The Walking Dead: Do We Want TV Death to Matter?

SPOILER WARNING: This article talks about major character deaths, resurrections, and plot points in The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, The X-Files and LOST. Proceed at your own risk and remember, Valar Morghulis.

If Glenn Dies We Riot

Another week has gone by since the apparent death of The Walking Dead’s most dearly beloved Glenn Rhee – one of the show’s most prominent characters – and he still hasn’t been resurrected through the power of storytelling trickery. Glenn was thrown into the show’s infamous undead meatgrinder a week ago in episode 6.03, titled “Thank You,” unceremoniously falling victim to a much less lovable character’s mid-episode retreat into suicide. A newer guy named Nicholas shot himself in the head and his corpse fell onto Glenn, knocking both bodies off of their precarious perch atop a dumpster and into a horde of waiting zombies. A week of speculation about how Glenn may have survived later, and fans get a flashback episode instead of definitive answers. In the biz they call that pulling a LOST.

The answer that many people are hoping for is that the body of Nicholas covered Glenn’s body, and the intestines we see getting gobbled up are in fact those of the loathsome coward who initiated the most watched murder-suicide of the fall season. The camera trickery that would allow for this is all there, and I would not be at all surprised if Glenn is brought back at a very opportune, shiver-inducing moment later into the show’s sixth season. It will make a lot of people happy, if Glenn returns to finish his story arc, but more importantly it will subvert a decade long trend in edgy TV.

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If Glenn lives, character death doesn’t matter anymore.

Glenn Walking Dead

The Lives We’ve Lost

For a very long time, the hallmark of prestige television has been it’s ability to convincingly portray a gritty fictional world that we, the audience, have been taught to equate as being more realistic. This has worked incredibly well for Game of Thrones, which manages to use its liberal application of major character death to counterbalance the stigma of fantasy storytelling being for unserious audiences.

While Game of Thrones is the apotheosis of this ‘dark means serious and smart’ aesthetic, I would argue that LOST can be credited for kicking off this trend on network TV during its six season run starting in 2004. The way we talked about death on that show – and the producers used this language too – was to say that death mattered.

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If a character died on LOST, they stayed dead (though even LOST had its late series exceptions in Sayid and Jin, who each found resurrection through magic and framing respectively, and often found ways to bring actors back, if not exactly their characters). LOST loved its morbid prema-death rule so much that even its episode titles served to tell viewers to give up hope on character returns. The season five episode “Dead Is Dead” contains the first definitive hints that a prominent, seemingly resurrected character is actually deceased, and his image has been appropriated by the show’s evil smoke monster.

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LOST made good on its promise with a finale that essentially breaks down to the message: everyone dies, even gods. Since then other TV has gone on to outperform the ABC sci fi drama in terms of nihilism. Most notably, Game of Thrones has popularized the sensation of viewer mourning on an unprecedented level. Every season features the brutal and permanent death of at least one main character, and it has gotten to a point where the show’s cast of living characters is nearly unrecognizable from the first season, which infamously decapitated its main protagonist in the penultimate episode.

With Game of Thrones the spectacle of meaningful character death was so gigantic that it extended out into the meta-media sphere, with Red Wedding YouTube reaction videos becoming just as important as the event that they complimented. And while recent deaths (particularly that of Oberyn Martell which took full advantage of HBO’s “we’ll show anything but and erect penis” policy) elicited oaths to never watch the show again, Game of Thrones season six is still eagerly anticipated. But death might not be a meaningful part of its equation.

Jon Snow, a character who is loved even by viewers who hate him, was stabbed to death during the final scene of the season five finale of Game of Thrones. Retrospectively it was a telegraphed plot point, and tonally it fits perfectly with the show’s tagline: Valar Morghulis (all men must die). Yet, almost no one is willing to let Jon Snow rest in peace. If the entertainment magazines that report on Kit Harrington’s hair length are anything to go by, he won’t be dead by this same time next year, aesthetic consistency be damned.

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In My Time of Dying

The idea of death mattering almost seems like a given nowadays, thanks to the success of Game of Thrones and the constant stream of imitators that peddle its bleak life philosophy, but historically it seems like a reaction. Prior to 2004’s shift toward permanent death in TV, audiences were caught in a weird bluffing game with their serialized dramas. Take The X-Files for instance, a show that constantly dangled character death as stakes without any intention of making good on the threat.

In season five actually begins with the reveal that Mulder, implied as dead in the season four finale, had actually faked his suicide. Of course, the entire idea that The X-Files would actually kill Mulder was unbelievable, and it is tiring to watch those false stakes flaunted so earnestly. The thing is, the world of The X-Files doesn’t work without either of its primary characters. Mulder and Scully are invincible in that world because – as was thoroughly proven by the Mulder-less seasons eight and nine – the show is actually about them and not their titular investigations. Chris Carter and his team can’t kill Mulder or Scully because then the whole story is over. That is not the case for the ensemble based post-LOST damas.

Quite famously, the original script for Lost’s pilot calls for the death of series protagonist Jack Shephard. That’s how strongly the show’s creators cared about subverting the invincible lead trope so strongly established before it. Game of Thrones made good on LOST’s conceptual promise, and The Walking Dead has the potential to truly realize a television show where no one is safe, playing into its theme perfectly and continuing until everyone, even its viewers join the legions of non-living. But that likely won’t happen because viewers don’t want the people we love to die anymore.

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The Rebirth of Ressurectioncore

From a pure macro storytelling point of view, Jon Snow and Glenn Rhee’s nearly inevitable television resurrections make sense. There is a long standing fan theory that Snow is the namesake of the Song of Ice and Fire books, positioning him as the series protagonist, and Glenn’s story arc was left infuriatingly incomplete. Their dodging of the reaper will likely lead to a more satisfying tale for viewers, with a beginning middle and end, albeit one that betrays the tacit modern TV rule of death mattering.

If we accept that these characters can come back to life we are also accepting a decidedly un-gritty paradigm shift in serialized entertainment. Glenn was not the only character that died in “Thank You” – there were at least three other friendly faces who were killed by zombies that hour and the main character, Rick Grimes, murdered like, five humans as well. If Glenn comes back we have to accept that he is more important than those other poor souls by virtue of being more likeable and more interesting. He will be elevated to the status of a modern Mulder. And that’s not a bad thing; It’s just a big shift in terms of what an audience demands. We are tired of death in the same way we got tired of invincibility.

I can think of at least two stories that live and die on their resurrection plot points – Final Fantasy VII and The New Testament of The Bible – the latter of which has inspired a great deal of devotion in an audience that doesn’t traditionally like to think of death as finite ending. Bringing characters back to life can be thrilling and meaningful if handled sparingly and with strong intent on behalf of the storyteller.

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With the deaths of Jon Snow and Glenn Rhee, a vocal segment of the viewing audience has reached its breaking point with bleak television. They don’t want the things they love to go away. That viewer reaction, as inconsistent as it is with the rampant modern love of grittiness, proves at least one thing, and it’s in line with the premise of both shows: everyone dies, and death is fucking exhausting. To amend a popular Walking Dead fan proverb/ t-shirt slogan: If Glenn dies we riot, but if he lives everything changes.



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