren Cohan), and Rick's infant daughter survived the attack. Adversaries within the group forgave much and bonded as well.
"It has to be about hope," executive producer Gale Anne Hurd said: "These people believe they can find and create something new from the ashes. What happens to them may get discouraging, but that doesn't stop them."
This season the core ensemble grows with several new cast members, including Tyler James Williams ("Everyone Loves Chris") and Seth Gilliam ("The Wire"). Introduced in the later episodes last season were figures who will also become key parts of the story. Chief among them are Cudlitz, whose gruff Ford character has a single-minded mission to get his colleague, apparent genius Eugene Porter (Josh McDermitt), to Washington, D.C., where the mullet-haired scientist claims there is a way to stop the plague.
Inside and outside Terminus this season, the survivors will become more engaged in the battle to save themselves while dealing with friction, both personal and collective.
"We're going to see if they can come back from the things they've done," Gimple said. "Can they still be the same people at the end of the day? They've come a long way on faith, and they're not the most trusting people in the world."
But as always, the possibility of hope will be a prime motivator.
"It's like when you're drowning after a shipwreck," Cudlitz said. "There's always another piece of debris to grab on to. Some are bigger and they float longer, and some are smaller. But there's always something to hang on to."