What’s the difference between hiding under a Dumpster and being brought back to life courtesy of a little Lord of Light magic? Basically, it's the same difference between a narrative cliffhanger and cheap stunt.
Last fall, The Walking Dead appeared to kill off one of its major characters, Glenn (played by Steven Yeun), at the end of an episode. What followed was a month of speculation, gimmicks (removing his name from the opening credits), teasing statements from producers and, eventually, a bizarrely unsatisfying reveal that had the character survive in the most unbelievable way.
Now, in the wake of the recent surprise re-animation of Jon Snow (Kit Harington), the comparisons are being drawn between two of the most popular shows on television, which both had the nerve to kill off our onscreen besties – before bringing them back to life.
But, in my opinion, the differences couldn’t be more stark.
The return of Jon Snow is less of a shock than that of Glenn, but it was a more effective example of the cliffhanger device, executed in a way that made better sense within the context of the show, and accomplished without relying on audience manipulation. What’s more, it carried more resonance as opposed to Glenn’s Dumpster-diving survival, which elicited more of a “Really?”
So let’s breakdown four reasons why I think HBO’s hit series bested AMC’s in the dead character cliffhanger game.
Cliffhanger, not a stunt
When Season 5 of Game of Thrones concluded June 2015, Jon Snow was on the ground, bleeding out after being betrayed by his fellow Night’s Watchmen. But just as the life flickered out his eyes, the speculation was firing up.
Jon Snow is dead; over the course of the ensuing 11 months, that was the party line coming out of the production. There were some vague responses and pseudo-teases by current and former GoT cast members about the fate of Jon, but the official word remained the same. Of course, that word was also a bunch of lies, but in the interests of trying to preserve mystery in the Internet age, I'm OK with that.
And just as Season 5 ended with Snow’s corpse on the ground, so did Season 6 open (so he was dead, after all). It was a long wait, but the story picked up right where it left off. During last week’s premiere, Jon Snow was basically a prop, hanging out on a cold slab all episode long. He remained that way until the end of last night’s episode, when he received a sponge bath, haircut, shave and new life courtesy of Melisandre.
Game of Thrones left us with a cliffhanger last year. They placed a character in peril, but then buttoned it up relatively quickly (granted, we don’t know what state this re-animated Jon Snow will be in). Whether it was good storytelling is another matter, but it made sense and was previously foreshadowed.
Meanwhile, The Walking Dead veered into stunt territory, and likewise relied on its after show, The Talking Dead, to tease out uncertainty. Following the Oct. 25 episode, “Thank You,” showrunner Scott Gimple released a statement that “In some way, we will see Glenn, some version of Glenn or parts of Glenn again, either in flashback or in the current story to help complete the story.” Instead of a lie, or simply not saying anything, Gimple actively jerked fans along.
What's more, beyond essentially utilizing the after show as a de facto narrative device, the following week’s episode of TWD removed actor Steve Yeun’s name from the opening credits. Only after three subsequent episodes of not addressing his fate did the series unveil its grand Dumpster plan in the Nov. 22 installment.
Gimple later said the fake-out was meant to make audiences share in the uncertainty of Glenn’s onscreen wife, Maggie. But it came across like a cheap stunt, and the intervening episodes – at least one of which, “Here’s Not Here,” was superior – felt like filler to drag out that “uncertainty.”
Doubtless, it was a stunt that did succeed by becoming part of the cultural conversation, but it damaged the believability of the show – and conveyed a message that, in order to get the full story, you have to watch the post-show.
Magic vs. Walker reality
Other than the existence of Walkers, the world of The Walking Dead is meant to be gritty, but realistic. There are a group of survivors who must contend with, essentially, a new natural disaster, a plague of the undead, while also fighting for their lives against other groups of survivors. People only come back once after death, and it is as a zombified shell of their previous self. After they get popped in the noggin, they are dead dead. And life, as it is, must continue in Atlanta, Alexandria, etc.
