Warning: Major Walking Dead spoilers follow. Though, seriously, you should be caught up by now, if only to see what all the fuss was about.
Earlier in the week, TV Insider's Rob Moynihan talked to The Walking Dead executive producer Dave Alpert about the events of the series' most recent episode, "Thank You." The interview proved to be hugely revealing.
There's an emotional arc that is coming to a close definitively in this scene. From our perspective, Glenn has always been the good angel on Rick's shoulder. He's always been the guy who gives everybody the second chance. He's always been the guy that goes "Hey, let's be human here," as opposed to Shane (Jon Bernthal) or whoever else was on Rick's other shoulder. That guy, the good angel, is now gone. Regardless of what happened and whether Glenn is alive or dead, that Glenn is dead. Nicholas put him in harm's way.
What this says to me, more clearly than anything, is that Glenn somehow survived the massive throng of zombies that descended upon him, that being underneath Nicholas's corpse somehow bought him the time he needed to escape the Walkers. There's no real reason to prolong this mystery as much as the show's producers have if Glenn really is just dead. Because if that does turn out to be the case, it'll simply anger the character's legion of fans even more.
So let's assume that Glenn survives, which is too bad. It seems highly likely to break the show.
Glenn surviving breaks The Walking Dead's rules
Every TV show has seemingly inviolable rules that hold everything together.
Some rules are really obvious. If you get bitten by a zombie, you, too, will become a zombie. The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon Cooper will take everything as literally as possible and make life hell for his friends. Dr. House always cured the patient.
Some rules are more subtle. On the recently concluded CSI, for instance, the murders were almost always tied to some sort of sexual fetish that the show could then demonize. And almost all shows operate under the unspoken assumption that their characters are the best, coolest, smartest people around, even when it doesn't seem that way. (This is particularly true on The Walking Dead.)
But if there's an underlying rule that governs The Walking Dead more than any other, it's that anything can happen. And usually, that means "anything bad can happen." (I tried to picture a Walking Dead where "anything good can happen" and came up short, which may show how ingrained this rule is in the show's DNA.)
Glenn dying at the hands of a zombie horde very much fits this rule. It's grim, the show's fans may not like it, and it's a tough sequence to watch. But it's "on brand," as the kids say.
You can break your rules — but only if doing so raises the dramatic stakes
Now, rules are made to be broken, of course. And every single rule I've listed above has been broken at one time or another by the shows that set them in the first place. Even that "people bitten by zombies must become zombies" rule was sidestepped in The Walking Dead's third season, when Herschel sustained a bite near his ankle but survived thanks to a quick amputation.
The problem is that The Walking Dead, like most TV shows, has ramped up its dramatic stakes over time. When it began, Rick Grimes was only fending for himself. By the end of season one, he had a small group of people to look out for. And now there's a whole little town he's trying to protect from zombies. What the characters stand to lose has grown so much bigger.
The same goes for Glenn directly. He started the series without too much to his name, and now he has a wife, a moral conscience, and a reputation as part of a badass team of survivalists. Assuming Glenn lives, The Walking Dead is betting that imperiling his conscience (by making him decide that all lives are no longer worth saving) will sufficiently balance out the sheer unlikelihood of his survival. And maybe that will happen! But I'm guessing it will be enormously tricky to pull off.
The best reason for a show to break its own rules is to heighten its dramatic stakes. Herschel losing his foot underscored the harried nature of trying to clear an entire prison of zombies (and provided a rare moment when "anything good can happen" held true in The Walking Dead's universe). If Dr. House couldn't cure a patient, you had better believe it was because that patient had a personal tie to him or someone he cared about. And CSI's Grissom saw a number of cases intersect with a dominatrix the normally buttoned-down man found oddly fascinating, to the degree that many fans hoped they might end up together.
All of these instances involved the characters being tested. And while you could make an argument that Glenn's unlikely survival would test his moral center, or something, his death would serve as a much more potent story engine for nearly everybody else on the show. Rick would have to contend with the fact that he'd unleashed a terrible idea that killed one of his best friends. Maggie would have to deal with the loss of her husband. And the rest of the group might question Rick's leadership skills in the wake of his truly stupid zombie-herding plan.
But if Glenn survives, all of that opportunity disappears. It's the difference between narrowly avoiding a car accident and being in one that totals your vehicle or worse.
This is a problem lots of older shows face
As shows age, the potential pitfalls of breaking their own rules become greater and greater. Damon Lindelof, the co-creator of Lost and HBO's The Leftovers who knows a little something about killing off TV characters, was a guest on Talking Dead, the post–Walking Dead discussion show, immediately after Glenn's apparent demise, and he explained why he found the death so effective.
Lindelof said (and I'm paraphrasing) that as a show like The Walking Dead gets older, the number of "unkillable" characters grows, because the audience grows so attached to them. When The Walking Dead began, Rick seemed to be its only unkillable character, since he was the protagonist. Now the show's list is quite long, and it includes figures like Daryl, Carol, Michonne, Carl, Maggie, and Glenn — at least until this week.
That's why Glenn's death resonates so much. It's been a long time since The Walking Dead killed someone who seemed as if he or she would survive forever. Some viewers might say since Beth in season five, but I would argue it's been since Laurie, way back in season three, who seemed to benefit from being Rick's wife. (Yes, she dies in the comics, but in very different fashion and later on in the story arc.)
Thus, killing Glenn emphasizes the "anything can happen" nature of the show. If he's not dead, despite the seemingly overwhelming odds stacked against him, it creates the possibility that The Walking Dead plays by the same rules as so many other more typical shows, where those who die are expendable side characters, and those who live are the main players.
Three ways The Walking Dead could successfully let Glenn live
Here are a few ways Glenn's survival could, potentially, work.
- His death really does push his moral conscience to its breaking point, and the character arc is so brilliantly executed that it negates the unlikelihood of his survival. This would require the show to write Glenn better than it ever has before, and for Steven Yeun to play an enormously complicated arc with pitch-perfect precision, but it's theoretically possible. It also seems to be what the show is aiming for.
- Glenn is bitten by zombies but somehow doesn't become one. Mystery ensues. This is another incredibly tricky scenario, because it requires the show to blatantly violate its rules, and in a way that introduces a mystery whose solution would completely break the series: If zombie bites are no longer fatal, there's much less reason to fear them. However, there's probably a way to make something like this work.
- Future episodes featuring Glenn focus solely on his now zombified face, staring toward the sky and gnashing his teeth, unable to move because zombies have so ruined his body. Yeah, this isn't "survival," really, but it would allow Yeun to stay on the show. Meanwhile, AMC — in a charitable act of using The Walking Dead's massive viewership for good — runs a ticker along the bottom of the screen reading, "PLEASE WATCH THE LEFTOVERS, CURRENTLY AIRING ON HBO. IT'S A GREAT SHOW AND COULD USE THE RATINGS HELP."
There's also the possibility, raised by showrunner Scott M. Gimple, of having Glenn continue to appear on the show in flashbacks. This would make sense if, say, Maggie is pregnant and only she and Glenn knew about it, but it would be tricky to achieve without being too sappy.
Also, I guess, he could be a ghost, but let's not go that way.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 pm Eastern on AMC. But it will probably be at least a few episodes before we definitively learn what's happened to Glenn.