[Massive spoilers abound in the below discussion of the season six episode of The Walking Dead, “Head’s Up,” so don’t read any further unless you’ve already seen it or don’t care about ruining the story for yourself, which, frankly, may not be the worst thing in the world in this particular case. Nonetheless, you’ve been warned.]
If you’re a fan of AMC’s mammoth hit The Walking Dead—or if you’re a human who is aware of the existence of social media or the internet—then odds are good you’re at least tangentially conscious of the intense discussion and controversy that has arisen around the fate of Glenn. See, about a month ago, the show gave us a scene in which Nicholas blows his brains out, thereby knocking both himself and Glenn off the dumpster that was just barely keeping a zombie horde at bay. We cut to Glenn lying on the ground screaming, Nicholas’ lifeless body on top, as zombies rip and pull at viscera. It seemed like an intense and shocking death for one of the show’s most beloved characters, which, though unexpected, would be very much in keeping with the ethos of the series as a whole.
Only, not so much. As we discovered within minutes of the episode airing, the showrunners and others involved with The Walking Dead bent over backwards to suggest that we hadn’t just seen what it seemed like we had. As we discussed at the time, it suddenly became clear the show was going to pull some major bullshit, and let Glenn live—a move that seemed stupid no matter how you parsed it, which we did, in great detail. As we said way back in those halcyon days of October, “In the best of all worlds, Glenn is dead, despite the fact that it makes us sad, because it’s way sadder if The Walking Dead pulls a weak-ass copout on its commitment to making death matter.” And on last night’s episode, that’s exactly what happened.
If anyone’s telling actor Steven Yeun they’re disappointed, though, he’s not saying. In a special video that aired during Into The Badlands (not that AMC wants to build a new hit or anything), Yeun thanked fans for all their support during this surely difficult time of having to continue being a popular actor on one of the biggest TV series of all time. “I’ve been following everything you’ve been saying and it’s meant so much to me to see all of your support and concern for Glenn,” Yeun said. “The Walking Dead has the best fans in the world and I’m happy to be back.” As he elaborated on the post-show analysis program Talking Dead, Yeun spent the past few weeks essentially living like a hermit. “I have not been out much. I frequent a lot of takeout and my apartment looks like a hoarder’s house.” It was all very charming, because Yeun seems like a charming guy, and it made for a nice conterpoint to that bullshit just pulled by the show he’s on.
The people making the show seem to fundamentally misunderstand what they did, if their comments on last night’s Talking Dead are any indication. “It was important this year to do a story about uncertainty, for the audience to share that uncertainty,” showrunner Scott Gimple said. “Maggie didn’t know what happened to Glenn, and I wanted the audience to feel the exact same way.” Which might be a valid point, if Maggie had also seen security camera footage of Glenn falling into a veritable pit of zombies, and then assumed he was dead, only to have a bunch of social media and people outside of her diegetic reality tell her, “Don’t worry, your dearly beloved’s story is not over yet.” But stringing the audience along through multiple episodes was the cheapest of cheap outs—as our reviewer Zack Handlen noted in his analysis of last night’s episode, by “presenting this as a cliffhanger, the creative team drew attention to the absurdity of it, dragging out the question until everyone had a good chance to argue and write think pieces and generally over-discuss what is really just an elaborate fake-out.”
We’re far from the only people making this argument, and definitely not as disappointed as some. But it’s still a good show, having one of its best seasons yet, apart from this bullshit. And we’re going to keep watching. Yeun is a little hyperbolic about the experience, which is understandable, given it’s been the center of his life for weeks on end now. “It’s kind of been overwhelming, I don’t know how to take it all… I think it proves that this world still can take that story of the good guy winning sometimes.” Which may be true, although it didn’t seem like the world was in any danger of not wanting stories about the good guy winning. Plus, it also might prove the world can still take a story of a narrative cheat, dragged out for bad reasons and executed in a slipshod manner. That has also been demonstrated.