This essay contains spoilers for both the television series and the comic book.
I don’t have cable. So I usually have to wait until the day after to watch The Walking Dead. As luck would have it, I’m in a cheap hotel with complementary AMC with my daughter when the episode “Thank You” airs. Six years old, my daughter is in the bath and complains about the sound from my television show — the two things that she fears the most, while awake and in her nightmares, are racists and zombies. Our compromise is that I turn the sound down and the captions on. And then I watch one of my favorite characters in pop culture get deluged in zombie claws, teeth, blood and guts.
Most likely, Glenn is not truly dead on The Walking Dead show — yet. After the initial shock of seeing that scene, I realized that we’re all probably being Jin-Soo Kwon’d, and there are articles all over the internet with proof that Glenn is still alive in some way or shape or form. But what I’m worried about is that even if Glenn lives, for now, he’ll only be killed later on as a plot device to serve this series’ grim world view, and we fans continue to watch with the ever present threat of his eventual demise hanging over us throughout the remainder of the series.
When I first read issue #100 of the comic book, where Glenn’s head is bashed in with a spiked baseball bat by Negan, I felt nauseated, filled with disbelief. Then, I was filled with hatred for Robert Kirkman. Utter, to the bottom of my stomach hatred. Hatred that would make a Game of Thrones anti-fan run for cover. But I put the trade paperback down, and tried to reason through it.
The Walking Dead’s universe is a harsh one. Characters can go at any time, for any reason or no reason at all. And even though Glenn was one of the few sympathetic Asian American male characters in a successful comic book series, ultimately the creator doesn’t owe her or his audience anything, right?
I went online and found a couple of articles, one stating that Kirkman was pretty much bored with the character, another that Glenn’s death was meant to show how ruthless Negan was. Then came subsequent issues where Negan goes on and on about race not being an issue when he killed Glenn, which seemed like such a cheap breach of the fourth wall in order to absolve Kirkman of any guilt. So I got mad again at Kirkman, this time for lazy writing.
As a baddie, Negan just seemed way too close to the Governor, who inflicted his brand of sociopathic tortures upon the main characters not too long ago in the comic continuum. When Glenn is killed, Maggie is pregnant, adding to the feeling that Glenn’s brutal murder was played for emotionally manipulative shock value than anything else. That’s a shame when it happens to any character.
Imagine what it feels like to be an Asian American and see that happen to one of the few likable characters in mainstream culture that looks like you.
I’ll admit it — one of the reasons I’m so attached to Glenn Rhee on The Walking Dead television series is because he’s one of the very few nuanced, intriguing Asian American males in a blockbuster mainstream American action drama franchise. That’s how low the bar is for Asian Americans in Western pop culture — Glenn is a decent, likable human being on a successful show, which makes him an icon compared to the shit we’ve been represented as and been limited to for decades. The Walking Dead, as a show, has more than its share of problems regarding race and gender, which have been written about here and elsewhere. The existence of Glenn doesn’t excuse any of that — he exists despite that.
More than that, of the main characters, Glenn has become the moral compass of the group. He has become tough through necessity, but he still loves Maggie deeply (who, in my opinion, is much more self-assured and strong in the show than the comics), and he still demonstrates mercy and compassion, compared to the hard decisions made by conflicted (though still, to varying degrees, highly likable) characters like Rick, Carol, Daryl, and Michonne. While the reincarnation of the Morgan character and his reluctance to kill seems to set up a much needed conflict regarding leadership and survival philosophy, Glenn has been a character that has grown with the series, and we the viewers, since the beginning.
The series already has a problem in that it presents the harsher leaders — in particular Rick and Carol — as being right in the end. Anyone who disagrees with them is either killed — or sees a loved one killed and changes their mind — or their act of mercy is portrayed as an act of weakness and comes back to kill them. In effect, good deeds only earn punishment on The Walking Dead.
While that is partly true in life, it’s not the whole truth. Good can come out of mercy. Good can come out of giving someone a second chance. Good can come from hope. Glenn embodies that, more than any of the core characters. If and when we lose Glenn, we lose a lot more than just a popular character.
The show has diverted from the comics before, even regarding death. Carol, for example, is vastly different, and still alive, vs. the comics. I hope they keep Glenn alive, too. Yes, because finding an Asian American male character like Glenn on a blockbuster mainstream series is like spotting Bigfoot. But also because I’d like to see the show explore different outlooks on life, survival, and leadership than where the comics are going. Maori actor Cliff Curtis plays Travis Manawa in the spin-off show Fear the Walking Dead. It’s unknown if the two series dovetail, but his trajectory seems similar to the doom and gloom approach we’ve seen in the main series: people who show mercy either die or live to regret it.
In the comics, Rick may be crazed, and do terrible things, but ultimately his way is presented as the right way. And terrible things keep happening to good people. Yes, absolutely — we should expect nothing less than brutality in our zombie fictions. But if brutality is the only way of the world, then what is anyone even alive for? And what, as fans, are we ultimately investing in?
I would love to see the show divert from the comics and push back on Rick even more than they are now. Where characters like Michonne, Maggie, Daryl, Morgan, and Glenn challenge his leadership and his decisions. Where the violent and conflicted white alpha male isn’t the only one proven right in this new world. Where some deeds of mercy and compassion actually bear fruit to some small acts of unexpected good or kindness.
That’s a world worth living through the brutality for.