*Note: This post contains a zombie herd’s worth of spoilers for both Season 6 of the TV show and Volume 17 of the comic.
Season 7 of AMC’s The Walking Dead premiers on October 23. As we prepare to learn the outcome of season 6’s cliffhanger ending, I want to revisit last season’s big controversy—the fake-out surrounding the apparent death of Glenn (played by Steven Yeun). The whole storyline rubbed most critics the wrong way. But in light of the cliffhanger ending, the Glenn fake-out storyline is necessary.
In episode 3, the beloved character falls into a group of zombies who appear to devour his entrails. His fate remains a mystery until episode 7, when we learn that the zombies were actually eating Nicholas (who had fallen on top of him) and that Glenn crawled to safety. The season ends with a cliffhanger; Negan beats one of the main characters to death, but we won’t know who until next season.
In asking, “does dead mean dead on The Walking Dead?” The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman described the prospect of Glenn surviving the attack as “total bullsh*t,” while Daniel Fienberg found it merely “manipulative.” Erik Kain of Forbes felt the show “completely screwed up Glenn’s story.” Brian Moylan of The Guardian wrote, “Glenn is alive and I’m kind of pissed about it.” Matt Fowler of IGN described the season as “a clumsy, misguided experiment in fakery.”
While I agree that this could have been handled a little more artfully, I actually appreciated this storyline. The reason is that I also enjoy the Robert Kirkman comics upon which the show is based. I’ll admit to being initially duped into believing Glenn was dead. At the time, I thought, “Huh, that’s not the way he dies in the book.”
Glenn’s death was, not surprisingly, a major event in the comic. The scene in which he dies is so dramatic that the TV series recreated it almost panel-by-panel in the season finale’s cliffhanger ending. But the cliffhanger won’t work if everyone who has read the book knows it was Glenn who died. This is why the fake-out was necessary.
Barring some really unexpected twist, there are two possible outcomes from the cliffhanger: either Glenn dies or someone else does. If Glenn is the victim of Negan’s bat (which he calls “Lucille”), the fake-out provides suspense in what would otherwise be a predictable situation. It also makes Glenn’s death feel more “earned.” The fake-out foreshadows the death.
If someone else dies, the show has diverged from the comic. The fake-out prepares the audience for this. After all, we just came to expect that Glenn died and found out we were wrong. This is also a callback to a similar twist in season 4, when Rick’s infant daughter Judith appears to die, but is later revealed to have been rescued by Tyrese. This is another divergence from the comic, in which Judith did in fact die in the Governor’s assault on the prison.
This whole controversy illustrates the tightrope the show’s writers need to walk. They need to remain true to the comics, but also need to generate suspense. This is a horror show, after all, and horror comes from not knowing what will happen. So far, the show has done a good job recreating some of the most iconic scenes from the books, while still leaving the audience guessing about what will happen next.