Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our new feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
It may be asking a lot of you, the reader, if we prompt you to think back to a time when AMC’s The Walking Dead was one of the hottest shows on television. In fact, it may feel like that period of time never happened at all, but we assure you that it did—between 2012 and 2017, in fact, almost every single episode of The Walking Dead was watched by more than 10 million simultaneous live viewers in the U.S.A. It’s a level of cable engagement that was unprecedented, and one we’ll almost certainly never see again, given the dominance of streaming services and on-demand viewing rather than scheduled programming. The Walking Dead at its peak was a phenomenon—the last big cable “water cooler” show before all the buzz moved to Netflix and beyond.
And yeah, the show still exists today, whether or not you’re aware of it. The ratings are a fraction of what they once were—still pretty damn high for cable—but a huge percentage of the audience has moved on, leaving a skeleton crew of die hards to piece together the nonsense still unfolding on the neverending zombie story as the Grimes Gang (Judith Grimes, now) struggles to overcome yet another villainous group in the form of The Whisperers. For a long time, I was among that dwindling group holding out and continuing to watch the series out of a certain sense of devotion, and I kept up weekly reviews for Paste in 2019 well past the point of those reviews feeling at all relevant. In fact, my favorite Walking Dead-related item of the last two years turned out to be some branded TWD whiskey, rather than anything I saw on my TV screen.
If I’m looking back to the moment that the show truly lost me, though? The moment when I knew there was probably no coming back, and when the purpose for my viewing shifted to “obligation” rather than pulpy enjoyment? It was the much ballyhooed death of the beloved Glen Rhee, the heart and soul of the Grimes Gang, who shuffled off this mortal coil in the Season 7 premiere, “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be.” Airing in late October of 2016, it was the payoff to an astoundingly sleazy tease of “which character will die?” that left fans of the series on the hook 7 months earlier, all in pursuit of a shameless ratings bump.
Or in other words: I was by no means upset that this show killed poor Glenn. Hell, it killed its core characters off all the time, usually in the same episode it gave you a good reason to care about them. Rather, I was completely disenchanted by the transparent ratings grubbery with which AMC delivered that death. It was a bait and switch of epic proportions, and it still stings now, four years later. Whether or not you were a reader of Robert Kirkman’s comics (I was), it came off as a prime example of greedy and exploitative TV storytelling.
Back in the day, Glenn almost died each and every week.
Not that this was new for The Walking Dead, even then. This series has a long history of baiting fans; of teasing them; of seeming to punish them for their loyalty. This is the series that advertised the death and departure of Rick Grimes for weeks, built an entire episode around his noble sacrifice, and then finished that hour of TV with a “psych! Rick’s alive and helicoptering off to some other community to star in TV movies a few years from now.” We still have no idea of what that was all about, or the rationale for Rick never returning to his family in the years that followed. Nor is there any concrete news about those films even having been written yet, much less filmed. Eight years of the story of Rick Grimes sort of just faded out like the sound of air being let out of a balloon, all because TWD never met a contrivance that it didn’t giddily embrace.
Glenn, of course, had already been the victim of another such hacky death fake-out in the beginning of Season 6—something we should have taken to heart as we came to terms with how desperate The Walking Dead had become for shock and ratings. This was of course the infamous “dumpster” incident, in which Glenn and another character (Nicholas, but that no longer matters) fall into a crowd of zombies, and the camera pans in on Glenn screaming as guts and viscera appear to be torn out of his chest and the episode comes to a close. The next few episodes embraced the “Glenn is dead” deception, even removing actor Steven Yeun’s name from the opening credits, and it’s another four episodes before the ruse is revealed—the walkers were actually munching on the other guy, while Glenn somehow scooted to safety under the dumpster. Wildly improbable, exploitative and hacky as hell? Sure. But hey, it got people talking, right? That’s the important thing.
The dumpster, though, ultimately paled in comparison with Glenn’s actual denouement, which was among the most cynical ratings grabs in cable history. Part of the reason, of course, was expectation due to how closely the scene, in which one member of the group is beaten to death by alpha douche Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), looked to be adapted straight from the comic books. Anyone who had read the comic was well aware that this scene was already infamous—the unexpected death of Glenn at the hands of Negan in the comics is one of the most gut-wrenching and unflinchingly brutal losses in The Walking Dead. So when the sixth season finale, “Last Day on Earth” aired and promos contained the scene with the whole group on their hands and knees in front of Negan and his barbed wire bat, fans knew that someone’s time had most definitely come. The only question anyone was asking was this: Is it going to be Glenn, like in the comics? Or will the show pull one of its classic subversions by killing someone else instead?
