The extended mission to divert the massive herd of escaped walkers away from Alexandria moves into its third week in the latest episode, “Thank You,” one of the most tense, terrifying episodes the show has ever done – and that’s before the most wrenching character death in the series' entire run. (Stop now if you haven’t watched the episode.)
As the horn blares and the walkers head for Alexandria, Rick quickly forms a plan: Glenn and Michonne are to escort all the noobs back home, while Rick makes a run for the RV to do… something? (This part of the plan is not quite clear.) The Alexandrians are horrified by how cold-bloodedly Rick and Michonne dispatch a clutch of intruding walkers, and then put a fallen Alexandrian out of his misery, dispassionately rifling his pockets. It’s an interesting contrast, to put Rick’s hardened, whatever-it-takes group next to a bunch of soft, frightened people hesitant to kill. What do you call those again – people?
“Not everyone is going to make it,” Rick warns, meaning the slow, novice zombie-killers now in their charge. He doesn’t know how right he is.
Chased into a small town, Glenn directs Michonne to keep dragging the Alexandrians home, while he creates a diversion in the form of a burning building, hoping it will work like a bug light: the walkers will be attracted to it, walk right into it, and hopefully thin their numbers. Cowardly Nicholas, who already got Noah killed last season with his spinelessness and then tried to kill Glenn to cover it up, is familiar with the area and tells Glenn he knows of a feed store that will burn easily; Glenn wants to give him a chance to redeem himself, so they go together. Bad call, Glenn: the building Nicholas mentioned is already burned down, and the pair soon find themselves in a dead end, overrun by over a hundred undead party-crashers.
As Glenn drags him atop a dumpster, just barely out of reach of the horde, Nicholas appears to have totally shut down to a nonresponsive fugue state. When he comes out of it, it’s just to say “thank you,” before blowing his brains all over Glenn’s face; they both topple into the crowd of walkers and Glenn, who’s easily my favorite character on this show since the second episode, is disemboweled, screaming, his dedication to helping people and giving them second chances finally costing him his life.
On the third front, as Daryl, Sasha and Abraham lead the remaining herd away from Home, Daryl suddenly decides they should turn around only five miles out of Alexandria – well short of the 20 miles safe distance they planned. It’s not like Daryl to run scared from anything, but this is what he appears to be doing, returning only when Rick admonishes him, Sasha and Abraham, “we’re doing this for them. Turning back now, that would be for us.” What was Daryl doing, and why did he come back?
Back at the RV, Rick is attacked by a few human-humans (Wolves?) but he takes them all out, seeming to take a little too much relish in spraying machine-gun fire through the wall of the RV. But it’s a Pyrrhic victory, because the RV won’t start afterward, and the noise attracts a huge wave of walkers. With an injured hand and apparently grasping what Glenn’s radio silence means, Rick looks more than a little defeated, and for the first time it actually seems possible that he might be in real danger; if they’d kill Glenn, why not Rick?
Todd VanDerWerff of Vox grapples with Glenn’s death:
On the one hand, this isn’t too surprising. Despite Glenn being with the show from the first season, I don’t know that I could tell you much about him beyond “seems like a nice guy” and “loves his wife, Maggie.” Of the handful of players left from the show’s earliest days, Glenn was by far the most expendable. On the other hand, that’s precisely what makes this death so surprising. The character made it this far, and he was a fan favorite, thanks to Steven Yeun’s low-key but effective performance. Because he’s such a blank slate, Glenn is the character it’s easiest to see yourself as in the post-zombie world. In both the comics and the show, Glenn is a character made to be projected upon. And those are the sorts of characters who make it to the end of a show’s run. (See also: the much more blatant audience-surrogate character of Hurley on Lost.) He’s also one of just five characters remaining from the first season of the show, though he’s the first of the first-season bunch to die since Andrea way back in season three. And his death neatly underlines the sheer hell on earth Rick and the gang have unleashed with their zombie cattle drive. I was surprisingly affected by Glenn’s death, even though the character did nothing for me. The method of it was a little weird (I’m not precisely sure of the physics that led to him falling into that mass of zombies), but the overall effect was deeply unnerving.