After you accept “resurrection” due to a Walker plague, there is nothing extraordinary happening in The Walking Dead universe. Mother Nature has thrown a (albeit shambling, groaning, decomposing) monkey wrench into the works in the form of an infection, but once the survivors understand how it works, more or less, they can understand their world.
Meanwhile, Game of Thrones is set in a magical fantasy realm. Sure, it often bears a passing resemblance to our own medieval time (though the medicine, technology and aesthetics are more in line with the 16th and 17th centuries), but it is never meant to be entirely realistic.
This is a world with dragons, white walkers, wargs, shapeshifting faceless men, greyscale mutants, flaming swords, giants, shadow demon babies – and yes, resurrection. The show has done a successful job not over relying on magic as a plot device, and it is sometimes easy to forget how much it permeates this world.
Yet it does exist in the GoT-verse, and can come into play at any moment.
Predilection for resurrection
For instance, the dead are being transformed into White Walkers all the time in this show. They are clearly not the same as zombie,s since they retain awareness, exhibit deductive reasoning, can speak, and appear to have motivation. And The Mountain, Ser Gregor Clegane, is essentially brought back to life and turned into a zombie-Hulk by former maester Qyburn, and now watches over Cersei as Ser Robert Strong.
But White Walkers and Frankenstein monsters aside – maybe you simply view them as fancy zombies – Game of Thrones previously introduced us to the was-dead-but-got-better Beric Dondarrion. In Season 3, Dondarrion, the Lord of Blackhaven, re-appears as the leader of the Brotherhood without Banners.
It is revealed Beric has been killed multiple times, only to be resurrected by Thoros, a red priest of the Lord of Light. Thoros eventually encounters a fellow red priest who learns of his powers of resurrection, but disapproves of them. That priest’s name? Melisandre.
No such magic exists within the world of The Walking Dead to save Glenn’s butt.
The screaming Glenn -- torso, face, and head exposed – avoided even a Walker nibble as he scrambled under the weight of a dead (though quickly diminishing) Nicholas, and the weight of zombies piled atop to the safe space underneath an industrial trash receptacle.
That kind of Dumpster ex machina escape is either the result of bad writing that breaks the grounded TWD reality...or, magic now exists in that realm, and Glenn just cast a combo spell with a Patronus charm and some floo powder.
Always Walking, and no end-Game
Both Jon Snow and Glenn are alive, but their lives hold very different meanings. In fact, I find myself as a viewer in a place where I trust Game of Thrones more, and believe character lives are more in peril than those on The Walking Dead.
Whereas Jon Snow's death and resurrection was a cliffhanger with payoff, Glenn's revealed that many characters are unkillable (at least until a better, perhaps comic-book-mandated death comes along).
Jon Snow's character arc can be pushed in an entirely new and interesting direction. He can seek vengeance, perhaps possess new insight into the White Walkers, or become a formidable adversary against the mere mortals in the south. His return adds a new dimension, and opens up potential stories. Especially because the series is moving away from George R.R. Martin's books, Jon's future appears open-ended, but not necessarily safe.
Conversely, the popular opinion -- and safe bet -- is that Glenn's butt was saved just long enough to meet Negan's bat, Lucille. While Glenn has been a staple of TWD, this fate seems unavoidable as it is such an iconic moment within the comics. After the ruse of "Thank You," Glenn's life has been threatened a few more times, making the character look as if he's comedically living on borrowed time.
Additionally, GoT showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have suggested they have an endgame in place with the show, and pieces are being put in place for the final chapters -- with possibly only 13 more episodes left after the current season. The same is not true for TWD, where, according to producer David Alpert, benchmarks based on the comics are set up for at least 12 seasons of the show.
Of course, that doesn't mean Rick, Daryl, Carl, and Maggie will survive for 12 seasons -- or that the actors will want to stick around that long --but considering the fake-out death ploy with Glenn, life seems more finite in Westeros than in the Dead-lands.