This post contains spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 6, Episode 3.
On Sunday night’s Walking Dead, one of the few remaining survivors from the show’s first season, Glenn Rhee, lay screaming on the ground beneath a swarm of zombies, bloody intestines unspooling around him. (I refuse to admit they were his intestines, as his useless protégé Nicholas, who shot himself and knocked them both down into the hungry horde, fell on top of him and could have been the one spewing guts.) Although many viewers are white-knuckle gripping onto a tiny shred of hope that Glenn might still make it out, it might also be time to consider the grim truth staring us all in the face: His death is a good thing.
All of the most popular core characters survived last week’s episode, which saw Alexandria savagely attacked by the Wolves. And the episode’s highlight, when Carol stopped pretending to be an ordinary housewife and saved (almost) everyone—as she’s done before—was classic moment of Zombie Era triumph. In contrast, this week’s episode was all about those who cannot be saved. From the outset, as Rick, Glenn, and Michonne run toward home with a group of Alexandrians, we know that not everyone will make it. Rick tells Glenn and Michonne as much before he parts from the group, and insists that they leave any laggards behind to ensure their own survival. But neither of them will actually do so quite as readily as Rick would like.
Eventually, Glenn, Michonne, and company end up trapped in a one-exit building, as the horde approaches. Glenn and Nicholas run out to set a fire as a distraction. Glenn was going to go alone, but Nicholas insists on tagging along. This is the same Nicholas whose cowardice once got another member of the group killed in front of Glenn’s eyes. The same Nicholas who tried to kill Glenn out in the woods after that incident. The same Nicholas whom Glenn chose to forgive, and give a shot at redemption. “Glenn saves people,” his wife Maggie said during the season premiere. “Even people like that.” And it’s true. When we first met Glenn, he was a stranger saving Rick. And ever since then, Glenn has proven to be one of the show’s most resourceful and big-hearted characters—possibly the kindest character the show had left. Unlike others who have grown callous, Glenn maintains optimism despite all the horrors he’s seen. His against-all-odds, love-conquers-all reunion with Maggie in Season 4 seemed to tell us: “Yes, despite the festering, dire reality of the apocalypse, humanity can still find hope.”
But from there, the world of Walking Dead only grows more brutal. There’s no room for “saving” people. They’ll only let you down—in this case, by looking you dead in the eye, whispering, “Thank you,” and shooting themselves, their corpse toppling you both off a dumpster and into a hungry mass of zombies. We got a similar message last week, when one of the Wolves who attacked Morgan last season—whom Morgan, due to his moral code, refused to kill—came back to attack him again. The flashback-filled season premiere was all about redemption. We saw the angry Alexandrian, Carter, gain “redemption” by assimilating and swearing to help the group. Then he died a gruesome death. We saw Gabriel try to redeem himself by volunteering to help the group, too. He was rebuffed. And we saw Nicholas seemingly redeem himself by fighting off zombies and saving the small team he was with—including Glenn, who gave him a meaningful look. But now, we know Nicholas could not live up to the man he wanted to become. Whether or not he’s actually gotten Glenn killed—as I said, until Glenn’s name goes up on the “In Memoriam” list on Talking Dead, I refuse to fully believe it—Nicholas clearly found no redemption. What will happen with Gabriel, who is now getting fighting lessons from Carl? Given what we’ve seen so far from this season, we should probably be anything but optimistic. And that’s precisely why Glenn needed to die—he was one of the show’s final strongholds of optimism. It’s hard to imagine any way for him to survive that overwhelming sea of zombies that doesn’t feel cheap and hokey. So it’s time to accept it: Now that Glenn is dead, so are whatever illusions about mankind we had left. We’re in the era of “J.S.S.”: Just Survive Somehow.