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Essay: I’ll Find You, Glenn Rhee: A Eulogy for My Asian-American TV Hero

Steven Yeun as Glenn Rhee - The Walking Dead _ Season 6, Episode 7 - Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC Gene Page / AMC

“I’ll find you.”

He only had a few words left before his brutal demise, and he chose to direct them toward the love of his life, Maggie.

Glenn Rhee of "The Walking Dead," Asian America’s favorite pizza delivery boy turned zombie apocalypse warrior, died the same way he lived — selflessly.

In a time of bleakness and cruelty, Glenn was our shining glimmer of hope; our moral compass who showed us that the goodness of humanity was something still worth fighting to preserve.

The mere existence of Glenn Rhee was revolutionary. Here was a bright, young Asian-American male character on a mainstream American television program who served a greater purpose than just existing solely to be a sidekick or a punch line to a second-rate joke. He was a loyal friend, a fearless leader, and a loving husband. The complexities behind the portrayal of Glenn elevated his character above Long Duk Dong, Leslie Chow, and Han Lee. He was fully-fleshed and multi-faceted. He had different shades, wrinkles, and nuances, resembling more a relatable human being rather than a cartoonish caricature.

This is largely in thanks to Robert Kirkman, the creator of “The Walking Dead” comic, but it was Steven Yeun’s sensitive and dedicated performance for the last seven seasons of the television adaptation that propelled this character to new heights.

“Though Glenn died, for seven seasons, Steven Yeun slayed,” actor Daniel Dae Kim said on Twitter.

Yeun was largely an unknown coming out of Kalamazoo College in Michigan, but is now one of the most recognizable Asian-American actors on the planet.

As a young filmmaker, I am thankful for Glenn Rhee and Steven Yeun. I didn’t grow up seeing very many faces or hearing many stories that looked like mine in American movies or television. To have had the pleasure of witnessing this character’s thoughtful journey and evolution from a naive errand runner to powerful defender was more than just entertaining, it was transformative.

Glenn Rhee, played by Steven Yeun, does battle with a walker in episode seven of season three of "The Walking Dead" Gene Page / AMC

There’s a moment in season three that I will never forget. After Glenn was captured and badly beaten by The Governor’s men, they released a walker into the room to finish him off. Not only did he resourcefully vanquish the walker with a broken chair arm, but afterwards he let out this enormous roar. There he stood, covered in blood, with this battle cry that shook my television set and my senses. It was one of the powerful images of an Asian-American male I had ever seen.

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He combated evil with his heart and his emotionality, not just with his fists. When there were those who threatened him and his group, he would stand his ground while utilizing his trademark reasoning and empathy. He went as far as to risk his own life to protect someone as despicable as Nicholas, a coward who attempted to murder him in cold blood. His life was filled with close calls, and he never took it for granted and neither did his viewers.

That’s the kind of person Glenn Rhee was. This is why we must celebrate how he lived.

After experiencing the nightmare-inducing season seven premiere of “The Walking Dead,” I had difficulty sleeping. I replayed the moment over and over again in my mind hoping that I was just hallucinating what had transpired. It was sadistic as it was heartbreaking. It sounds silly to be talking about a fictional character on a fictional show like it’s a real life account, but the very best art is a reflection of ourselves and the people around us, and it felt very much like we lost a good friend that night.

In a time when Asian Americans are fighting harder than ever for media visibility and being more vocal about creating quality roles for actors, losing one that helped pave the way for the rest of the community in such a relentlessly vicious manner was absolutely devastating. Glenn Rhee broke and rewrote all of the rules for what an Asian-American character could or couldn’t do. He was a desirable romantic interest, a charismatic action hero, and a believable everyman all rolled into one. His influence was far and wide, and he left an important legacy for Asian Americans.

There will never be another one quite like him.

If I learned anything from Glenn, it’s that you can always find a way — a way to do better, a way to be better. No matter how great the odds are stacked against you, no matter how many people doubt your abilities, there’s always a way.

Thank you for helping me find mine, Glenn.

Wherever you are, I hope you found yours too.

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