*Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for “The Walking Dead,” “24” and “Game of Thrones.”*
Oct. 25, 2015
Glenn (Steve Yeun, “The Legend of Korra”) stands on top of a dumpster as a hoard of zombies surround him and his terrified companion Nicholas (Michael Traynor, “Rectify”). Glenn grabs the man and tries to calm him down. The two look at each other; Nicholas whispers, “Thank you,” raises his gun and shoots himself. His flailing body falls into the sea of walkers, taking Glenn with him. Glenn lands on the ground and the monsters converge, ripping and tearing at flesh. Dramatic music crescendos while the diegetic audio fades out. Glenn cries out, covered in blood as the camera pulls away.
Fans of “The Walking Dead” were shocked to see the character go. Glenn, introduced in the first season of the AMC mega-hit, had gone from a shy delivery boy into a seasoned warrior and loving husband to Maggie (Lauren Cohan, “Chuck”), all while becoming a fan-favorite. Despite seeing the worst the world had to offer, Glenn still had hope when he spared Nicholas, even after the man tried to kill him. But it was all for naught, as Glenn was claimed by the bleakly brutal world of “The Walking Dead” and viewers contemplated a series without one of their favorite characters.
From the series’ perspective, the death held even more weight. Not since Andrea’s death at the end of season three had a character introduced in the show’s inaugural season been killed off — a fact made even worse considering the playful callback Glenn made to his first encounter with Rick over the radio in the same episode. Glenn’s death was a monumental move for the show.
Or was it?
In a TV environment where death is rampant, many viewers abide by the mantra, “Not until I see the body,” to confirm a character’s death, something “The Walking Dead” would have a hard time proving since Glenn was apparently devoured. But further seeds of doubt were planted, including photos of Yeun on set next to new characters and showrunner executive producer Scott Gimple’s (“Chase”) own vague statement. To say the least, some people were suspicious.
Nov. 22, 2015
After weeks of speculation, these suspicions were confirmed during the episode “Heads Up,” as Glenn slipped out from underneath Nicholas’s dead body and hid under the dumpster until the hoard of zombies left. In spite of seemingly impossible odds, Glenn was alive as he began his trek back to Alexandria.
However, among the initial sighs of relief were the groans of dissent. For some, “The Walking Dead” had cheated its own rules. Somehow, the ruthless reality of the show had skipped over Glenn and allowed him to survive, and some people couldn’t buy it.
However, “The Walking Dead” has had characters work their way out of impossible situations before. In season four, Tyreese (Chad Coleman, “The Wire”) fought his way out of a surrounding hoard of zombies with nothing more than a hammer. Daryl (Norman Reedus, “The Boondock Saints”) did much the same with some embalming tools. Was Glenn’s sneaky survival just the straw that broke the camel’s back for suspension of disbelief?
Perhaps a tired audience is the answer, but “The Walking Dead” committed a bigger crime than just having a character emerge from imminent death; it has done that before and will do it again. The bigger infraction was its attempt to trick the audience and its subsequent emotional manipulation.
Glenn went through a death scene in all intents and purposes. That’s how “The Walking Dead” presented it; from Glenn in anguish to the sorrowful music, it was a scene meant to gauge a specific emotional response from an invested audience. However, one vital element was missing — Glenn didn’t die. Instead, the show drew out his fate for four weeks as characters mourned his potential death. One particular scene had Maggie tell fellow survivor Aaron (Ross Marquand, “Impress Me”) about her pregnancy with Glenn’s child and her husband’s death: “I don’t get to know what will happen. I don’t get to know why it happened.” It’s an effective scene, but it’s built on weak foundations that amount to a fake out.
Glenn’s resurrection wasn’t a reconsideration, like the seventh season return of Tony Almeida on “24” after his fifth season “death,” or ambiguous departure (predicated by source material, like the Hound’s fate in “Game of Thrones”). The move was a calculated deception meant to achieve all the emotional storytelling from a character’s death but with none of the consequences. From the “death scene” to episodes of subsequent remembrance, Scott Gimple and his writers ran the gamut of grief. But, at the end of the day “The Walking Dead” still has Glenn and now many of those pivotal scenes ring hollow.
Following Glenn’s “death,” Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “On ‘The Walking Dead,’ however, death is part of the immersive experience. The writers make regular sacrifices of beloved characters, in part to keep its monsters scary but also to stay true to its conceit: Just as our ancestors were, and people around the world are, continually struck down by natural predators, invading armies, oppressive governments and disease so are those living in the world of ‘The Walking Dead.’ ”
“The Walking Dead” can’t be afraid to kill off longtime favorites or it risks betraying the inherent nature that made it so popular in the first place. A cast of core characters is needed for consistent investment and depth, but no one should be invincible.
“The Walking Dead” presents a brutally honest universe, where a character can die at any moment; it does a disservice to itself when it is not truthful with its audience.
Such is the case with Glenn’s near death and survival, a storytelling maneuver that pulled the wool over many viewers’ eyes in hopes of delivering unearned emotional payoff.
And so, the series enters another critical juncture as it moves forward. Will this kind of storytelling become common as the main cast survives and a sea of redshirts falls to the encroaching zombies? Time will tell. Perhaps “The Walking Dead” has a harsh surprise in store for its characters and audience, especially considering the upcoming introduction of Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the infamous comic character, Negan, a violent man with a penchant for swinging a baseball bat named “Lucille.”
But for now, “The Walking Dead” has to live with the choice it has made. Yes, the show still has Glenn, but at what cost?