There are no gender stereotypes when it comes to killing zombies.
But deep into The Walking Dead's third season (AMC, Sunday, 9 ET/PT), two things are clear: The men of zombie-overrun post-apocalyptic America are borderline crazy and in desperate need of a reality check; and the women are focused, fearless and walking tall.
"You're absolutely right. It is a more emotional season for the men. And that's kind of nice," says Laurie Holden, who plays Andrea, a character who has been part of the series since Season 1. This season, Andrea provides the bridge that links the Governor-run town of Woodbury with the band of survivors holed up in a nearby prison. "I've been there since the beginning," says Holden, "and just to see it all balance out just kind of shows we're all human regardless of gender."
It's not easy for anyone to live in a world filled with aimlessly wandering, always-hungry "walkers," but The Walking Dead's men are seriously troubled this season.
- Haunted by hallucinations, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) has one foot in crazy town as he struggles to deal with the death of his wife, Lori.
- Following the "death" of his zombie daughter, Penny, the Governor (David Morrissey) has lost all sense of reality, and his sole purpose in life is revenge.
- Beaten to a pulp by Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker), Glenn (Steven Yeun) resents Rick's allowing Merle to rejoin the group living in the prison and is reeling from the near-rape of his girlfriend, Maggie, by the Governor.
- Reliably strong Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), Rick's right-hand man, finds himself torn between his family in the prison and his unhinged brother, Merle.
"There's a little bit of role reversal going on," says Melissa McBride, whose Carol, introduced in Season 1 as an abused and helpless wife, has evolved into a woman filled with confidence and determination.
Not that it's been easy for the women. Andrea and Carol both have been through hell: Andrea lost her sister, Amy, to the zombies in Season 1; Carol lost her daughter, Sophia, in Season 2.
"I think that both of our characters have survived and come out the other side stronger because of it," says Holden, whose character was an attorney in the pre-zombie world. "I'm very pleased with the evolution of these women becoming all the facets of what every human being has the potential to become, whether they go seeking it and making it happen, or the world forces it. The women are becoming what they need to be to survive."
That means they've evolved into no-nonsense killers as stalwart as the men they fight alongside. They can shoot, stab, slice or chop up a zombie with strength and proficiency.
Andrea, says Holden, took her cue from the Dead's alpha males, "realizing these men are strong. They have skill sets. They're survivors. Andrea wants to be like that."
And she relishes Andrea's zombie kills. "Hands down, my absolute favorite zombie kill was in Season 2 in the RV," she says, referring to a scene in which Andrea, trapped in a bathroom with a zombie breaking down the door, annihilates it with a screwdriver. "I dislocated four ribs killing that zombie," Holden says about the effort she put into playing that scene. "Everything in my body went into that kill. It was a very emotional and physical day, and I loved every minute of it."
Carol, says McBride, will play out this season more protective of the prison family. "She knows what it's like to have the life sucked out of you by bullies," says McBride. "There's nobody to shut her down right now. She has little left to lose and everything to fight for."
The show's other leading women are equally tough. This season, the mysterious Michonne (Danai Gurira), who we met already draped in her confident, warrior mantle last fall, stole the show this season with a gritty, bloody, knockdown fight with the Governor. Maggie (Lauren Cohan), once a simple farm girl, stands up to the Governor to protect Glenn. Her sister Beth's (Emily Kinney) inner peace works to keep the prison family united in their purpose.
Even deceased female characters (Sarah Wayne Callies as Lori Grimes) have left their mark. "One thing that Lori always saw in her son Carl (Chandler Riggs)," says executive producer Gale Anne Hurd, "was the hope for the future. She tried her best to protect him, and in the end, she realized she needed not only to empower him but remind him to maintain his humanity, innocence and sweetness." Lori also left a legacy to the human race: She died giving birth to Judith, the first post-apocalyptic baby.
"The actresses who are playing these characters are fabulous, and the characters are strong and complex," Holden says. "I just feel like it's an accurate portrayal of women in many ways, because we are complicated. We're strong but we're vulnerable, and just when you underestimate us, we can be leaders."
As Season 3 wraps up with the March 31 episode, The Walking Dead's women will remain strong, Hurd says. "I think you'll see them all carry on in the inevitable trajectory. I think you'll find that they all have to make very difficult choices. Some will end well, and some won't."