Any doubts about the continued power of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” or its status as the most popular program on television had to have been eradicated this week in the aftermath of the most shocking television death since that of Will Gardner on CBS’ “The Good Wife.”
R.I.P. Glenn, or so we think. It certainly looked near the end of last week’s episode as though showrunner Scott M. Gimple and his team had decided to kill him off in a manner that could be described as unfitting for a character of his stature: After trying to help the undeserving Nicholas, good-guy Glenn ended up trapped in an alley full of walkers, first on top of a dumpster and then on the ground next to it, where he was seemingly torn apart by the hungry horde.
But did Glenn really die? Is Steven Yeun (pictured at top), the popular actor who portrays him, off the show? Beginning with the live talk show “Talking Dead” that runs immediately after “TWD” we were made to start wondering if we saw what we think we did. Were those Glenn’s entrails being devoured or had Nicholas’ body landed on top of Glenn’s when they fell off the dumpster (after Nicholas shot himself in the head) and become the walkers’ first course? Might Glenn have been able to slide under the dumpster and out a hole in the fence behind it? In a call to “Talking Dead” Gimple teased that the audience would see Glenn again. Does that mean that he somehow escaped unharmed? Or that he was bitten but will live long enough to return to his beloved Maggie before turning (and, presumably, being killed)? Maybe only his head remains and someone will find it snarling and growling in a future episode. (Hershel’s head lived on after he was decapitated two seasons ago.)
Regardless, the continuing conversation on social media and in the press since Sunday night makes clear that even as the media expands beyond measureable boundaries and even though there is entirely too much quality television available right now for viewers to collectively process the right show at the right time can still dominate American popular culture like little else.
I hate the idea of Glenn dying, especially in so horrific a manner, though I think it was true to the savage spirit of “TWD.” Further, it somehow escaped the radar of even the most fervid spoiler seekers (an unruly gang of bloggers that has compromised much of television in recent years), making it one of the most memorable moments on any television series in a very long time. But his “death,” if that’s what it was, was one for the ages, and it further illustrates the power and impact of this show. We care about these characters, we root for them, and time and again we are beaten down by the loss of yet another person we have followed to hell and back. That’s why host Chris Hardwick often refers to “Talking Dead” as if it were a post-"TWD" therapy session. (Adding to the muddling of Glenn’s end, Steven Yeun did not appear on “Talking Dead,” as actors from the show generally do after their characters die.)
Unfortunately, the thrill of it all may go to pieces this Sunday in what appears to be a “very special” episode of “TWD” that has been expanded to 90 minutes, when we might receive new information about Glenn. Frankly, the impact of Glenn’s “death” -- the ongoing sense of loss and grieving that would have pulsed through the media this week -- has already been overtaken by the biggest guessing game of the year. I wish it hadn’t been mucked up in this manner -- that we had been left to process without hesitation a moment of television that would likely be talked about for years (and damn, what a moment it was) -- but that horse has left the barn.
For me, the deaths of television characters remains one of the most interesting aspects of the home entertainment experience. I’m always stunned by the enthusiasm with which death is received by television critics who generally seem to think killing off a beloved character is just about the coolest thing showrunners can do. For better or worse, the eager anticipation of death virtually powers such shows as HBO's "Game of Thrones." People can't get enough of it. It’s a rather morbid response to Hollywood’s treatment of the end of life, particularly in the form of homicide or murder.
There is something almost irresponsible about it all, and certainly somewhat corrosive. For most of us, death matters as much as life in its own way, and we are all battered about by it throughout our lives. Last year I wrote about a particularly powerful episode of “The Waltons” that centered on the struggles of a terminally ill young man who was close to John Boy and Jason and the impact the impending loss of their friend had on them. The episode remains the best exploration of the subject I have ever seen on television, and the column is still one of the most-read since the relaunch of MediaVillage.
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