The Walking Dead broke its own ratings benchmark on Sunday in the US to confirm its status as the top drama in America in key demographics.
Among the advertiser-friendly audience of adults aged 18-49, the episode is the highest rating telecast in "basic" cable history. It continues the extraordinary season three series average, which out-performs free-to-air shows such as Modern Family, NCIS, The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men, despite the fact that it only plays on cable channel AMC.
The Walking Dead: Season 3 mid-season trailer
What to expect from the second half of this epic season of The Walking Dead.
But why? For the blunt truth, there is no one better to ask than Norman Reedus, aka Daryl Dixon, who is likely to skewer the answer with a crossbow bolt from 100 paces.
The charming, relaxed and confident individual sipping a soy latte opposite me in an opulent hotel lobby is both literally, and in every conceivable way metaphorically, a world away from the character we last saw in a post-zombie apocalypse arena, challenged by a newly one-eyed Governor to fight his brother Merle to the death.
Daryl famously once sported a necklace of zombie ears (if you want one, there's a YouTube video that shows you how). Reedus, on the other hand, talks graciously about the personalised chopsticks he and his son were presented with in Japan.
Daryl is beloved by fans of The Walking Dead, and Norman loves them, which is lucky, because he couldn't escape them if he wanted to.
''They show up!'' he says, with a smile. ''I filmed one thing, with me and Lauren Cohan, and we're breaking into a school looking for formula for the baby. And I looked over and there were 30 faces peeking out between the trees and the bushes. It's really surreal. You'd sit down and there are 30 more over here. They'll find you. Plus, with Twitter and everything you can't really hide.''
Hiding will only get harder as the number of fans swells by significant numbers. Where most shows expect dips in ratings as seasons progress, with 12.3 million viewers for its 9pm premiere on Sunday, swelling to 16.6 million for the night after two encore showings, The Walking Dead smashed its record audience of 10.9 million viewers which was previously held by the season three premiere on October 14, 2012.
Sometimes that fan love can be confronting. In Australia, Reedus wasn't presented with chopsticks; instead, ''I've got a lot of stuffed animals and drawings - really nice drawings since I've been here''. One of those drawings, which Reedus shared via Twitter, was by a 10-year-old, and displays a detailed knowledge of his character and a show that casts questions over our classification system. This is nothing new for the actor, though: ''You'd be surprised. There's little kids that come dressed as Daryl with the ears around their neck.''
For Reedus, who has had to navigate his own son through the work his father does, it all comes down to parental supervision. ''I would tell him what scary thing's about to happen before it happens and how they did it, and he got into the movie magic of it and less of the shock thing. He became accustomed to scary things and knows that they're not real.''
Thankfully, the show isn't real, yet the team behind it takes it incredibly seriously, much more so than many other projects Reedus has worked on.
''Usually on big-budget films, we can sit around and have a coffee while everyone's working on stuff and we talk about it forever,'' he says. ''On lower-budget films, you're drinking a coffee as you're talking or walking to the set, you put it down and 'Action'. On our show we do all that before we start filming. Once we start filming, its bang, bang, bang, bang - everybody's on point. It's always been the case because everybody likes this job so much.
''We got very lucky, in that everyone's very gracious and respectful of each other. I welcome Steven Yeun saying, 'You should try this,' and I tell all the other actors before we shoot, 'If you have an idea, throw it to me,' and they say the same to me. We bounce off each other. I think that's really rare. I've done films where you work opposite an actor and they're literally looking over your shoulder saying, 'Can I get another coffee?' as you're doing a scene!''
On set and off, The Walking Dead cast are a tight-knit unit.
''We all hang out. We're sort of one big happy family down there,'' Reedus says, but working in a zombie universe has inherent dangers. No character is safe, as demonstrated by the shock death of Sarah Wayne Callies's Lori Grimes in the fifth episode of the current season. It makes for a unique tension on set.
''Every time we get a script, we race through to the end and make sure we're still alive. I think all of us do that. We used to have this joke that if you get the email '1800-ZombieSchool go to this link', then you're pretty much screwed. We all are sweating bullets all the time.''
That email is a joke, but the zombie school isn't.
''There's a little zombie school in Georgia,'' says Reedus, who is clearly full of admiration for the work their undead do. ''I see what some of these day players bring as zombies. Some of them are returning zombies because they're so good. But they really get into it.''
It's not just professional actors who get into it, either. A number of celebrities have pulled strings in order to get a walk-on, or rather shuffle-on, part in the show.
Reedus laughs about the phenomenon. ''Hines! Did you see [The Dark Knight Rises]? You remember the football player that's running across the field [the one who survives, Hines Ward.] He's a huge football player. He was a zombie. We've had politicians. People are always trying to use clout to be zombies.''
While Reedus hasn’t had to play a zombie, at least not yet, the role of Daryl was originally far less, ahem, fleshed out.
“It was originally written as more of a one note character to be honest. It was written very ‘F you, f you, I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you’,” he recalls.
“There were original scripts that had me taking Merle’s drugs and saying some things I didn’t want to say. I explained my reasons and they worked with me and made him a better character. It’s not the writers or me, we work together. I think that’s pretty rare in television.”
That special relationship between the actors and the writing team extends to a regular dialogue. “Every season they allow the actors to come in and generally ask questions and they sort of veer us in certain areas. If I’m like ‘Daryl hates T-Dog’ they keep it in mind when they write stuff. We sort of get a feeling where we’re going.
Is that an admission of guilt given T-Dog was killed earlier this season? “Oh no!” he laughs. “That had nothing to do with me at all! [The hate was] just as a character.”
So what can Reedus tell us about coming episodes? Nothing, of course. Though there's a certain assumption as to Daryl's survival that can be taken from his presence in Australia. ''Or it could mean this is my last hurrah!'' he says.
Another nugget comes from his phone as he acknowledges he is required on set for season four. ''Andy [Lincoln] just now emailed me,'' he laughs. ''We're not supposed to cut our hair 'til we go back, so I'm growing my hair down to my butt. He just told me he cut his hair, so I'm like, 'You owe me $5!' We had a $5 bet who's going to break first, I guess I won.''
And so, it seems, have the fans of Daryl, who would mourn his loss. Don't tell him where you heard that, because Reedus is proud of his ability not to spoil. ''I do [interviews] all the time. You'd be surprised how much I do this. I mean when I'm working I do this. On my weekends, I do this. I'm pretty good at saying things.
''And then I have a whole assassin squad that if you write something that doesn't work, just like laser dots will be all over you.''
The Walking Dead
FX, Tuesday, 8.30pm