Cop-out. Cheap trick. Rip-off. There are lots of ways to describe what happened in the first five minutes of Sunday’s Walking Dead episode, “Heads Up,” in which Glenn, who appeared to meet his doom in this season’s third episode, “Thank You,” miraaaculously survived falling off a dumpster into a throng of hundreds of bloodthirsty walkers.
The unsavory conclusion, either way, remains the same: In creating false suspense and undermining the life-or-death stakes it thrives on, The Walking Dead just lost at its own game.
It would be one thing if AMC’s zombie epic brought Glenn back through some unforeseen feat of storytelling, finding some imaginative way to defy all the doubters who declared the stunt a no-win situation. Killing Glenn would mean giving a beloved character a pointless death then stringing audiences along with false hope for weeks, they said. And letting him live against such impossible odds would mean ignoring some of the show’s fundamental rules for no reason other than pulling off a cheap stunt.
That is, unless the show’s writers introduced some creative alternative to the conundrum.
No such luck. Instead of some daring escape or rescue effort, The Walking Dead opted for the most obvious way out of its impossible situation: It simply had Glenn crawl under the dumpster, while all those walkers inexplicably ignored him, until he was nearly out of reach. This Jon Snow-esque cliffhanger had stretched three weeks and two filler episodes—and its half-baked solution was something most people jokingly predicted three minutes after “Thank You” aired.
As “Heads Up” revealed, Glenn survived because those intestines we saw chomped to bits in front of his horrified, screaming face came from Nicholas, who shot himself, fell on top of Glenn, and inadvertently shielded the latter’s belly from walkers. Glenn’s legs, which we know the undead would have found just as tasty (à la Hershel), are blocked from view by walkers leaning over to reach Nicholas.
Glenn’s shrieking head, exposed neck, and upper chest are all well within reach of at least six onscreen, sound-sensitive walkers for several long seconds. But somehow, Glenn goes entirely undetected until he is already out of reach. Is there any plausible reason for this? We know these walkers can still hear: In this episode, Rick worries about firing off guns for target practice in Alexandria because the sounds might rile up the other herd walkers surrounding the town.
(If it turns out that the sad violins playing over Glenn’s scene are masking the fact that he isn’t actually screaming, only mouthing his horror, then all bets are off and plausibility no longer matters, so who cares! Bring in the dragons and unicorns. Make them pink for me, please.)
Once tucked into the gap, Glenn is able to stab the heads of several walkers whose corpses form a barrier around the dumpster, likely masking his warm-blooded scent long enough for the rest to lose interest and leave. Et voila. Crisis over. Wasn’t that fun?
Look, we’re as relieved as anyone to see Glenn, a ray of dignity and hope in this show’s otherwise hopelessly nihilistic world, back in one piece. And, of course, survival is what Glenn does so well, again and again, season after season—it’s part of why he bonds with “Just Survive Somehow” Enid in this episode, too.
And serialized storytelling in the age of social media is a tricky enough thing for TV writers, who now have to contend with being outguessed by impatient fans in the weeklong stretches between episode airings. There was a time when an end to a story like Glenn’s dumpster dive may have elicited only shrugs—but that just isn’t the audience these creatives are writing for anymore. (Trollish crew statements and interviews promising the return of “some version” of Glenn or “parts of Glenn,” or insisting that “the Glenn that we knew… is dead” only added to the anticlimactic feeling of this episode’s predictable reveal.)
This show prides itself on the assumption that any character, no matter how integral or beloved or long-lasting, can go at any moment. There was so little payoff to Glenn’s “death” stunt—which was not in the comics, added little to the story, and thus really had no reason to exist other than to create artificial suspense—one has to wonder why it was written in at all, other than to make an upcoming plot point extra painful.
(Potential spoilers for certain characters’ fates ahead, including comic book storylines. Skip ahead two paragraphs to remain spoiler-free.)
Showrunner Scott Gimple is bending the show ever closer to its source material, Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead comics. We know that in those books, Glenn meets his demise in one of the goriest, most brutal events in Walking Dead canon, when upcoming supervillain Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) beats him to death with a barbed baseball bat. Since Glenn survived this near-death encounter, and will soon reunite with Maggie (we hope), an onscreen version of this scene seems too painful for the show to resist.
Another character is also seemingly nearing peril, with Jessie’s son Ron stealing bullets for a gun Rick (foolishly!) gave him in this episode. In the books, Carl is accidentally shot in the eye during the walkers’ invasion of Alexandria. With the weakened tower finally toppling over and breaking the barrier around the town, Carl’s eye bandage days may be near.
The discussion of “Heads Up” on Talking Dead may conjure up some more material excuse for why Glenn was able to escape unscathed—though frankly, if a story doesn’t hold up on its own, without extra explanation from its creators, then it just plain doesn’t hold up. We’re rooting for you, Walking Dead. Just don’t lead us on like this again.