Rolling Stone’s Noel Murray counts the clues:
Looking back over the episode, we should’ve seen this coming. The return of “dumbass” is a clue. So is Glenn being the first person we see in “Thank You,” alone in the frame, running for his life. And then there’s the long speech that an infected Alexandrian gives to Michonne, about how he just wants to make it back to the Safe Zone so that he can thank his wife for convincing him that happiness could still exist, even in the plague years. His hand-written note of gratitude ultimately ends up on the ground, trampled by the undead as its author dies screaming — not too long after Glenn mentions that he has a wife, too. In other words: This was a bad day to be a husband. More importantly, from the cold open onward, “Thank You” makes the same point over and over, arguing that sentimentality is a luxury. The episode picks up where the season premiere left off, with the blaring truck horn from the safe zone redirecting the zombie herd towards home. As our heroes try to salvage the plan and get back to safety, Rick tells Glenn and Michonne that there are too many walkers ahead of them for their party to survive intact; he stresses that they shouldn’t hesitate to leave the weak and wounded behind. Instead, after Rick heads out on his own, the other two try to stay compassionate, They end up stuck in no man’s land. In keeping with Walking Dead effects maven/co-producer Greg Nicotero’s preseason promise to load up on zombies, “Thank You” once again fills the screen with rotting predators, who winnow down the people the duo are trying to save, until eventually Glenn and Michonne are separated from each other and surrounded by flesh-eaters. It’s an impressive, horrifying spectacle, captured by director Michael Slovis in a series of overhead shots that make the walkers look like an unstoppable force of nature. Frankly, if they’d both survived — as opposed to just Michonne — it would’ve strained credulity. And Glenn’s had so many near-misses in the past that it’s only logical he’d be the next to go.
Responding to online speculation that it was Nicholas' entrails we saw in that alley and that Glenn’s not really dead, Alan Sepinwall of HitFix says the show has painted itself into a corner:
There is no good resolution to this at this point. Had they killed him off and then treated it as a death in “Talking Dead,” Glenn fans would have been upset at the brutality and pointlessness of it, but they probably would have come to accept it in the same way they’ve accepted the deaths of so many other significant characters. (Even if the last time the show killed a character as long-lasting as Glenn, it was Andrea at the end of season 3.) Now, if he stays dead, it’s just an added taunt, and if he comes back to life, it sucks all the tension out of the show, because it’s clear that certain characters (basically, the remaining group from the quarry, plus Michonne and probably Maggie and Judith) are invulnerable, and should be viewed as such, while everyone else is there to fill time until they’re eaten while Rick, Glenn, and Carol look on in shock. It would be a spectacular cop-out, as ridiculous as various cliffhangers that had to be undone when TV shows that were assumed to be canceled got a last-second renewal. Case in point: ‘80s cop sitcom “Sledge Hammer!” ended its first season with Sledge accidentally setting off a nuclear bomb that destroyed Los Angeles; when ABC improbably brought the show back, the second season had to be set five years earlier. Glenn surviving this situation would be even stupider than that, and not just because TV’s highest-rated show is in no danger of cancellation anytime soon. To borrow one of Fienberg’s pet phrases, the game’s not worth the candle here. Either commit to him dying, or don’t go there at all. There is no upside to this approach. If Glenn dies, you’ve antagonized the fans this way. If he doesn’t, you’ve eliminated life and death stakes from a show that’s driven almost entirely by life and death stakes.
And Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson concurs:
Over the course of six seasons The Walking Dead has done a great job of raising the bar and keeping the stakes high for our heroes. No one was safe. Not beloved one-legged patriarchs, not mothers who just gave birth, and not even little girls. It’s that very real risk that gives the show its juice. So to rescue both Rick and Glenn from seemingly unrescueable situations in the same episode? That’s a ding in the show’s credibility. And while the two of them have gotten out of sticky scraps before (Glenn’s use of “dumbass” in this episode was a nice callback to his perilous gut-smeared meet cute with Rick), it’s clumsy to put two such important characters in danger only to rescue them both at the last minute. Because as silly as it may sound, plausibility is hugely important to a show like The Walking Dead. When the rules of any given universe are fantastical, there has to be an element of real drama to anchor it. The Walking Dead often excels in their between-the-attack moments when the burgeoning relationships between these battered survivors get a chance to breath. (The Glenn and Maggie romance is the best example of that.) It’s also worth noting that of all the perilous cliffhangers these characters have survived, none have been as blatantly manipulative as Glenn’s alleged death. The scene was improbably rigged and shot in such a way to extract maximum grief from audiences without any of the actual dramatic consequences. Glenn may survive this episode (and we hope he does!), but the show’s ability to create believable dramatic tension has suffered a fatal blow.
New episodes of The Walking Dead air at 9pm ET Sundays on AMC; recent episodes are available On Demand.