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Why The Walking Dead's Latest Death Needs to Stick

If the stakes are no longer real, what good are they?

Adam Bryant

[WARNING: The following story contains spoilers from Sunday's episode of The Walking Dead. Read at your own risk.]

Wherever Game of Thrones star Kit Harington is hiding out in Belfast today, he's probably sending texts of gratitude to the cast and crew of The Walking Dead.

That's because, at least for now, Jon Snow's presumed death in the HBO drama's fifth season finale is no longer the most hotly debated death on TV. That honor now belongs to former pizza delivery boy Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun), who appeared to have his torso torn open and devoured by a pack of hungry zombies in the waning moments of Sunday's The Walking Dead. Or did he?

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As with Jon Snow's demise, fans erupted on social media Sunday night, decrying the show's decision to kill off Glenn. The comments ran the gamut from simple sadness to comic fanboy rage that the show hadn't killed Glenn off in the same memorable fashion as the graphic novels that inspired the show, to theories positing that Glenn isn't dead at all. "Nicholas fell on top of Glenn!" they scream. "His bowels are breakfast, not Glenn's!" And, of course, a quick Google search will tell you that Yeun has been seen on set, reportedly filming scenes for future episodes relatively recently.

Making matters more complicated, the show's producers aren't exactly discouraging fans from holding out hope the way those associated with Game of Thrones did. Executive producer Scott M. Gimple issued the following statement on Talking Dead: " I knew we should say something about it lest our silence say something we didn't mean to say or not say. So I'll say this: In some way, we will see Glenn, some version of Glenn or parts of Glenn again, either in flashback or in the current story to help complete the story." (Additionally, Talking Dead host Chris Hardwick noted that Glenn was not featured as part of the after show's recurring "In Memoriam" segment.)
So does all of this make it seem not only plausible but also incredibly likely that Glenn didn't actually die? Of course. But as unpopular as this opinion may make me, Glenn needs to be dead.

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In order for any show that thrives on high-stakes danger to succeed, the stakes have to be real. This isn't an area where The Walking Dead usually falters, as the show has killed off many characters early, often and very brutally. Those deaths prove a point on The Walking Dead, a show that at its very core is about survival: Most people don't survive the end of the world.

While Game of Thrones has also rather brutally killed off a number of characters, that show has also established onscreen the ways in which characters can be resurrected by magical elements. As such, holding on to the hope that Jon Snow can be brought back from the dead doesn't seem beyond reason. But believing that a pack of more than 100 zombies would eat Nicholas and then just let Glenn slip away makes no sense. What's more, the way the death scene was shot and scored -- not to mention a callback earlier in the episode to Glenn's first-ever walkie talkie conversation with Rick (Andrew Lincoln) -- certainly makes it feel like this was meant to be a sendoff for one of the show's original characters.

However, it's on that point that many viewers disagree. Some believe Glenn's demise came during such an isolated digression from the story that it isn't befitting such a core character. In other words, if you're going to kill off this character we love, it has to be done in some grand way. Personally, I think the death that was presented on Sunday's episode was perfectly in keeping with The Walking Dead's bleak worldview. People die when they die, and more than likely, all of these characters will one day be somebody else's dinner.

What's even more puzzling is the number of fans who don't want Glenn to be dead simply because they want to see him die in the exact same way his character died in the comic books. I stopped reading the comics well before that story arc, but I understand it's one of the landmark moments. Do I understand the desire to see something like that adapted to the screen? Sure. But the show has proven its ability to "remix" the comic before. I have no doubt that moment would have just as much power if another beloved major character (say -- gasp! -- Daryl) stood in for Glenn when that time comes.

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But more importantly, I want Glenn to be dead so that I can continue to trust the show. If this is all some elaborate fake-out, it sets a ridiculous precedent that will haunt the remainder of the show's run. Anytime somebody we love gets eaten or machete-d to death, some corner of the fandom will cry foul and/or hold out hope that the death won't stick. And in the middle of all that speculation, what the audience won't feel is the mixture of soul-crushing sadness and blind rage that existed on Sunday just moments after Glenn (maybe) was disemboweled. Sure, viewers may have been upset, but their reaction simply proves how effective the choice to kill Glenn was.

Would I like to see Glenn again? Sure, but I don't want to give back the way his "death" impacted me and many others. If I am to keep watching this show in fear of what's lurking around the corner, I have to know that whatever it might be is a real threat that can't be explained away.

When people asked me how I could be so definitive that Glenn died in my initial reaction, the answer was simple: The show had given me no reason not to trust what I was seeing with my own two eyes. I'm sure if the show decides to retroactively prove me wrong and resurrect Glenn for a few more episodes or even seasons, it will gain a lot of viewers' gratitude. But it will have lost at least this viewer's respect.