Spoiler alert: I’m going to be talking about the events of Walking Dead up until Season 3, Episode 10. If you haven’t watched yet and don’t want the plot spoiled, don’t read on.
Hours after his reunion with long-lost brother Merle, Daryl has chosen his brother over his new family of survivors. After escaping from Woodbury with a banished Merle, Rick and Glenn are unwilling to bring him back to the prison; Daryl decides to strike out into the woods with his brother rather than abandon him to the wilderness. Blood, after all, is thicker than water, right?
But, it turns out, that after a year on the road with Rick and the gang, Daryl now shares less in common with his brother Merle than he thought. Upon hearing a baby’s cry in the woods, Daryl rushes to the aid of a Spanish-speaking (presumably Mexican) family about to be overrun by walkers. A flurry of crossbow bolts (as well as the best and most gruesome walker kill of the season thus far) later, and the family is safe although unable to communicate their confusion and gratitude to Daryl. Merle, who reluctantly jumped into the fray with his brother, immediately begins to raid the family’s car for food and supplies (as a “reward”), causing Daryl to threaten him with his crossbow so that the family can leave with their belongings intact.
It is this incident that helps Daryl realize a few things: 1) he is not his brother, and 2) he is innately a hero. A confrontation erupts between Daryl and Merle, and Daryl decides he must return to the prison. Merle, he hopes, will join him (after all, if Rick and company are his family, than they will have to learn to accept Merle, too), but he’s willing to leave Merle in the forest if needs be. Merle protests, arguing that there’s no way in hell that the survivors will accept him — they chopped of his hand, he fought against them as part of the Woodbury militia, he tried to kill Michonne, and he tried to kill “that Chinese kid”.
Which prompts Daryl to retort: “He’s Korean.”
The single exchange symbolized, in my mind, the spectacular characterization of Glenn in The Walking Dead and what his character has done to combat Asian American stereotypes in mainstream media. Glenn is a new class of Asian American character, one that I’m not sure we’ve seen on-screen before.
Unlike previous Asian American characters, Glenn is at once Asian American and incidentally Asian American. Conspicuous among other Asian American characters, Glenn’s racial background does not define or justify his presence. He’s not the computer whiz, the scientist, the intellectual, the geek, the doctor, the technician, or a host of other stereotypical roles typically relegated to the Asian token. Although it is implied that Glenn’s parents were strict, Glenn himself was a pizza boy prior to the zombie apocalypse and assumes the role of forager and fighter — not “medic” or “ninja”, two roles that might be stereotypically Asian yet fulfilled by other members of the group. In short, there’s almost nothing inherently stereotypical about Glenn and his presence in The Walking Dead.
More importantly, Glenn’s thematic role in the group of survivors is striking. Glenn has repeatedly been described by many, including by the show’s executive producer Glen Mazzara, as “the heart of the show”. The Walking Dead is a show about losing one’s sanity in the face of insanity, and to tell that story, we witness many of the characters — Rick, Shane, Michonne, Andrea, Merle, and the Governor to name just a few — descend into madness and barbarism as they slowly lose touch with their own humanity. But, Glenn is unique in this respect: he is intended to inspire the reader because unlike his fellow survivors, he has a strong connection with his own humanity and personal morality. Glenn’s attitude remains among the most recognizably pre-apocalyptic despite his post-apocalyptic zombie-killing environment. Glenn’s innocence and optimism — even in the face of grisly violence — is feel-good and inspiring, and the budding love he feels for Maggie suggests that happiness is still possible even during the apocalypse.
In short, while we as viewers are supposed to be compelled by Rick and his struggles with his personal demons, to root for Michonne and her samurai sword badassery, to be inspired by Daryl and his story of redemption, and to deplore the Governor and his growing sociopathy, we are supposed to identify with Glenn. Says Mazzara:
“Everybody loves that character; everybody’s rooting for that character. He may be tortured and sensitive, but he’s always a hero.”
Think about that for a minute. The Walking Dead is a TV show where the viewer is supposed to feel the closest kinship with Glenn, an Asian-American pizza boy in love with a southern belle.
In a genre that has long cast the Asian American as the villain, the foreigner, and the Other, Glenn stands in stark contrast. He is Asian-American, but his race does not define his membership in the cast. Glenn is an Asian American character, but he’s also an individual — capable of incredible heroism (like when he faced down a walker while tied to a chair, and emerged the victor) and profound emotional ugliness (like the rage he felt that Maggie, but not he, participated in the preliminary assault on Woodbury). He is a leader in the survivor group, assuming the role in Rick and Daryl’s absence, and his romantic relationship with Maggie is a thumbed nose to the stereotype of the desexualized Asian American male.
