Does Dead Mean Dead on 'The Walking Dead'? THR Critics Debate

The Walking Dead Zombies - H 2015
Courtesy of AMC

[This story contains spoilers from Sunday's "Thank You" episode of The Walking Dead, particularly a large character twist. You've been warned.]

The Walking Dead isn't just a show that gets people watching. It's also a show that keeps fans talking, and rarely have fans been more aggressively at odds than in the aftermath of Sunday's episode, which seemed to feature the demise of Steven Yeun's Glenn.

But did it really?

The Hollywood Reporter TV critics weigh in.

Daniel J. Fienberg: So Tim, let's get straight to the important question. Is Glenn Rhee, former deliverer of pizzas and romancer of Maggie, deceased? Did he have his innards devoured by the undead amidst a burbling fountain of blood during last night's episode of The Walking Dead?

Tim Goodman: Absolutely. Well, at least he'd better be dead. But first, back to the absolute: I honestly don't think showrunner Scott M. Gimple is dumb enough to fake this death somehow, not with how implausible it would be for Glenn to survive it. And yes, I know there's a theory that it's not his innards coming out and that he's under Nicholas and will survive. But honestly, that is and would be total bullshit. Yes, we know that if you cover yourself in walker-blood then they can't smell you. But Nicholas was not a walker at that point. Glenn is dead.

Fienberg: I don't think it's a matter of dumb so much as manipulative and I absolutely think the producers are manipulative enough to fake the death of a beloved character. This is a show that previously convinced at least some fans that it had been audacious or cold-blooded enough to kill a baby. Just as Judith survived, there are many ways Glenn could be back. Like you mentioned, the blood and innards could certainly belong to Nicholas — whoever the heck Nicholas is — and Glenn could be ready for an escape behind the dumpster. I wouldn't put it past the writers to play the whole sequence as an ear-ringing hallucination following Nicholas' decision to forcefully expel his brains into Glenn's face. The embarrassing "out" clauses feel myriad to me.

Goodman: I'd flip that on its head a bit and say that the show was brave enough back then to kill what fans (of the TV show, not the comics) thought might have been a major character or two in those first couple of seasons, including having a son kill his mother, which was bold. Gimple also wrote the episode where Carol kills one of the girls — who was human, not zombie. I think The Walking Dead has killed off "big" or "popular" characters even though Glenn would be, in some tallies, only the second important core member. What I liked about Sunday's episode is that Glenn's death was clearly unexpected. It was fast and it was awful. That's why I think that Gimple had to send a statement to The Talking Dead (don't get me — or you — started on the after show and its issues); he needed to assure fans that Glenn's death would be treated more fully and in line with what a major character deserved. Again, I just don't think it's plausible anyone survived that (and yes, I was annoyed last season when Glenn apparently fought off two walkers while pinned and hurt, so my rage would be vastly more dangerous if he lives this time).

Fienberg: By my count, Shane, Dale, Andrea and Lori are all absolutely core characters the show killed off previously and that's before you get into marginalia like T-Dog, Hershel, Beth, Tyrese and a lot of people whose names I don't remember. The Walking Dead kills people. I rarely worry about that. My biggest problem is that Glenn could be dead or he could be resurrected and I'm not sure I care anymore. I'm not sure I care about a character who was one of my favorites for the first few seasons and, more damning, I'm not sure I care about the way his death would impact the ensemble. If he's dead, the loss will be felt most by Maggie, but Maggie just had her sister die a few episodes ago, so there's no variation anymore to making Lauren Cohan wail, no matter how entirely convincingly she does it. To me, The Walking Dead has lost whatever core of human relationships it ever had, and whether Glenn lives or dies, it just feels mechanical now. That, to me, feels like a bigger problem. Have you been more on-board this season?

Goodman: Yes, I think the start of this season has delivered three excellent episodes. Despite a few glitches here and there — and lots of great series have them — I've been firmly on board with The Walking Dead because, for starters, I don't think it has ever received the credit it deserves for its take on humanity and going beyond just the need to stay alive but also engaging the question: "Why survive?" Secondly, I think the show is the most compelling thing out there in terms of me wanting to watch it immediately and being riveted while I do for the most part. In this day and age, that counts for something with me. It's so easy — especially on a bloated Sunday — to leave something unwatched on the DVR. But as for this particular episode, I really do think it could change everything for me if Glenn is alive. Like a lot of people, I jumped on Twitter and said he was dead and that Gimple isn't dumb enough to do a fake-out of this proportion and implausibility. I brought up the old medical saying, "When you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras." It's certainly a bigger issue to explore (and Game of Thrones is going through this right now with Jon Snow — who I actually think IS alive), but people, especially on Twitter, want to think there's a twist always. That there's an out. For me, there can't be an out here because the show would immediately lose all the goodwill I've stored for it, and I'd especially be disappointed about the great way they killed off Glenn — fast, unexpected, brutal, etc. If it sticks, that's a bold way to shoot that scene. Of course, if it doesn't stick, I can't stick with the show. At least I can't defend it as still artistically relevant in critical discussion because that's an enormous cheat. It's one that, no matter how cleverly reversed, I could not stand behind. That said, The Walking Dead is critic proof. It doesn't need our support. It's too huge. And fans are fickle. They might be mad about the "twist" right now but they'd love to have Glenn back. And those who would give up? So what, too many millions to count their loss. Lastly, I'll add this, which is also some weird testament to the show — if Glenn is actually alive, I would still watch the show for entertainment purposes. Yep, just for fun, but not as something I think should be acclaimed. I'm probably a sucker, but I would.

Fienberg: Maybe I'm just suffering from zombie burnout after the dreadful Fear the Walking Dead (which I know you liked a lot more than I did, which is to say "some" versus "none"). I've felt some tension and drama this season, especially in the second episode, but I've felt a lot more fatigue, as the core group of characters I once cared about has become disparate and frazzled. My problem, I suppose, is that I've always been more interested in The Walking Dead as a show about survivors attempting to find ways to live, rather than a show about disposable body parts trying not to die, and I worry the show has lost the difference. I'm not certain that Glenn is alive, but I can see so many predictable and frustrating ways that the show could escape from what seemed inevitable and then maybe use that as a way to make it hurt even more if or when they actually decide to kill him. Realistically, I'm going to continue to watch either way. But it's harder and harder for me to invest in it as anything more than a show I watch because I know it's popular.