What people didn’t expect was for TWD to weasel its way out of revealing anything in that Season 6 finale, because that was too cheap a tactic for even the most jaded Walking Dead viewer to seriously consider. To build the entire, very effective episode around the impending death that every audience member knew was coming, and then NOT reveal that death was the most blatantly self-serving move imaginable, a giant middle finger to the people who had already been watching for almost 7 years at that point. You think you’re about to get a pay-off? Nope, see you in seven months! BUY OUR MERCH TO EASE THE PAIN!
Even the mode of not showing the death is insultingly hacky. In the episode’s closing seconds, Negan approaches an unknown Grimes Gang member, and the camera shifts to a first person perspective. Choosing his victim, Negan crushes them in the head with a baseball bat, and a red blood filter begins to creep down the screen, like the opening of a James Bond film. It’s the old “kill the camera guy” dodge!
Seven months later, the TWD Season 7 premiere revealed it was … Abraham? … who had been hit in the head by Negan, meaning that Glenn was apparently in the clear. Oh wait, did I say “in the clear”? I meant “Daryl jumps up and punches Negan in an act of futile defiance, and Negan retaliates by then killing Glenn.” Ah, the old Walking Dead double fakeout. Fakeception, if you will. Make the audience wait 7 months for an expected payoff, subvert that payoff, and then return to the payoff five minutes later after you’ve released all the tension, while also throwing another one of the show’s most liked characters under the bus by making him essentially culpable. Truly, a masterpiece of both grubbing for ratings and undermining the future of the series.
Make no mistake, The Walking Dead had already been trending downward long before these events, but the way it handled the death of Glenn was one of those moments that vastly accelerated the decline. In its wake, we were introduced to the character of Negan, a top-tier comic antagonist who simply never worked as well on screen as he did on the comics page, despite Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s admirable commitment to embracing his bizarre mannerisms and cuckoo dialog, which often sounded like it was coming from an animated character who had been dropped into a universe of real people. The pompous grandiosity he brought to the series was a metaphor for the last vestiges of The Walking Dead’s earlier, grounded self slipping away, and the show routinely began to embrace the exact sort of shameless “gotcha” fakeouts that had typified Glenn’s death—BOTH of Glenn’s on-screen deaths. Certainly, it was just about the end of anyone trying to take TWD seriously.
And you know what? It totally worked at popping that rating, just like AMC hoped. The Season 7 premiere containing Glenn’s death had more than 17 million viewers, a mark barely surpassed by only one other episode, the Season 5 premiere. In that moment, the network execs must have been slapping themselves on the back and lighting up massive cigars, don’t you think?
And then a funny thing happened. Ratings for the rest of Season 7 of The Walking Dead declined precipitously, being much lower on average than Season 6. The next season, 8 was significantly lower once again. By Season 9, ratings were in freefall, and the average ratings in 2019’s Season 10 were LESS THAN 20% of what they had been in 2016 on the night that Glenn was killed. That death was a peak of hype for the series that it would never come close to achieving again, and it’s hard not to conclude that the network’s shameless handling of that death and its fallout were big reasons why. Never had The Walking Dead been so insultingly obvious in its quest to pop a rating, and in doing so they sowed the seeds of the show’s eventual demise.
Today, the entire Walking Dead franchise is like the carcass of a once mighty beast, being torn to shreds by a bunch of wild dogs each trying to claim their piece of flesh. The original series will finally air its COVID-delayed Season 10 finale on Oct. 4, after the penultimate episode aired way back in April. First spin-off Fear the Walking Dead faces ever dwindling viewership (sounds familiar), but will be back on Oct. 11 for its sixth season regardless. A brand new spin-off, The Walking Dead: World Beyond premieres on Oct. 4 as well, following an entirely new group of characters, while a “Daryl and Carol” spin-off series was also announced this month. Oh, and ANOTHER SERIES called Tales of the Walking Dead, because this is a franchise that needs FIVE series and upcoming feature films attached to it. As it turns out, the key to getting projects greenlit is “ratings that steadily decline every single season without fail.” Also: The idea that anyone could become burned out on Walking Dead content is clearly lunacy. Is there any way we could get a Walking Dead radio serial and a televised puppet show into the works as well?
If Glenn was alive to see this, and not killed off in the cheapest way imaginable, surely he’d be equally disgusted.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.
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