Television has historically treated its racial minorities much as Merle treats the non-White members of the survivor group: with disdain, irreverence and occasional downright racism. Merle is as dismissive as he is contemptuous of the group of “beaners” that he and Daryl saved in last night’s episode. Striking, then, that Daryl — who in Season 1 was little more than a younger clone of the racist backwater Merle — has spent the last eight months living and fighting alongside Glenn and the other survivors. He has come to see the humanity in Glenn, whom he referred to in Season 1 as “a Chinaman”.
How far Daryl has come. At the moment of his climatic confrontation with his brother, he chooses to express his rebellion with the simple truth about Glenn: “He’s Korean.” Implicitly: He’s not “that Chinese kid”. He’s not what you assume he is based on the way he looks. It’s important to me that you know that he’s Korean, and it’s important to me that you know that he’s not just Korean.
We’re living during a time when Asian American characters seem more prominent than ever on television today: Lucy Liu as Watson on Elementary, Mindy Kaling on The Mindy Project, Jenna Ushkowitz and Harry Shum Jr on Glee, the bevy of Asian American actors and guest roles on Hawaii Five-O. Yet, while each character is remarkable and stereotype-defying in his or her own way, all remain explicitly racialized characters that fail to stray too far from their respective boxes. Liu and Kaling are both doctors, while Ushkowitz and Shum are specifically characterized (and treated) as the Asian kids at the predominantly White high school. Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park are powerful and nuanced Asian American characters on Hawaii Five-O, but ironically they (and the many other Asian American guest stars who have appeared on the show) implicitly rationalize their presence by the show’s setting in Hawaii. Kim’s stilted use of pidgin Hawaiian in his early episode portrayals of Chin-Ho Kelly was a source of some specific chagrin in the blogosphere.
By contrast, it’s the quiet strength of Glenn that rings as the truest, most sincere portrayal of what it means to be Asian American on television today. Glenn is Korean, true, but he’s so much more than that: he’s a forager, a survivor, a hero and, above all, just a person. And it is that person — with all of his strengths and failings — whom Daryl through his time on the road with the survivors has had a chance to get to know, and to come to see, not as a “Chinaman”, but as family.
And that’s something television should aspire to do with all its Asian American characters.
Just moments after I wrote my post about Glenn on AMC’s Walking Dead, I heard that the show was picked up by AMC for a second season, which is great news for a show that is primarily about character development and interpersonal relationships. Glenn, whom I praise for his integral position in the storyline as the unlikely hero, will have a chance to shine with more time on-air.
“No other cable series has ever attracted as many Adults 18-49 as The Walking Dead. This reaffirms viewers’ hunger for premium television on basic cable. We are so proud to be bringing back The Dead again, across the globe.
Walking Dead is breaking records for cable viewership of a television show, meaning that it is likely to remain widely-viewed over the course of this season. Glenn, whom I firmly believe will come to be considered one of the more important and stereotype-challenging depictions of an Asian American male on television, will have greater impact as the show’s popularity remains high and as we delve further into his storyline.
I believe that the show’s first season, which should stretch thirteen episodes, is going to cover the first trade paperback of the series (and I hypothesize will end with Shane’s death and the decision to hit the road). If that’s the case, than the second season should pick up with the “Prison” story arc and will involve Glenn’s meeting, wooing, and marrying his wife Maggie within the first few episodes. Glenn plays a pretty integral part in the “Prison” storyline, which should be gratifying to see.
Part of the reason I’m confident that this is how the show is going to break up the first and second seasons is because one of the Letter Hacks at the back of one of the Walking Dead issues included a statement that fan-favourite Michonne would be appearing in the second season, not the first. Given the fact that she plays a critical role in the “Prison” storyline (which, in and of itself, should give race feminist bloggers ample material to discuss by this time next year), this leaves only the Atlanta storyline for season one. And, thank goodness she’s going to be make it into the show; frankly, I think fans would have busted down the walls at AMC HQ if they never got a chance to see Michonne the flesh — she is so incredibly bad-ass.
I am a huge fan of The Walking Dead, the ongoing comic book title by Robert Kirkman that follows the story of a group of survivors following a zombie apocalypse. The series is nearing its 80th issue, and has been wildly praised for its focus on questions of humanity and psychological trauma over campy horror and gore typical of the zombie genre.
Recently, AMC debuted a live-action TV series version of The Walking Dead which premiered on Halloween night. The series adapts the first collected trade, and will document how the group of survivors live at their base camp in Atlanta, and eventually how they choose to hit the road.
