Spoilers for tonight's “The Walking Dead” coming up just as soon as there are people in my proximity with open toed shoes…
Yup. They screwed it up. Even more than I imagined they could at first.
The morning after “Thank You” aired – and after Scott Gimple's weird statement to “Talking Dead” (more on that in a bit) – I wrote that the series had inadvertently created a no-win scenario, by turning what had seemed to be Glenn's certain death into something more ambiguous after the fact. As a result, one of two things was going to happen:
1)Fans upset that one of their favorite characters had suffered such a meaningless death would be given false hope, then made even angrier because Glenn was really dead; or
2)Glenn's survival, no matter the mechanism, would not only render him (and Rick, Carol, and other core characters) invulnerable going forward, but obliterate the life-and-death stakes that fuel the entire show.
The creative team somehow chose elements of both options.
First they spent the next three episodes avoiding showing us what happened to Glenn (and with only one of those three even discussing Glenn's fate at all), which only drew out this whole concept – and, worse, gave the fans an opportunity to crowdsource the solution. If “Talking Dead” didn't exist – and didn't have a well-established ritual for what happens when characters die, which that night's episode then avoided – and if the spoiler industrial complex hadn't additionally conditioned fans to expect showrunner and actor interviews after big deaths, Gimple could have simply gone radio silent for a few weeks, which might have stirred up some debate among fans about whether Glenn was alive or dead, but wouldn't have put so many of them on the alive scent. What may have seemed clever in the planning stage instead turned into second cousin to the Edward James Olmos season of “Dexter,” where the audience figured out the twist long before the producers expected them to, but well after it was too late to change anything about upcoming episodes.
As to that solution that many of you guessed, and that the show used? Ridiculous. It requires that A)Nicholas' skinny little body was somehow able to block every zombie from getting a tooth or hand on Glenn, B)Glenn was able to squeeze under the dumpster, staying just out of reach of every zombie trying to claw at him, and, most maddeningly, C)The zombie herd – in a violation of every zombie rule the show has worked so hard to establish – just wanders away over time, despite there being no outside stimulus we're aware of(*), despite Glenn being fresh meat they can smell very close by, and despite the rest of this episode reminding us that zombies will stand around forever if they know they're near meat, and nothing distracts them
(*) I suppose it's possible that Enid did something to lure them away, and a few of them do look like their attention has been drawn elsewhere, but if so, the show doesn't explain what it is, nor why they'd only walk away a few at a time over a long stretch, and it doesn't come up in any of Glenn and Enid's conversations later. If it was meant to be Enid, they needed to make that much much clearer. It still wouldn't have solved the problem of how Glenn remained entirely untouched before he got under the dumpster, but it at least would have meant the ultimate solution was playing fair with the zombie rules.
They didn't treat it as a hallucination Nicholas had as he prepared to shoot himself, and you can wave away certain aspects of Glenn's survival if you hold your nose and try really hard, but the whole thing left me feeling much more like Annie Wilkes in “Misery” than I prefer to.
What, exactly, was the point of all this? If you want to leave the audience and/or Maggie worried about Glenn's fate, that's fine, even if it's a trope the show has exploited too often in the past (including just last season with Glenn and Nicholas). But when you put him in a circumstance where death seems all but certain – when you not only have him completely surrounded with no hope of escape, but deliberately frame the shot so that it looks (unless you're studying it like the Zapruder film after, as many “TWD” fans did) like Glenn is screaming in pain as his insides are being torn out and eaten – only to have him literally wiggle out of death under silly circumstances, and you wait a month before that dumb payoff, then you're just jerking around the audience because you can, and because you don't much care about the show's internal credibility, about whether the audience trusts you going forward, and about whether they'll believe you the next time you endanger any of the central cast.
In one interview, Gimple compared this situation to Carol's apparent death in the prison in season 3, saying that “people went through that story and seemed like they enjoyed it.” Several problems there. First, that storyline didn't present Carol as surrounded and facing certain death; we see T-Dog sacrifice himself so she can escape their current predicament, and then later in the episode, Daryl finds her head scarf near a blood smear and assumes the worst. Her survival wasn't a cheat; if anything, many fans seemed puzzled that Daryl and company made a spot for her in their cemetery in the next episode based on such minimal evidence of her death (the only people who seemed to think she was dead were on the show), and she turned up alive an episode after that. Second, the fact that the show got away with that death fake-out – and then another with Judith (where, again, we didn't see her being eaten by zombies, but had a character find her empty, blood-stained car seat) – should suggest that the gimmick had outlived its usefulness and should be retired before the creative team pressed their luck with it.
And if the show had deployed the Carol approach – say, ending that scene in “Thank You” with Nicholas and Glenn standing atop the dumpster, leaving their fates up in the air for a few weeks, then returning to show (a better version of) how Glenn survived but Nicholas did not – it might have still been overusing that device, but at least it wouldn't have felt like the show outright messing with its viewers for the sake of false suspense.
The whole thing is just so dumb, and so unnecessary, that it made it very difficult to care about anything happening later in “Heads Up” – at least until Spencer went on his absurd adventure with a grappling hook, which was like the Glenn situation in miniature: not properly set up for him to die in satisfying fashion (Spencer hadn't even appeared in the episode to that point), and not staged convincingly enough for him to survive like he did. Everything was thrown together in sloppy fashion, like the creative team knew the end result they wanted, but couldn't figure out the right way to get there, or how their version would play.
And because the show has at least temporarily bestowed immortality on Glenn and the other big guns, the fact that the zombie crush was able to knock the church into the fence feels like a much less potent cliffhanger than it ordinarily would. Maybe a bunch of additional Alexandrians will die, or even some of the fringier members of the group (if Rosita dies, at least she got to play drill instructor first), and maybe the town gets destroyed altogether, but the danger no longer feels particularly real. Glenn will move on, Rick will move on, Carl, Maggie, etc., and Daryl will pull up and crack a one-liner about all the crazy stuff he missed.
Obviously, the whole Anyone Can Die ethos isn't entirely true. We know Rick's not likely to die, just as there are certain characters on “Game of Thrones” who are more killable than others. (If Dany dies before she's made it back to Westeros, that's awful storytelling.) But a show as death-obsessed as this one has to be able to create the illusion that the stakes are real, that the people whom the creative team and/or the audience have decided matter can actually fall without warning. And this nonsense with Glenn turns the show into the Masked Magician, smugly telling you not to believe in any of the tricks anymore.
I'd resigned myself to Glenn's survival well before I watched “Heads Up.” But seeing the way it played out – even though it was more or less in line with many of your guesses – only made me annoyed all over again, and wondering once more why anybody thought this was a good idea.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org