This one is extra grumbly so I offer it in lieu of a QOTD. If you missed last night’s show and you’ve somehow quarantined yourself from every other “Walking Dead” post on the Internet today, now is the time to stop and turn back. The ultimate spoiler awaits below.
No, I’m kidding. There’s no ultimate spoiler. It would be an ultimate spoiler if Glenn were dead, but Glenn’s not dead. And the reason I know Glenn’s not dead is because these writers don’t have the balls to send him out that way. I watched that scene last night mouth agape, not because it was the best scene “The Walking Dead” has ever done — although it was — but because the show never, ever sends its heroes off this way. The rules for killing off heroes in fiction generally are these: If the hero is to die, he must die nobly. That means either (a) the hero willingly sacrifices himself so that others might live or (b) the hero, his lion spirit conquerable only if the enemy musters great numbers to overwhelm him, goes down fighting, brave and defiant to the end. “The Walking Dead” makes no bones about the fact that it follows these rules even though a world overrun by zombies is the last place they make any sort of sense. In the zompocalypse, most deaths would be suicides, betrayals for gain, ruthless murders in the name of security, and lots and lots of pure dumb bad luck as people inevitably find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, trapped by a horde of the undead with no way out.
Under traditional fictional rules, a core character like Glenn to whom the audience is attached would never be made to die in any of those ways because, being a hero, he’s gifted with supreme resourceful and resilience. He’ll always find a way out when he’s cornered, he’ll never slip up during a fight and succumb to a stray bite. He won’t take his own life because his will to survive is too strong. If he’s going out, he’s going out like a lion, even though that’s totally unrealistic within the (admittedly already very unrealistic) fictional parameters of this show. And the thing is, not only do the writers insist on granting their heroes these suspense-draining powers, they love to tease the audience about it. Remember at Terminus when Glenn was saved in the nick of time before his throat was slit? Remember how he was sick in the prison and everyone wondered if he’d live? Of course he’d live. Of course he wouldn’t die like a sheep bleeding out from his throat into a trough. Of course the moron who ambushed Rick in the RV and shot at him four times managed to miss every time. Of course Michonne managed to scramble up and over the fence after the zombies nearly had her while the poor slob who’d been bitter on the shoulder weakly fell back and was devoured. Rick, Glenn, and Michonne are heroes. There’s no real suspense on “The Walking Dead” when it comes to heroes. Show of hands: Does even a single viewer think supreme badass Rick might get eaten by the zombies descending on his RV in last night’s “cliffhanger”?
The traditional rules about fictional heroes have always applied on “The Walking Dead” … until last night. Glenn made a catastrophic error in judgment by trusting Nicholas to lead him safely past the zombies — an unusual misstep for a hero, whose own leadership instinct is supposed to be unerring. Then they got cornered in an alley, at which point Glenn would surely find a window or a door or a fire escape for the two of them to escape in the nick of time — except he didn’t. The two of them clambered up lamely on top of the dumpster (why not inside the dumpster?) and, for the first time in ages, “The Walking Dead” really was frightening. That was the zombie nightmare distilled to one genius shot, two guys on a tiny island with no hope of rescue, alive for the moment but unable to escape being eaten alive at any second. And then Nicholas did a smart thing: He turned the gun on himself, something that the slob on the fence and the girl who hurt her leg earlier in the episode before being devoured were too idiotic to do. You would think life in the zombie apocalypse would have a, shall we say, rich culture of euthanasia, either by one’s own hand or by the hand of others, in the name of avoiding the agony of being torn to shreds. If you find yourself with no way out, as is wont to happen in zombified America, the right move obviously is to eat a bullet and spare yourself a terrible end. Yet no one does this. Michonne could have easily mercy-killed that guy with the shoulder bite by stabbing him through the fence but instead she left him to be ripped apart. Why?
Anyway. Nicholas finally does the wise thing. And when he does, he falls, knocking Glenn off the dumpster with him. And what we get then is … Glenn screaming, in slow motion, as poignant music plays, while the zombie mob starts tearing out entrails in a feeding frenzy. Watching that scene, the thought never entered my mind that we were watching anything other than Glenn’s gruesome death. It was horrific, it was shocking, it was unfair to the character, and it was brilliant. It was the ultimate mindfark. After five years of following the traditional rules for fictional heroes, TWD had suddenly decided that it was a real zombie show after all. A character we loved died miserably for no better reason than that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong guy. It was senseless, just like nearly every death in the zombie apocalypse really would be. And it hurt a lot more for that reason. If your goal as a writer in killing off a character is to make the audience feel the loss deeply, sending out Glenn this way was ingenious. The one thing missing in traditionally heroic deaths is the sense of unfairness; the hero’s sacrifice is always valuable to some larger goal. Glenn’s death was pointless, lonely, and so terrible that it seemed there’d be nothing left of him to find even if Rick and the gang went out looking for him. They’d be left to wonder forever. It was vividly real, an impressive achievement for pulp horror. The show’s never had a better moment.
