“Heads Up” ⎯ The Walking Dead S06E07 Review

Spoilers…of course.

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Surprise!

In the greatest non-twist of the show’s history, Glenn is alive.

OK, I guess. Whatever. Fine.

That about sums up how much enthusiasm I have for the overly drawn-out “mystery” of whether or not Glenn died in episode three. Instead of being compelling, the weeks-long “Glenn Watch,” during which the show coyly kept Steven Yeun’s name out of the opening credits while everyone else debated and speculated about his fate, from YouTubers to critics to, infuriatingly, cast members themselves (who presumably ought to know the actual outcome) on the ever-gimmicky Talking Dead. The preview clip for “Heads Up” featured Rick telling Morgan yet again that he wanted to talk — not now, “but later” — which must be the third or fourth iteration of that exchange so far and serves as a nice meta-commentary on the season’s narrative progression. Let’s address some things and keep this moving — not now, though, but later. First, IS GLENN ALIVE??? (Discuss amongst yourselves for a few weeks.)

It was exhausting, and I was quickly drained of any investment or concern I had for the character to the point that I felt the way Daryl did upon seeing the Cherokee rose walker stumbling towards him as he tried to escape his runaway captors in the woods last week — annoyed, more than anything. Really? I still have to deal with this? Just as Daryl had more pressing matters than stray walkers to attend to in “Always Accountable,” there are more important things The Walking Dead could be addressing in the first half of this season. There are certainly plenty of characters to account for, new and old, and they’re strapped for screen time as it is. There have only been a handful of scenes in these first seven episodes that seem to really do much in terms of character development or plot advancement: Daryl’s interactions with the Other Group and thieving runaways in the woods clearly laid some groundwork for conflict later on; Maggie revealing her pregnancy threw a nice wrench into the mix; Sasha and Abraham’s heart-to-heart, while clumsily written, at least tried to round out their characters a bit more. But all of the speeches and speculation and cliffhangers in between were tiresome, and the whole Glenn thing, as Jeremy Egner of the New York Times points out, became a distracting gimmick. One reviewer calls it “the dumbest thing the show has ever done” (which is saying a lot; remember, Andrea used to be on this show).

My weekly viewing companion/husband put it best: it was a publicity stunt, more than anything else.

I went back and re-read my original review of “Thank You” as I reflected on all of this, and it reminded me that “Thank You” really was a good episode, probably the best of the season so far. It was dramatic, suspenseful, frightening, surprising — and then they undid everything that worked with the ridiculous Glenn red herring. The most frustrating thing about all of this for me is that Glenn’s survival simply doesn’t make sense within the world of the show. Once Glenn is under the dumpster, it’s plausible. He kills a few walkers and creates an undead barrier around himself, which, the show has previously established, would effectively hide him from other walkers. But I don’t care if Nicholas’ body partially covered him when they fell; maybe chowing down on Nicholas could temporarily distract a few of the nearest walkers, but there’s no way you can convince me that Glenn could avoid getting bitten (or even noticed) by the literally hundreds of walkers surrounding him for long enough to wedge himself under the dumpster.

In an episode of the fantastic Maximum Fun podcast “Judge John Hodgman,” television writer and producer Jane Espenson (whose credits include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, and Once Upon A Time) explains the dangers of limitless storytelling. You risk getting to the point where nothing feels earned. In good storytelling, Espenson says, the groundwork must be laid and the rules must be established such that plot twists “feel surprising and inevitable.” Glenn falling off the dumpster was definitely surprising, and being eaten by the hoard of walkers pressing down on top of him would have been the inevitable outcome. Instead, we viewers were cheated because the writers chose to disregard the rules of their own universe. The walkers are now the same as the hilariously unhelpful walkie talkies: a convenient plot device that works however the writers want it to work, depending on what provides the easiest means to their narrative end. Need to dispose of some annoying Alexandrians, like Carter? Have a walker saunter up and bite him in the neck, somehow going unnoticed by a large group of people standing around in broad daylight. Or take Tina in last week’s episode, whose death-by-walkers (which were lying on the ground, encased in melted glass) would have been more believable if she had intentionally wanted to be eaten. But if it’s a character they want to survive, it doesn’t matter how many walkers there are, or how close they are, or how impossible survival seems. All things considered, Glenn made it out of that on pretty easily.

