An episode of The Walking Dead titled “Thank You” that begins with a close-up of Glenn (Steven Yeun) almost euphorically running toward the camera, and away from danger and toward whatever place will, yet again, guarantee his survival, can’t help but reverberate with portentousness. Flash forward to the end of the episode for a confirmation of sorts: another close-up, this time of Glenn on his back, after having fallen from a garbage bin surrounded by a horde of zombies, screaming in silent agony—only the haunted, symphonic score fills the soundtrack—as his guts spew like silly string from his body. Thank you, Glenn, it was nice knowing you.
But you would have to be new to the world of The Walking Dead, either the show or the comic on which it’s based, to take this scene at face value. For one, it doesn’t come right at the end of the episode—which is to say, the most conventional place for a series to leave audiences gasping in shock at the death of one of its most beloved characters. Just about the only purpose served by killing Glenn at this spectacularly heightened point is to brilliantly key our emptiness of feeling to that of Rick (Andrew Lincoln), who sits inside his group’s stalled RV and brutally and efficiently empties a round of gunfire into its side after a spotting from the side-view mirror a group of strangers sneaking upon the vehicle. But The Walking Dead, even at its best, doesn’t trade in such abstract associations.
Tomorrow, around water coolers the world over, the conversations will be about whether Glenn is in fact dead. Would that he is, because then, a week later, as the same people gather around the same water coolers, the conversations won’t turn to outrage, namely at the show’s canny, if unmistakably manipulative, display of misdirection. Your guess is probably as good as mine: Because Glenn falls off the garbage bin only after Nicolas (Michael Traynor) shoots himself in the head and falls onto him, the symphony of the soundtrack is only an elegy to Glenn’s profound sense of compassion. The real question isn’t whether or not he’s alive, but how much noise Michonne (Danai Gurira) will need to make in order to prevent Glenn from becoming sloppy seconds after the zombies are done feasting on Nicolas. Their absence was grueling.
This season of The Walking Dead began with a plotline, of Rick’s group leading an obscenely enormous horde of zombies away from the Alexandria Safe-Zone, that continues to thrillingly play out in “Thank You.” Nervy as it was, the season premiere was also insipidly shot, as its use of black and white existed only to unimaginatively indicate for audiences which events transpired in the past. As such, last week’s episode, “JSS,” directed by Jennifer Lynch (daughter of David), felt almost like a rebuke, as the strict focus on the people inside Alexandria as it comes under attack from a ravenous group of marauders known as the Wolves worked to temporally disorient us. Rick’s group, outside and leading the zombies away from their makeshift colony, were nowhere to be seen or heard.
“Thank You” functions as a parallel to “JSS,” focusing on how Rick’s group of survivors outside Alexandria’s fragile gates are themselves splintered by chaos. While Daryl (Norman Reedus), Abraham (Michael Cudlitz), and Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green), like steampunk pied pipers, lead the main zombie horde away from Alexandria, Rick and the others deal with the horde that follows them through the forest. And as Rick plays the lone wolf by going to get the RV, Michonne and the others head into a nearby town and hatch a plan to blow up a building (or more) so as to distract the herd coming in—the same herd that will eventually gather around Glenn and Nicolas.
By the end of this artfully cut spectacle of dispersion, the groups have been further whittled down, and the viewer is left feeling completely unmoored, without a spatial sense of where anyone is in relationship to Alexandria. Once, in the distance, a shot is heard, to which Glenn says, “Is that home?” His gaze is just about the only thing here that orients audiences, and the sadness in his voice, an echo of his earlier desire about needing to get home, and to Maggie, of course, is despairing. That Glenn may be dead haunts us, then, precisely because it makes us wonder where the series could possibly go without him. Just about the only thing that keeps hope alive is Rick’s propensity for always getting what he wants, and the words he utters early on as he looks at Michonne and Glenn, and says: “You make sure to get back.”
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