The comic (and show’s) protagonist is Rick, a police officer in search of his wife and son. The first episode stuck to the first issue of the comic pretty closely — after being injured in a shoot-out, Rick wakes up from a coma to find his town virtually deserted, and zombies roaming the streets. Rick is rescued and shown the ropes by a survivor and his son, now living in an abandoned home in his neighbourhood. After hearing about a refugee camp in Atlanta, Rick heads to the city in hopes that his family is there. Unfortunately, what Rick doesn’t know is that there is no refugee camp, and that the city is crawling with zombies; although slow and not dangerous in isolation, they are deadly in a mob.
At the end of the first episode, Rick loses his horse and his guns, and is trapped in an empty military tank crawling with zombies. Apparently the tank didn’t have keys in its ignition.
And then, over the CB radio, Rick hears the voice of Glenn.
Glenn is, hands-down, my favourite character in Walking Dead, and not just because he’s one of very few Asian American protagonists in the comic book genre (although that’s certainly a big part of his appeal). Glenn is one of the most fleshed out characters in the Walking Dead series, in part because of how the series gives backstory in character reflection. Glenn’s character is more social, so he is willing to reveal more about himself to his friends.
Just as with his comic book counterpart, Glenn — played by Steve Yeun in the live-action show — is instantly likeable (which is a credit to Yeun, given how much of the episode was devoted to literally running from zombies). He is young and brash, but also youthfully idealistic and genuinely good.
Glenn is an unlikely hero, posessing few of the stereotypical qualities one thinks of in a white knight archetype. Glenn is Asian-American, physically unassuming, and quick-witted but often prone to debilitating fear. A former pizza delivery boy, Glenn suffered from mounting debt that threatened to force him to return to living at home; the zombie apocalypse represented his opportunity to start over.
Despite the fact that Glenn is neither the strongest nor the most aggressive character in the group, he proves himself an invaluable member of the group. He volunteers for frequent travel by himself into urban areas, the single most dangerous job the survivors can undertake, in order to forage for much-needed supplies. In Sunday’s episode, we learn that in this, Glenn is easily the most skilled, and so finds the confidence to direct the rest of the group. If the survivors were a hunter/gatherer society, Glenn would be the hunter — risking his life to obtain the food the rest of the group needs to survive.
Given the relative dearth of Asian American protagonists in pop culture, and the frequently stereotypical treatment of such characters when they are present, one might have a hard time imagining an Asian American youth, whose talents include sneaking, hiding, running and hot-wiring cars, as a hero. Yet, throughout the series, Glenn maintains himself as an unlikely good samaritan, a quality that he first demonstrated by risking his life to save Rick in Atlanta; the comic takes great pains to demonstrate that Glenn’s selflessness is unique in a post-apocalyptic world where survivors are willing to do literally anything to survive. By contrast, Rick, who has all the initial makings of a hero — White, good-loocking, brawny and intelligent, a natural leader, and a former cop — soon proves to be less hero and more troubled pragmatist.
Asian Americans remain woefully under-represented on television, and in particular, Asian American men are too often delegated to playing the nerdy, socially awkward sidekicks who support a White male hero archetype. There are elements of that cliche that remain in Walking Dead — Glenn is Rick’s right-hand man, and is more skilled with speed and infiltration than with brute strength. And for those reasons, I worry that Glenn will be dismissed, early on, by Asian Americans who (rightfully or wrongly) will not have the patience to wade through Glenn’s early insecurities.
But, if they give Glenn a little time, Asian Americans are likely to be delighted with Glenn’s treatment as Walking Dead progresses on AMC. The show is following (if condensing) important plot points in the series, which means that Glenn’s character is likely to survive at least until the current story arc in the comics (Season 4 or 5 of the show); it’s unlikely that the show’s creators will deviate so much from the comic as to kill Glenn off prematurely.
If so, I predict that Asian Americans will like how Glenn learns to take charge (as we started to see when he helped Rick with the department store escape), and how he enters into one of the only stable (and passionate) romantic relationships in the series. I predict that Asian Americans are going to love how Glenn emerges as one of the most integral, and most beloved, characters in the show, in part because he alone retains his humanity and pluck despite the survivors’ increasingly dire circumstances. And finally, I predict that Walking Dead will very soon be listed by Asian American pop culture critics in the same breath as Lost and Hawaii 5-0 as one of the few truly humanizing depictions of heroic, intelligent, well-adjusted and sexy Asian American men on television.