"It was one of the most shocking things I've had to do on screen."

Andrew Lincoln (Rick Grimes) describes an unexpected twist in Sunday's season premiere of The Walking Dead as something the fans—and even his own spouse (Gael Anderson)—did not see coming.

"My wife went to see the first episode," Lincoln tells me, "and she came back and she was thrilled because…"

Spoiler Alert: He's going to say it!

"I laughed. Rick Grimes laughed."

The man speaks the truth, fans! And, jokes aside, there are more than a few moments in Sunday's TWD premiere to make you leap right out of your seat (including a certain nightmare setup where it is more or less raining zombies—walkers falling from the sky). But in what is perhaps a welcome shift to fans and to Lincoln himself, Rick Grimes also will be a little lighter this year. And yes, smile.

Lincoln himself says he's pleased that Rick is once again becoming a straight-forward good guy, and a hero the fans can root for without reserve.

"Rick did have a good reason [for being how he was in season three]," Lincoln tells me. "He lost his wife [Sarah Wayne Callies]. But you see a different Rick this season. That's all I'll say. I mean, he's a man that's renounced leadership. He's stopped the brutality of the world for the sake of his children."

A noble act, no doubt, given that Rick's son Carl (Chandler Riggs), now 13, is on the brink of losing what little humanity he might still possess, as evidenced by his season-three kill of a young Woodbury soldier. (Carl shot him in the head as he was walking toward Carl to give him his gun.) Lincoln reveals that Rick's deep-seeded desire to keep his son on the side of good will be a major storyline arc throughout the entire fourth season.

"I'm spending most of the season trying to keep [Carl] in hand," Lincoln teases. "There's a bit of a single parent, apocalyptic parenting going on this season." Rick is doing his best to shield Carl from the atrocities of their not-so-family-friendly situation, encouraging him to brush the pretty ponies and attend the children's storytime—but that goes about as well as expected.

As for the new "threat" teased to in the season four promo, Lincoln deadpans this "spoiler": "It's hamsters. Ferocious hamsters will be taking over the world. Not as feral as Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), but pretty feral."

It's not hamsters.

And it is terrifying. And based on what we've seen so far of The Walking Dead's season four, it just might be the most intense season yet. And the ratings—which topped a whopping 12 million viewers in April with the season-three premiere (Breaking Bad's finale only got 10.3 million by comparison)—probably won't slow down any time soon.

"It's thrilling," Lincoln says of the show's success. "I mean, it's always amazing to know that you work hard on something, you put everything into it, and you hope that somebody watches it, and this reaction is beyond our wildest dreams. I mean, it's thrilling, but it's also daunting. We have a responsibility to tell the best possible story we can, because the fans deserve it."

And we appreciate!

Stay with us all week as E! Online's The Walking Dead Countdown continues, with new, exclusive cast interviews each and every day! Bookmark this here Walking Dead home page for all the newest content.

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