Damn it, this one hurts.
After going a uncommonly long time without killing off a major character, The Walking Dead this week said a wrenching goodbye to someone who'd been part of the show's solid core since the beginning. At the end of the series' very first episode, Rick Grimes was penned-in by zombies in downtown Atlanta with little hope of escape — then he heard the voice of a friendly stranger over the radio, calling him a "dumbass." That stranger, a former pizza-delivery guy named Glenn Rhee, saved our hero's life. Now, in this week's episode — entitled, appropriately enough, "Thank You" — Glenn calls his buddy "dumbass" one last time, via a radio message he delivers from a walker-infested small-town shopping plaza. About 20 minutes later, he's then beset by dozens of snarling monsters.
Unlike Rick, he doesn't make it out.
Looking back over the episode, we should've seen this coming. The return of "dumbass" is a clue. So is Glenn being the first person we see in "Thank You," alone in the frame, running for his life. And then there's the long speech that an infected Alexandrian gives to Michonne, about how he just wants to make it back to the Safe Zone so that he can thank his wife for convincing him that happiness could still exist, even in the plague years. His hand-written note of gratitude ultimately ends up on the ground, trampled by the undead as its author dies screaming — not too long after Glenn mentions that he has a wife, too. In other words: This was a bad day to be a husband.
More importantly, from the cold open onward, "Thank You" makes the same point over and over, arguing that sentimentality is a luxury. The episode picks up where the season premiere left off, with the blaring truck horn from the safe zone redirecting the zombie herd towards home. As our heroes try to salvage the plan and get back to safety, Rick tells Glenn and Michonne that there are too many walkers ahead of them for their party to survive intact; he stresses that they shouldn't hesitate to leave the weak and wounded behind. Instead, after Rick heads out on his own, the other two try to stay compassionate, They end up stuck in no man's land.
In keeping with Walking Dead effects maven/co-producer Greg Nicotero's preseason promise to load up on zombies, "Thank You" once again fills the screen with rotting predators, who winnow down the people the duo are trying to save, until eventually Glenn and Michonne are separated from each other and surrounded by flesh-eaters. It's an impressive, horrifying spectacle, captured by director Michael Slovis in a series of overhead shots that make the walkers look like an unstoppable force of nature. Frankly, if they'd both survived — as opposed to just Michonne — it would've strained credulity. And Glenn's had so many near-misses in the past that it's only logical he'd be the next to go.
Still…oof. He's been such a great character all along: plucky, positive, and capable — in other words, an especially hard one to lose. And his death isn't pretty, either. He puts his faith in Nicholas, the ASZ coward he's been trying to teach to be stronger; and the other man's indecision leads them into a blocked-off alley, where they quickly run out of ammunition. Nicholas panics and shoots himself in the head (after saying, "Thank you") and they both fall into the horde, where Glenn's ripped apart, fully conscious. If ever a TV character's loss could be described as "tragic," it's this one.
The death comes with about 15 minutes remaining in "Thank You," leaving the rest of the episode to compare the lesson — that it's cruel to be kind — with what our surviving heroes are going through. Michonne holds on to the last two survivors from the mass zombie attack, but is haunted by all the ones she mistakenly told she'd keep safe. And Rick, having shocked the Alexandrians with how callously he kills and scavenges, shocks himself when he guns down some humans who are trying to commandeer his RV, then goes through their pockets and finds jars of baby food. In his head, he understands that his endure-at-all-costs mentality is the only way to make it through this hellscape. But he also knows that he becomes a little less human every time he takes a non-zombie life.
Right about now, this show's fans fans are probably going through a similar intellectual wrestling match, trying to decide whether this latest twist is one too many. Most TV dramas, even the bloodiest, promise to keep at least a few major characters front-and-center, so that viewers will have someone reliable and likable to follow through the worst of times. But like Game of Thrones, our weekly dose of zombie-apocalypse drama has always been a show where the stakes are high and meaningful, and where anyone can die at any time. In a "this is the way things go" sense, and for the overall thematic integrity of the series, Glenn's death is justified. But it's painful just the same. And it's hard not to wonder: For the sake of a dramatic moment, did The Walking Dead just sacrifice a little too much of its own humanity?
Previously: Out Come the Wolves