Caution – MAJOR spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen Sunday’s episode of “The Walking Dead.”
Glenn is dead, and once again viewers gasp and wonder: “How much more of this can we take?” (Note–In evidence of the show’s incredible popularity, the web was filled with conjecture about whether Glenn is really dead.)
Indeed, “The Walking Dead” has become the story of two bands of post-apocalypse survivors: its fictional characters and its audience.
On Sunday night, swaying on top of a dumpster surrounded by Walkers, Nicholas (Michael Traynor) looked out at the grasping hands, the ravenous mouths and gave up. Turning to Glenn (Steven Yeun), who had been working so hard to help Nicholas find redemption, he apologized and then shot himself in the head. But it was an act of murder as well as suicide: His falling body took Glenn into a sea of rotting predators where he died, screaming.
Glenn, who has been with us since the beginning. Glenn, the scrappy supply runner with the baseball cap, who saved Rick (Andrew Lincoln) in Atlanta and has been by his side (pretty much) ever since. Glenn, so shy when they arrived at Hershel’s farm but courageous enough to fall in love. Glenn, whom we have watched mature from a twitchy man-boy into a loving husband and friend, whose love affair with Maggie (Lauren Cohan) was often the only bright spot amid carnage and despair.
So now we, the audience, face the same bleak realization that sent Nicholas over the edge: Death is everywhere, loss is inevitable. Do we have what it takes to push on anyway? To invest in plans and communities that will falter and fail, to embrace characters who will be killed, sometimes for no good reason except to remind us that the universe is a brutal place?
Can we, the audience, survive AMC’s zombie apocalypse?
Certainly we, like Rick and his band, have undergone enormous transformation. Just a few years ago, the increasing death rate of regular characters on television in general and “The Walking Dead” in particular sent up howls of protests and sermons of soul-searching.
What was wrong with television writers these days that they were so willing to kill their children? How was the audience supposed to feel safe when anyone – Matthew on “Downton Abbey,” Will on “The Good Wife,” never mind half the cast of “Game of Thrones,” could go at any time?
But the deaths continued, and now we are a nation changed. Television has embraced the epic, and epics of any sort invariably have a high body count.
On “The Walking Dead,” however, death is part of the immersive experience. The writers make regular sacrifices of beloved characters, in part to keep its monsters scary but also to stay true to its conceit.
So we will mourn Glenn, we will ache for Maggie, we fear for any character who isn’t Rick or Daryl (Norman Reedus).
Is Michonne (Danai Gurira) safe? Is Carol (Melissa McBride)?
Probably not, and neither are we. It would be nice to feel that progress is being made, but on “The Walking Dead,” survival is progress and the minute anyone feels truly safe, the show is over.