Why You Couldn't Accept This Death On The Walking Dead

Photo: Gene Page/Courtesy of AMC.
Warning: This story contains spoilers.

In episode 3 of its sixth season, The Walking Dead officially messed with us. We saw Glenn and Nicholas standing on a dumpster, surrounded by zombies. Nicholas, unable to handle his impending doom, shoots himself in the head. In the process, his body falls down to the ground where he becomes zombie food — taking Glenn with him. Despite the fact that we saw lots of blood and guts while zombies feasted upon their bodies, fan theories abounded that Glenn was, in fact, still alive.

Some insisted that Nicholas' body fell on top of Glenn's, and therefore functioned as a shield. Glenn would use the ol' cover-yourself-in-blood-and-guts trick to walk amongst the zombies undetected. In a variation on a theme, another theory posted that Glenn used Nicholas' body as a shield before crawling underneath the dumpster and radioing for help.

AMC wasn't helping, either. The Talking Dead didn't include Glenn in its "In Memoriam" segment, as it usually does with characters who die. In a vague-as-hell interview with Variety, executive producer David Alpert said, “Regardless of what happened to Glenn, he paid a tremendous price for having been human to Nicholas, and that, to me, from an emotional point-of-view — whether or not Glenn is alive or dead or something else — the Glenn that we knew, the one that believed in the better side of humanity, I think is dead.” No one knew what the hell he was talking about, but he used the words "alive" and "Glenn" in a sentence, so it fueled the fan fire.

Except, when we did finally hear a voice radio for help in episode 6, hopes that it was Glenn were quickly shattered by none other than Norman Reedus. (He confirmed that the voice we hear is not that of our dear Glenn in a recent interview.) Plus, Steven Yeun's name was removed from the opening credits of the show. Yet, true to the under-the-dumpster theory, we finally saw in episode 7 that Glenn survives.

The real question here isn't why a network has been treating this season like a murder mystery dinner. The question is why were we, as viewers, unable to accept Glenn's death? What made us insist, both in conversation with friends and in 140-character broadcasts, that our romantic lead would undoubtedly live?

So, I asked a couple of experts about it.

Nancy Mramor Kajuth, PhD, health and media psychologist and author of Get Reel: Produce Your Own Life, said that we’re having such trouble with Glenn because we let him into our living rooms every Sunday night for the past few years. “When you take characters into your living room, they become like family,” Kajuth told me over the phone on Sunday. It’s that sort of association that causes us to be in denial about losing a family member at all. “Actually, we see more of [the characters] than we do our own family, because of the frequency of the show,” Kajuth added. So, your attachment to Glenn feels all that more intense.

Beyond the family identification is what Kajuth calls personal identification. “The guys want to be like Glenn, and the girls want to be married to him.” DID THINGS JUST GET TOO REAL FOR YOU? “They become our personal heroes.”

Goal Auzeen Saedi, PhD, a psychologist whose specialties include pop culture, also said that shows sometimes reflect what’s going on during a certain period of our lives. “Oftentimes for people, it doesn’t necessarily mimic their own life, but it’s a fantasy of a life that they would like to have,” she told me over the phone on Friday. Does Glenn and Maggie as #relationshipgoals sound familiar?

Plus, let’s not forget that dead characters who aren’t really dead are one of the oldest tricks in the TV book. (Ask your grandmother about her soap operas.) “Somebody can fall off a cliff into the ocean, but if we didn’t see them die, well maybe they’re not dead,” Kajuth said. “[It’s] a brilliant marketing strategy on the part of the producers to keep you viewing and to keep you interested in viewing.” Is it possible that AMC has been playing you?

Let’s just say that somewhere, deep down, despite what you put on Twitter, you felt that Glenn was dead, but you couldn’t bring yourself to say it. What’s up with that? “In The Walking Dead, you have people who get mauled and eaten and torn to shreds, and they see these people suffer,” Kajuth said. “It’s not just that they die, it’s that they suffer, which is a factor that causes some level of distress for viewers.” Distress is an understatement.

That brings us to the next problem, which is how fans are feeling those feels on social media. You may be tweeting cry-face emojis and typing in all caps, but Dr. Saedi’s on to you. “Personally, I have a hard time believing that someone online saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe this is over,’ is actually going through their day-to-day life bawling,” she told me. “There’s something about the online persona which is commonly inconsistent with the real-life persona that one has. If I were to say, even from a therapeutic perspective, that a person is truly devastated, they technically would be so depressed that they couldn’t even log onto a computer to express their feelings.”

In other words, you need to take a long look in the mirror. Do some soul searching. Ask yourself how you could have let things get so out of hand in your brain. When I asked Kajuth what she thought of fans who spun wild theories of Glenn’s survival, she answered with a laugh, “I would say they have a very vivid imagination.” As it turns out, so does AMC.

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