So, of course, it’s all a big lie.
The thing is—again, potential spoiler alert—[actor Stephen] Yeun has been seen on set, in costume, multiple times since [last night’s episode] wrapped, according to eagle-eyed fans in Atlanta who regularly report cast sightings to fan group The Spoiling Dead. In fact, he was spotted on set just last week. Sure, he could be filming potential flashbacks—though a character who has yet to be introduced was reportedly seen with Glenn, complicating that theory.
Tellingly, Yeun wasn’t a guest on “The Talking Dead” last night even though cast members whose characters have died typically appear on that show after their “death episode” airs. Glenn also wasn’t mentioned in the “In Memoriam” segment of “Talking Dead.” Meanwhile:
But showrunner Scott M. Gimple foreshadowed Glenn’s return in a note he wrote that was shared on aftershow “Talking Dead” by host Chris Hardwick:
“Dear fans of ‘The Walking Dead,’ this is a hard story to tell and when we were planning to tell it, we knew our friends at ‘The Talking Dead’ would be talking to you about it. And knowing you’d all be talking and feeling and commiserating, I knew we should say something about it, lest our silence say something we didn’t mean to say or not say. So I’ll say this: In some way, we will see Glenn, some version of Glenn, or parts of Glenn again, either in flashback or in the current story, to help complete the story.”
They’re not sending Glenn out this way. Those weren’t his entrails being torn out, they were Nicholas’s. Glenn is underneath him, somehow “protected” even though the zombies are in a feeding frenzy and would be biting and tearing at everything in front of them. Imagine you and a friend were being assaulted by a mob. Do you think you would be “protected” if your friend momentarily landed on top of you as the thugs punched and kicked ruthlessly? The idea of it is moronic, but it looks like that’s where we’re headed. Glenn’s probably going to slide out from under Nicholas and under the dumpster and then, deus ex machina, Daryl’s going to ride by on his bike and distract the zombie horde. Or, per another theory that’s going around, maybe Nicholas’s blood is masking the scent of Glenn’s flesh and making him “smell dead,” just as other characters have previously covered themselves with rotting guts to walk among the zombies undetected. In other words, the zombies may think Glenn’s a zombie too. How that would work when Nicholas has only been dead for five seconds and his blood is fresh, I have no idea. The point of covering yourself in rotted guts, I thought, was that they were rotted. But it doesn’t really matter how he gets out, does it? Maybe Glenn will reach for his utility belt and produce some handy zombie-repellent bat-spray. Or maybe he’ll wake up in the shower with Bobby Ewing and it’ll all have been a dream. Or maybe Philip Klein’s prediction is correct:
— Philip Klein (@philipaklein) October 26, 2015
Heroes gotta hero, right?
Tell me this. If they were going to create a cliffhanger for Glenn, why not signal that somewhere in the episode itself? There’s nothing about the “death scene” apart from the (ambiguous in retrospect) framing of the shot where the entrails are torn out, where you can’t tell for absolute certain that it’s Glenn’s body, that suggests he might have survived. The writers left the task of dropping hints about his possible survival to “The Talking Dead.” Lenika Cruz, who reviews the show for the Atlantic and who was as blindsided by the “Glenn’s alive!” nonsense as I was, put it this way: “AMC retroactively turned the episode into a cliffhanger, which will play badly whether Glenn is alive or not: If he’s indeed dead, many fans got their hopes up for nothing. If he’s alive, ‘Thank You’ will go from being a beautiful, tragic farewell to a bait and switch.” I wouldn’t even call it a cliffhanger. A cliffhanger leaves the hero’s fate in doubt by having him hang off of a cliff. The equivalent of Glenn’s predicament here is a guy who’s already fallen off a thousand-foot cliff and is five feet from hitting the ground — only to somehow be rescued. It’s not a cliffhanger so much as a pure psych-out. Why bother?