How the ‘death’ on last night’s ‘Walking Dead’ is a no-win scenario for the show

Senior Television Writer
10.26.15 138 Comments

AMC

This piece has major spoilers for last night’s “The Walking Dead.” Read no further if you don’t want to know.

Last night, another critic who was still working on his review of the latest “Walking Dead” emailed me to ask if I thought he was nuts for believing that Glenn had somehow survived his ordeal – where, just to remind you, he was surrounded on all sides by dozens upon dozens of zombies, out of bullets, with absolutely nowhere to go. Having written my own review commending the show for having the resolve to actually kill off a core character to drive home the hopelessness of this particular episode – and of the larger world in which the series takes place – I told him he was probably nuts, and wished him luck on finishing the piece.

But then the episode aired, and my friend wasn’t the only one questioning whether it was a fake-out: whether the guts we saw being pulled out weren’t from Glenn, but from Nicholas, whose suicide is what knocked Glenn into the arms of the zombies in the first place. Maybe, they suggested, Nicholas’ body somehow shielded Glenn from the zombies – despite, again, there being dozens (if not hundreds) of them in that alley, and despite walkers on the series previously having no difficulty eating two victims at once – long enough for his guts to spill onto Glenn, thus masking his scent from the other zombies(*), and/or letting him slide under the dumpster to await rescue.

(*) In hindsight, I wonder if Robert Kirkman wishes he could unring the bell that is “Covering yourself in zombie guts makes you immune to zombie detection,” since that would have been a very easy way for Glenn, Michonne, and the others to walk safely back to Alexandria. Nicholas’ guts in this case wouldn’t be particularly useful, though, since he hadn’t turned zombie yet, and would only leave Glenn smelling even more like a tasty meal to the horde.

And when it was time for “Talking Dead,” the after-show deliberately avoided treating Glenn as dead, and even featured this ambiguous statement from “Walking Dead” showrunner Scott Gimple:

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 over at Talking Dead would be talking to you about it. And knowing you”d 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 will say this: In some way we will see Glenn, some version of Glenn, or parts of Glenn again…either in flashback or current story, to help complete the story.

The “Talking Dead” of it illustrated a larger problem with doing these after-shows, which force creators to have to explain the text outside the text, or in this case perhaps give away that a death may not have been what it seemed. (It’s times like this when I’m empathetic towards David Chase’s complete disdain for post-episode, or post-season, interviews with showrunners, even though I do plenty of them myself.)

But the bigger issue is that Gimple and company have set up a no-win scenario, where one of two things seems possible:

1)They’ve killed off a popular, heroic character in a completely unheroic and nihilistic fashion, then teased the audience with the false hope that he’s alive. (Gimple’s statement about “some version of Glenn, or parts of Glenn” could mean that we’ll see Glenn return, like Sophia, in zombie form.)

2)They’ve put Glenn – who, remember, already survived seemingly overwhelming odds (albeit not this overhwelming) last season, also in circumstances involving Nicholas – in a position where there is no plausible way for him to survive, entirely to generate false suspense and false angst among the many viewers who care about Glenn.

There is no good resolution to this at this point. Had they killed him off and then treated it as a death in “Talking Dead,” Glenn fans would have been upset at the brutality and pointlessness of it, but they probably would have come to accept it in the same way they’ve accepted the deaths of so many other significant characters. (Even if the last time the show killed a character as long-lasting as Glenn, it was Andrea at the end of season 3.) Now, if he stays dead, it’s just an added taunt, and if he comes back to life, it sucks all the tension out of the show, because it’s clear that certain characters (basically, the remaining group from the quarry, plus Michonne and probably Maggie and Judith) are invulnerable, and should be viewed as such, while everyone else is there to fill time until they’re eaten while Rick, Glenn, and Carol look on in shock.

It would be a spectacular cop-out, as ridiculous as various cliffhangers that had to be undone when TV shows that were assumed to be canceled got a last-second renewal. Case in point: ’80s cop sitcom “Sledge Hammer!” ended its first season with Sledge accidentally setting off a nuclear bomb that destroyed Los Angeles; when ABC improbably brought the show back, the second season had to be set five years earlier. Glenn surviving this situation would be even stupider than that, and not just because TV’s highest-rated show is in no danger of cancellation anytime soon.

To borrow one of Fienberg’s pet phrases, the game’s not worth the candle here. Either commit to him dying, or don’t go there at all. There is no upside to this approach. If Glenn dies, you’ve antagonized the fans this way. If he doesn’t, you’ve eliminated life and death stakes from a show that’s driven almost entirely by life and death stakes.

What does everybody else think? Are you annoyed at the thought Glenn might make it out that alley alive, or relieved that he might live to fight another day, no matter how ridiculous the explanation?

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