'Walking Dead' and 'Game of Thrones': The Difference Between Two Staggering Cliffhangers

Why the fates of Glenn Rhee and Jon Snow played out differently for fans, and what it tells us about the nature of both shows.
Gene Page/AMC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for the seventh season premiere of AMC's The Walking Dead, as well as the sixth season of HBO's Game of Thrones.]

During a conference call with reporters on the morning after the Walking Dead season seven premiere, the episode's director and series executive producer Greg Nicotero compared negative reactions to the zombie drama's latest string of violent killings to his own take on another juggernaut series: Game of Thrones.

"I'm a big Game of Thrones fan and I've been shocked at the turn of events on that show, but I still love it," he said. "It's unfortunate that people want to take a negative spin on it, but as far as I'm concerned, I'm dedicated to watching a show because I want to see where the story goes next."

Even without Nicotero evoking the Seven Kingdoms, it's easy to bring Game of Thrones into the current Walking Dead conversation, especially in terms of season finale cliffhangers and their eventual resolutions. The Emmy-winning Thrones closed its fifth season with the death of a central character, Jon Snow (Kit Harington), the light fading from his eyes forever, even if some people saw things differently. (Gulp.) Similarly, Walking Dead ended its sixth season with the death of a central character, except in this case, the victim's identity was unknown. The moment plays out from the casualty's point of view, staring up at the snarling Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) as he slams his precious baseball bat Lucille into the unnamed character's head, over and over again.

Both cliffhangers yielded the proper response: "What happens next?" In the case of Thrones, how could that show go on without Lord Snow, our eyes and ears and boots on the ground in the overarching White Walker conflict? In the case of Dead, which one of 11 possible murder victims actually kicked the bucket — and if it's Daryl (Norman Reedus), when do we start rioting? Immediately? Next week?

But there are a few staggering differences between the cliffhangers, one of the biggest being this: hope, or lack thereof. In the case of Jon Snow, fans had every reason to believe the 998th Lord Commander of the Night's Watch would return from the dead. Yes, dead is typically dead when it comes to Thrones, but sometimes, dead is only mostly dead, especially when Red Priests of R'hllor are on standby — as in the case of the frequently killed Beric Dondarrion and his resurrections at the hands of Thoros of Myr … or the case of Jon Snow and Melisandre, as many fans guessed and as it ultimately played out. While Snow's death is an absolutely crushing twist in the moment, there's overwhelming reason to believe the character's days are not done. There's hope, and plenty of it.

There's no hope in the Walking Dead scenario. Sure, fans could hope that their favorite characters wouldn't meet Negan's bat, but there was no question that somebody was going to die — and unless the show played it completely safe, it was going to be someone who mattered. There would be no Red Priests, no dumpsters with which to save the departed. The show was about to kill a beloved character in brutal fashion, and fans had a full six months to steel their stomachs.

What's more, many viewers already knew the likely identity of one of the victims: Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun), who famously dies the same way in the Walking Dead comic books. Any fan with an internet connection and the curiosity to unearth the answer had plenty of time and opportunity to learn about Glenn's comic book fate. The same can be said about Jon Snow (even though his temporary death is the character's most recent stopping point in the books, fans had been theorizing for almost five years about why and how Jon would return from the dead), but in that case, we're talking about something worth looking forward to, something worthy of hope. When it comes to Glenn, there was only reason to dread and fear the inevitable — and indeed, the inevitable landed, even if it landed with a bit of a twist. (Rest in pieces, Abraham.)

Jon's rebirth and Glenn's death were both heavily foreshadowed. In Jon's case, as outlined previously, rules were in place for his comeback. In Glenn's case, Walking Dead cleverly teased out his fateful rendezvous with Lucille over the course of two seasons. In season five's premiere, Glenn nearly gets bashed in the head with a baseball bat in Terminus. Eight episodes later, Glenn finds a baseball bat in a garage. Shortly before his death, during the raid on the Saviors' satellite station, Glenn sees photographic evidence of Lucille's carnage on the wall — the closest thing to someone seeing the future on The Walking Dead, ghostly visions of Sunday supper notwithstanding.

But one can argue that those carefully laid teasers, which some fans viewed as nothing more than winks and nods to the comic book crowd (about that), were thrown in the trash during season six's infamous "Dumpster Gate." In the season's third episode, "Thank You," Glenn appears to be ripped apart by walkers, but not so fast! It was another man's body, roughly laid on top of him, that became zombie chow, giving Glenn enough cover and time to sneak underneath a nearby dumpster and wait out the herd. Viewers were aggravated, annoyed, furious … choose your word, but very few would use "excited." Really, many viewers were mystified by the twist, knowing that Glenn's impending comic book fate was looming on the show. Why fake Glenn's death here and remove him from the show for several episodes, only to decisively kill him a half-season later? Just to throw viewers off the scent? Just to give a little tiny sliver of hope — only to beat that hope out of the season one veteran's head right in front of his ailing pregnant wife?

Compound "Dumpster Gate" with the finale's cliffhanger ending, the resulting six months of half-speculation and half-acceptance over Glenn's likely demise, 20 full minutes of season seven's premiere without an answer to the killings, Abraham's death serving as a momentary misdirect, culminating in Negan casually killing Glenn as almost an afterthought. Swirl all that together, and it certainly looks like Walking Dead heavily trolling Glenn's death, or at best, extending the comic books' single most iconic moment as much as possible on the show. But just because you're in possession of the world's single greatest slice of pizza, doesn't mean you should try to extend the life of that slice across multiple meals. (Apologies if that makes no sense; pizza is very vogue when it comes to discussing Walking Dead right now.) With Snow, not only was there hope that he's coming back from the grave, but it's a carefully laid twist with only one real "troll" moment — the long wait for Melisandre's magic to take hold, which really only lasts about 30 seconds.

Another key difference between the Jon's-death and Negan's-victim cliffhangers: finality, and not just as it pertains to the characters, though there's certainly that. Walking Dead co-creator Robert Kirkman famously designed his story as a zombie movie that never ends, and so far, he's stayed true to his word, with the comic books currently at issue No. 159 and counting. The show has already been renewed for its eighth season, the premiere of which will mark its 100th episode. Kirkman has said that he has an end in mind for the comics and the show (and has also said the two will be different if the comics outlast the show), but right now, there's no sense of when to expect that ending — and given the show's concept as "a zombie movie that never ends," it's worth wondering if the end will ever really come at all, or if the series will outlast its current cast, and everybody will wind up like Glenn sooner or later.

Game of Thrones, however, does have an ending in sight. There are two more seasons, and then no more. No more Jon Snow, no more Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), no more Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), no more anyone. (Not until the prequels and the spinoffs anyway, but even then, HBO's inevitable follow-up is likely to focus on different stories, characters and corners of the world than the ones focused on in Thrones.) That's a fundamental difference between watching Walking Dead and watching Thrones. Through all the shocking beheadings, Red Weddings and Red Viper brain-bashings, viewers stick with Thrones because all of that visceral misery is woven into the fabric of a story that's building to a definitive and imminent end. For The Walking Dead, without that finish line in sight — and with the growing suspicion that there might not be a finish line at all — perhaps it's too much to ask some viewers to get hooked into one man's six-year journey from frightened pizza delivery boy to courageous husband and father-to-be, then watch that same man's death drag out over the course of a season, and reach its denouement in a stunning display of gore, without any guarantee that it wasn't all for nothing.

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