In its (almost) three seasons on the air, AMC’s The Walking Dead has become one of the most successful television series on cable. Based on the comic book of the same name, the show follows a group of zombie apocalypse survivors as they make their way in this brave, new world.
There’s a lot about the show that makes it interesting—the fact that it openly rebels against many of the traditional “rules” of television yet remains hugely popular is impressive enough. But The Walking Dead also holds another notable distinction—it has given audiences what may be the most interesting Asian male character to ever appear as a regular on an American television series.
Now, I understand that’s a bold statement to make, but I stand by it because the character of Glenn (played by Korean American actor Steven Yeun) is three-dimensional in a way that Asian males are rarely allowed to be in Hollywood.
Granted we’ve come a long way since the days of Hop Sing on Bonanza with a number of non-stereotypical Asian males as regulars on television series including Daniel Dae Kim on Hawaii 5-0, C.S. Lee on Dexter, Harry Shum Jr. on Glee, Danny Pudi on Community, John Cho on Go On and many others, but what I think sets Steven Yeun’s Glenn apart from even these impressive examples is the amazing arc we’ve seen him take in the course of the past three years. I can’t think of an Asian male character in another television series who has grown to be so interesting and complex in such a short amount of time.
In the first season, Glenn was more of the everyman–though with a special skill for getting in and out of zombie-infested hot spots quickly and efficiently. He was the nice guy we could see ourselves hanging out with, he was often the comedic relief providing levity amongst the bleakness, but it wasn’t clear how or if he’d grow beyond that. However, it was a great part for an Asian actor and I appreciated that Glenn was an all-American boy and not the foreigner that we’ve often come to expect in these situations (“hey, look, a Korean tourist survived and banded together with this group of survivors because apparently Asian Americans can’t seem to make the cut”).
In the second season, Glenn matured and gained a greater self-confidence, but more importantly, he found love with fellow survivor Maggie (Lauren Cohan). And if it’s rare to see an Asian male engaged in anything romantic or sex-related on American television, it’s even rarer to see him in a nuanced relationship that develops over time. Yes, it’s cool to see a brotha getting to knock boots with a hot white chick, but what’s even cooler is to see that coupling grow into the romantic heart of the series.
Which brings us to the current season and here’s where things get really interesting (minor spoilers ahead if you haven’t been keeping up). This season saw Glenn and Maggie taken prisoner by new baddie, the Governor. He was savagely beaten and tortured and we’ve seen the emergence of a much darker Glenn. This experience and the near rape of Maggie by the Governor have driven a wedge in their relationship and has also sparked a bloodlust for vengeance—this is a man who’d be unrecognizable to the Glenn of season one, yet the arc that brought him to this darker place feels completely organic. And when have you seen an Asian male character go through such a rich journey on a TV series?
There’s still a number of episodes left in the season so what Glenn chooses to do and what happens to him remain to be seen, but if what we’ve witnessed thus far is any indication, I’m fully expecting further pleasant surprises (though characters also tend to get off’ed with regularity on this show). The Walking Dead writers and producers should be given most of the credit for the development of the character, but Steven Yeun has been up to the acting challenge every step of the way and Glenn wouldn’t have become one of the most fascinating and endearing characters on the show without his nuanced performance. I’ve been talking to Steven about doing something with us at YOMYOMF and hope we can find something because he’s a seriously talented dude.
With that said—anyone disagree? Any Asian male who’s a regular on an American TV series that you think is a much better character than Glenn? Let me know in the comments below.