Similarly, the walkie talkies either don’t work at all — when they need characters to be separated and desperate — or they pick up cryptic cliffhangers (“help”) — when they need, well, a cryptic cliffhanger. I said in my “Thank You” review that something I missed on The Walking Dead, something they recaptured in that episode, was the constant, terrifying possibility that anyone could go at any time. But now, threats to the characters’ safety feel empty. Thanks to this Glenn nonsense, I’ve lost a lot of my trust in the show to be consistent within its own rules, because if the rules only apply when its convenient, they’re meaningless.

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Meanwhile, Back at Post-Apocalyptic Suburbia…

Now that that’s covered,* the episode did have some strong points. The scene in which Rick, Carol, and Michonne confront Morgan about willingly letting those Wolves escape isn’t amazing, but it’s better dialogue than the show’s given us for some time. Lennie James’ acting is spot on, conveying Morgan’s simultaneous conviction and struggle with that conviction, as well as glimpses of the anger and desire to kill that he’s still fighting. “I don’t know what’s right anymore,” he says. “But I also know that people can change, because everyone sitting here has.” It was nice to have more of an honest, realistic conversation about the competing ideologies floating around this season and a departure from the cheesy one-liners and grandiose speeches.

It was also refreshing to see some more pushback against Rick’s jerkish ways. Carl is put off (as I was) by Rick tearing down Fr. Gabriel’s prayer meeting flyers, and Tara is more direct in her non-verbal response to Rick yelling at her for risking her life for “these people.” It’s a cycle we’ve seen before; when things get bad, Rick fights brutality with brutality, but when life settles down and they have to actually live with other people, the Ricktatorship must subside. There’s definitely a line between necessary leadership and being an ass. Playing with that line now feels legitimate as well as a little cathartic.

The brief exchange between Maggie and Rick, in which she says Judith’s starting to look like Lori, is sweet. There is more warmth and humanity there than I’ve felt from any of the characters for some time. It also made me realize that the survivors don’t spend much time talking openly about the characters who’ve died, which made the scene all the more effective because it shows us that they haven’t forgotten their dead loved ones, and it makes these people seem more like actual human beings.

What else? Enid’s less mysterious and more annoying this episode, and Glenn gets to practice being a dad as he feels obligated to drag her back to Alexandria with him. Turns out she left because, like Carol in season five, she doesn’t like sticking around to watch more people she cares about die. I’d read some speculation that Enid was involved with the Wolves, but the version of her we see in this episode feels much more realistic. Rosita’s outburst at Eugene during machete practice felt a little unwarranted — he’s been doing a pretty good job holding his own, all things considered — but maybe that’s some misdirected frustration. Maybe she’s worried about Abraham. (Bad news, Rosita: you should be!)

SIDEBARS

  • “If we can somehow get outside the walls,” Rick says to Michonne as they brainstorm how to draw the walkers away. Yes, if only there was something like an underground tunnel system that opens up beyond the walls. Why is nobody talking about this? Maybe the exit is clogged by walkers at this point, but it’s worth checking, and certainly a better idea than Spencer’s idiotic grappling-hook-shimmy-across plan.
  • In my head, I’ve been referring to Ron as Sparkles because he looks like he’d fit in better in a Twilight movie. It seems pretty inevitable that Sparkles will try and take out Carl in the mayhem of the oncoming walker attack, especially after how smug and annoying Carl was during their shooting lesson. (Carl was a much cooler character back when he was a borderline psychopathic twelve-year-old.)
  • *There may be a way for Gimple to redeem himself from the Glenn Fail: kill him off in Sunday’s mid-season finale. If that was the end of this character, after the initial fake-out followed by weeks of shamelessly toying with fans topped off with the lamest reveal possible, I think I’d have to slow clap him for playing us all more than we could’ve imagined. It would be a whole new level of plot twist, and I’ve got to respect the long con. (Plus, I think the Internet would simply implode due to the onslaught of fan fury.) This won’t happen, of course, but with the mid-season finale upon us, it certainly seems like someone’s got to die.
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