Spoilers — big, huge, hairy spoilers — for “The Walking Dead’s” “Thank You.”
It seemed as unambiguous as a death could get: Glenn Rhee tumbled off a Dumpster and was buried under a mound of walkers, screaming as his guts were ripped from his chest and blood gushed in waves. Arbitrary ends are hardly unknown to “The Walking Dead,” but this one was particularly shocking, not just brutal but senseless. Glenn died not a hero, but the victim of his own misplaced trust in Nicholas, who not only killed himself when they two were cornered but literally took Glenn down with him. It was nasty and unfair, and that was what made it genuinely shocking.
Except the evidence quickly mounted that it wasn’t as it seemed. What started as an exercise in fan denial quickly became a growing heap of evidence, some from within the show, some without, that Glenn might have escaped after all. Steven Yuen did not make the by-now traditional post-episode appearance on “The Talking Dead,” and Glenn made only a tentative appearance in the “In Memoriam” montage. Showrunner Scott M. Gimple issued a statement that only muddied the waters:
“Dear fans of ‘The Walking Dead’, this is a hard story to tell and when we were planning to tell 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.”
“This is a hard story to tell” makes little sense if Glenn is not dead — what’s hard about not killing a fan-favorite character? But watching the critical scene again, it seems like the walkers are pulling intestines from the top of his chest rather than his stomach, which would only make anatomical sense if, as fans quickly surmised, they aren’t his intestines. (Look very closely, and both characters are wearing gray T-shirts, allowing us to mistake one body for the other.) The going theory is that Nicholas’ body fell on top of Glenn’s, and that Glenn will use the stink of his cowardly comrade’s offal to somehow sneak through the horde and off to freedom.
Even as someone who has little faith in “The Walking Dead’s” integrity, I desperately hope it’s not true, as I brace myself for what now seems the likelihood that it is. There’s narrative misdirection, and there’s straight-up cheating; this would be the latter. “The Walking Dead’s” entire philosophy is based on the idea that anyone could die at any moment, and while it seems highly unlikely that Rick, Carol, or Daryl will be reduced to zombie chow, the more characters reside inside that presumed narrative no-go zone, the less the show’s implicit promise that no one is safe means. Characters have fought their way out against hopeless odds before, but never have the show’s writers gone to such great lengths to fake their audience out (if that’s indeed what they’ve done). Gimple’s mealy-mouthed statement just makes matters worse. At least “Game of Thrones'” showrunners have the audacity to lie through their teeth about Jon Snow.
As Alan Sepinwall argues at HitFix, “The Walking Dead” now finds itself in a no-win scenario of its own making: Either Glenn has died a gruesome, heroic death that many fans will never forgive, or it’s set up an enormous copout that will effectively break whatever claim to the audience’s trust still remains. As the New York Times’ James Poniewozik put it, “the TV fan base suspects that even the most violent shows are reaching the limits of what they can do to top themselves, and beginning to see the whole bloody business — originally a refreshing change from the stunts of TV past — as a kind of stunt in itself.”
Fake-out deaths are nothing new, but in the post-“Game of Thrones” world where unexpectedly killing off characters is the quickest route to pretend moral seriousness, this kind of sleight of hand has become epidemic. “Scandal” riddled Jake Ballard with stab wounds only to have him make a miraculous recovery, and “Arrow’s” now on its second resurrection, although at least on that show, dunking corpses in the Lazarus Pit has consequences. It’s gotten so bad that fans had to be reassured that “GoT’s” Stannis Baratheon is really dead, despite the fact that the last time we saw him, it was wounded and unarmed, with a sword-wielding warrior announcing her attention to end his life. It’s gotten so that unless viewers actually see a character draw their last breath, they won’t believe they’re dead — and in the case of Jon Snow, even that’s not enough.
Whatever the effect on any individual show, this is enormously bad for the medium as a whole. The more a given device is used, the less effective it is, and the more a show has to bend itself double to make it work at all. (Think of all the absurd final-act twists that followed in the wake of “The Sixth Sense,” not least those in M. Night Shyalaman’s own movies.) For “The Walking Dead,” it would be particularly disastrous. “TWD’s” ethos is built around the idea of a world without mercy, one where even the nominally good guys can only survive by doing horrible things. If Glenn can be buried under a mountain of walkers and emerge unscathed, that fundamental precept goes to hell. If the writers can save Glenn, why not Sophia, or Lizzie and Mica? I’m not a fan of the show’s relentless pessimism, but this seems precisely the wrong moment, and the wrong way, to demonstrate it’s got a heart after all. I didn’t think I had any respect left for “The Walking Dead” to lose, but if Glenn turns up alive, I might have to find some .