By Dino-Ray Ramos / CAAM Guest Blogger
“The Walking Dead” recently ended its fourth season with quite the cliff hanger — and it was a good one. But for those “Walking Dead” fans who still have not caught up (and believe me, you really should) I will spare the spoilers. Perhaps this is a good time to turn our attention to one of the characters who’s had an amazing trajectory throughout the series: Glenn Rhee.
Played by Korean American actor Steven Yeun, the character of Glenn has quickly become a fan favorite in more ways than one. In the very first season we are introduced to Glenn as one of the dozen survivors of a mysterious “walker” apocalypse. (Please note: the show does not use the word “zombie” at all. Instead, they refer to them as “walkers.”) The world is overrun with them and Glenn, along with a band of misfits, are trying to survive the plague and trying to get along while doing so. In the beginning, Glenn is boyish, innocent, and a bit scared (who wouldn’t be?), but considering the circumstances, he matured fairly quickly. Recently, Yeun was a guest on “The Talking Dead,” a show hosted by comedian Chris Hardwick that recaps the week’s episode with cast members and celebrity fans of the show. Yeun talked about how throughout the four seasons of the show, how his character has grown and how Glenn has learned and “absorbed” attributes from his fellow survivors. He’s learned the value of loyalty, trust, determination and most importantly, how to kick some major undead ass.
Throughout the series, he has had some major ups (hooking up with Maggie Greene, played by Lauren Cohan) and downs (getting tortured and interrogated by the ruthless Governor, who made all of their lives a living hell in seasons three and four). All of which have given him some war wounds that have shaped him and ultimately made him one of the most layered and likable characters on the show. During the fourth season, he continues his arc and steps up and makes his final transformation to a leading man. In the mid-season premiere, we saw him stranded by himself in the torched prison surrounded by walkers. He’s Maggie-less and all by himself. On his search for her and the others, he learns to fend for himself and runs into Abraham and his rag tag group of misfits. He stands his ground and won’t allow them to push him around. He basically does his own thing and becomes a leader—something that is really good to see considering his juvenile beginnings.
In addition to his turn as an unwritten high-ranking soldier in “The Walking Dead” world, Glenn has become a different kind of Asian American character for TV because his ethnicity falls by the wayside. There hasn’t been an episode to explore his Asian-ness—and thank God for that. The last thing TV needs is another one of those. Many TV shows and movies tend to use a character’s race or ethnicity as a focal point of a story and, nine times out of 10, it just becomes forced and cringe-worthy. They try to force the Asian-ness down our throats by exaggerating cultural quirks and painting a picture of “the orient” for us via gongs and mystical music. Sure, there may be times when that is needed (on a less exaggerated scale), but for the most part, it isn’t. In the case of Glenn in “The Walking Dead,” his race really doesn’t have anything to do with the show’s purpose. He’s just trying to survive in this crazy post-apocalyptic walker world—and he just happens to be Asian. With so many TV shows putting a trite spotlight or even painting a caricature of an ethnicity such as Matthew Moy‘s character on “2 Broke Girls” or Sofia Vergara on “Modern Family,” this treatment of character color blindness is a refreshing change. Also, to see Glenn in a romantic relationship with a white woman is pretty progressive when it comes to television history. It’s not that often you see an ongoing biracial relationship on a cable drama series—especially one that has garnered loyal fan base.
Glenn is a breakthrough Asian American character on television that many of us may have overlooked. Within four seasons, he has turned from a wide-eyed boy into a badass soldier and his race really had nothing to do with it. It was all about the performance and story. And the fact that he has a background in comedy makes his performance even more impressive. Besides a couple of bit parts on TV shows, this is Yeun's first major role and he is breaking new ground when it comes to Asian American actors. If TV writers are looking for what kind of Asian American characters to create, Glenn is a good template.
Dino-Ray Ramos is guest blogger from the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), a non-profit organization dedicated to presenting stories that convey the richness and diversity of Asian American experiences to the broadest audience possible. CAAM does this by funding, producing, distributing and exhibiting works in film, television and digital media.