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'The Walking Dead's' Not-So-Grand Illusion: When Dead Isn't Dead
November 24, 2015  | By Alex Strachan  | 3 comments

[Editor's Note: Plot points from last week's episode of HBO's The Leftovers and recent events from The Walking Dead are detailed below.]

A key character — arguably the key character — was killed on a high-profile cable drama, the other night.

A shock wave reverberated through the Twittersphere, as fans lit up with speculation about whether the character was, in fact, dead or merely playing dead.

“It was one of those deaths that was on point story-wise,” the actor who played the ill-fated character told The Hollywood Reporter, the morning after. “It wasn’t just some random killing for the sake of killing.”

But enough about The Leftovers.

By now, faithful followers of The Leftovers know that — spoiler alert — Justin Theroux’s Kevin Garvey (left) character is indeed dead, but has re-emerged from the afterlife. The Leftovers is the brainchild, after all, of Damon LIndelof, who treaded similar spectral terrain in Lost. The Leftovers is a science-fiction parable about life and death, and the amorphous line where this world crosses over into the next.

The Walking Dead, on the other hand, is meant to be taken literally. Or if not literally exactly, semi-literally. It’s science fiction, but it’s grounded in reality. Or if not reality exactly, semi-reality. It’s set in the not-too-distant future where the laws of physics apply, and death means death. In The Walking Dead, when people die, they either stay dead or re-emerge as zombies. Much-loved characters have died in the past. One of the things that makes The Walking Dead so powerful and addictive as drama is that the stakes are high. When beloved characters die, and stay dead, it signals that no character is safe. And that heightens the viewer’s emotional investment in the characters who remain.

That’s why, when Steve Yeun’s Glenn Rhee (top photo, below) — a fan-favorite character since his first appearance in The Walking Dead’s debut season in 2010 — miraculously reappeared in this past week’s episode, after seeming to be swarmed by zombies only weeks earlier, in the Nov. 1 episode Here’s Not Here. it sent an even bigger shock wave in through Twittersphere, with fans clamoring on both sides of the is-he-or-isn’t-he divide.

The Walking Dead heads into its fall finale this weekend — new episodes return Feb. 14 — with Glenn very much alive and about to be reunited with his friends and family in the gated community where they’re fending off the zombie apocalypse.

Many Walking Dead fans are elated to have their favorite character back in the fold, but some — TV critics among them — feel Glenn’s death, and the way it was handled, was a cheat on the audience. Veteran Hollywood Reporter critic Tim Goodman wrote, moments after Here’s Not Here aired, that it “would be total bulls-t” if Glenn were to survive.

In a grim, emotionally wrenching image, filmed in slow motion for effect, with haunting, elegiac music welling in the background, a sea of zombies swarmed over Glenn, chewing on his entrails while he was still conscious, his blood pumping and spurting over outstretched hands and gaping mouths as he slowly succumbed.

As viewers now know, it was a deception, a hoax, a not-so-grand illusion. A fellow survivor shot himself while lying over Glenn’s chest; it was the suicide victim the zombies were feeding from. Glenn rolled from underneath the dead body under a nearby dumpster, where he remained until the zombies tired of the carnage and shuffled off.

The revelation would have passed as just another ‘gotcha!’ moment in what has been a surprisingly manipulative and cynical season of TV’s most-watched cable drama, except that it follows similarly manipulative moments in Game of Thrones and, to a lesser extent, The Leftovers. One time is happenstance. Three times is a trend.

Some fans are bound to be delighted.

“Much fuss about nothing,” a friend emailed me, shortly after the Twittersphere lit up. “He was one of the better characters and I’m happy he’s not dead. I don’t know if the way they did it was perfect, and it did feel like a bit of a cheat. But in the big picture, it was the best outcome for the show.”

The danger, of course, is that from now on, whenever a character — beloved or otherwise — dies on The Walking Dead, the impact will be diminished, because the viewer won’t know whether the death is genuine or a cheap story trick.

The ratings will likely remain where they are for several seasons yet, but this past weekend’s surprise — an inspired story twist or a cheap trick, take your pick — might be an indication that the writers are starting to run out of ideas.

That’s not a message any drama, even one as popular and seemingly unassailable as The Walking Dead, wants to send when setting the table for the fall finale and the biggest, most important episode of the season.

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I admire what you have done here. I like the part where you say you are doing this to give back but I would assume by all the comments that this is working for you as well.
Jul 9, 2023   |  Reply
Bob Lamm
Hours after my previous comment, I've stumbled onto a piece in today's New York Post by Robert Rorke entitled: "The lame plot device that's turning TV's high-brow dramas into soap operas." Rorke's final sentence: "Resorting to these soap-opera style plot devices smacks of desperation."
Nov 25, 2015   |  Reply
Bob Lamm
A soap opera with zombies. A soap opera with swords and dragons. Etc. On any soap opera, no character is ever permanently dead.
Nov 25, 2015   |  Reply
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