I’ll be honest: sometimes I miss watching The Walking Dead. Like that ex you just can’t shake, every now and then I’ll think about the good times and wonder if I shouldn’t give the show another try. Then I remember what The Walking Dead did to Glenn and I remember that life is finite and I don’t have to watch a joyless zombie slog when I live in the era of Peak TV™.
Now, almost a year after his character’s fate was revealed in the Season 7 premiere of the show, Steven Yeun is opening up about what it was like to be killed off The Walking Dead. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Yeun tried to put into words how Glenn’s death shook The Walking Dead community to its core:
“I’ll be honest with you and put a full disclaimer here: I might not be objective, but I truly feel like people didn’t know what to do with Glenn. They liked him, they had no problems with him, and people enjoyed him. But they didn’t acknowledge the connection people had with the character until he was gone. I look at what happened and I think, That wasn’t any more gory than what we’ve done before, per se. No one got their face ripped in half! People got their guts smashed out and their heads caved in. But this one felt gratuitous because one, it kept going, and two, I think they took away someone that I didn’t realize I had made such a connection with until they took him away.”
The wording is vague enough that I’m not sure “people” stands for the audience or the network, but either would work. Later in the interview — the whole thing is worth a read — Yeun talks about the discrepancy between how many people claimed Glenn was their favorite character vs. the cold hard data that is merchandising numbers. Those numbers in turn led the network to give Glenn a more supporting role in the show. It was like neither the audience nor AMC could figure out what to do with a genuinely decent human being who was not warped into a sociopathic monster by the rise of the undead.
But I’d argue that was his appeal. Glenn was, in a way, a stand-in for the audience. We might hope in an apocalyptic situation we’d turn into a badass like Rick, Carol, or Michonne. We might fear we’d be as useless as any of the Red Shirts™ that have died over the years. But Glenn was humanity’s better nature. If more people remained steadfastly human in the wake of the apocalypse, the world would be better for it. But that would make for boring television, so suddenly it becomes “What do we do with Glenn, humanity’s last decent person?” The answer AMC arrived at was “Contort the show into a pretzel to fit it into the narrative of the comic despite splitting from the source material years ago.” But when you kill the audience stand-in, things are going to end poorly.
To put it another way: Glenn was the puppy of The Group. He just wanted everyone to be happy. He wanted to protect his loved ones and build a community and find the silver lining in every situation. He wanted to help everyone and always thought the best of people. The Walking Dead killed the puppy, which is literally the one thing you don’t do. John Wick is an entire movie about why you don’t do that. Audiences will watch the slaughter of 100 men and women, but kill the puppy? What kind of monster are you?