Scott Gimple has been yanking our chain. The showrunner for post-apocalyptic drama The Walking Dead has been delivering the slowest gut punch possible to his loyal audience since what appeared to be the beloved Glenn Rhee's gruesome death in the October episode "Thank You." In the intervening seasons, Steven Yeun's name has been missing from the show's opening credits; he wasn't even given an 'In Memoriam' on post-show talkfest The Talking Dead. And then, for weeks of sideplots, Glenn's fate hung in the balance.
In Sunday night's episode "Heads Up," Glenn's fate was finally revealed. He's survived near death in the exact way fans had predicted weeks ago: That the blood and guts we saw during his "death" actually belong to uber-coward Nicholas, giving Glenn the gruesome cover he needed to wriggle beneath a nearby dumpster and wait for the horde of walkers to disperse. Not only is it a brilliant escape and a relief for Glenn fans, but it's a remarkable cliffhanger.
This is great! But it's also kind of a letdown. As I wrote when Glenn "died," cliffhangers have long been the hallmark of serialized dramas, deliberately designed to up your emotional investment in your favorite characters. But the execution by Gimple's writing team — removing all references to Yeun across the show's various media, leaving audiences to stew in their own anxiety for three whole completely tangential episodes — feels ham-fisted and trite, a "psych!" aimed to goose the audience into giving the show a nice, fat ratings bump (which it did).
Everyone loves a good cliffhanger, but Gimple's play on Glenn's ambiguous fate just feels like a dick move rather than smart, deliberate storytelling. "I’m not totally sure why Glenn had to be fake-dead (with his name removed from the credits and all!) for a bunch of episodes only to return exactly as the fans predicted," writes the Atlantic's David Sims, explaining the trouble with Glenn's prolonged absence. "Because of that, the suspense was muted, there wasn’t any emotional impact on the characters (they never fully believed he was dead), so it was mostly just a trick played on the viewing audience—who only briefly fell for it."
This may have been in service of a broader goal for the series that Gimple's working towards: to transform TheWalking Dead from a band of ragged survivors fighting off zombies and the occasional human megalomaniac (the Governor) to a sprawling community hunkering down against increasingly vicious and bloodthirsty human threats (the cannibals of Terminus, the Wolves who attacked Alexandria) . The consequence of this, of course, it that the core crew — Carol, Glenn, Maggie, Daryl, Rick and the like — can't remain safe for long.
"It's a very big season...We're dropping everyone in the deep end of the pool," Gimple toldThe Hollywood Reporter of the series' sixth season. "Things can get worse — in different ways. There will be some very unique turns to this story coming up." The goal of this season, then is to create a world where "even a character like Rick Grimes can be killed off," as THR put it.
This is a noble aspiration by Gimple, and one that will ultimately serve audiences well by upping the complexity and emotional stakes for an audience that's show anxiety over the show's mellow slog in the past (remember when all of season 2 took place on a goddamn farm?). But based on Glenn's bizarre "death" and subsequent return, I worry that Gimple and his fellow writers are striving for danger and uncertainty by deploying cheap, drawn out cliffhangers that, like any clickbait headline on the internet, tend to disappoint rather than enervate. In the process, he's turned season six of TheWalking Deadinto a masterclass of TV trolling not seen since Lost — and while that's great for a temporary ratings bump, it will spell death for his loyal audience in the long term.
Either way, all hail Glenn. If anyone can survive a horde of zombies and an awkward plot twist, it's this beautiful bastard.
Photos by Photo: Gene Page / AMC