“Head’s Up” opens and closes with a bang, the former metaphorical, the latter implied. In between those two dramatic explosions, there’s a lot of talking, a few rising threats, and a lot of information that struggles to add up to anything more than, “Things are certainly happening in Alexandria, aren’t they?” Some conflicts are coming more into focus, but the scenes which demonstrate this exist almost in isolation from one another; when the season is viewed as a whole, these moments will undoubtedly have greater meaning, but as an episode in and of itself, the lack of focus robs the hour of much cumulative effect.
We’ll get back to that, though. First off, Glenn is alive! So that’s something. I’m not sure this is a trick the show has pulled before—implying a character’s death for several episodes before returning to find them still breathing—and even if they have, this is surely the most high profile example so far. It’s not a good precedent to set. Glenn’s survival in and of itself is passable; I’ve read arguments that it breaks the show’s core mechanic (ie, utter mercilessness), and I can see how that might be true, but as of now, I’m still operating on the assumption that anyone can die. Just because Glenn survived this week doesn’t mean he’ll make it through the next. The biggest flaw in the actual event is how easy it all is. No pretending to be a zombie, no sudden tricks. He just pulls himself under a dumpster for a while. It’s plausible, but only barely.
Yet the presentation is, I think, more frustrating than what happened. If Glenn had pulled off this escape in the middle of an episode, if we’d seen the whole thing unfold from beginning to end, it wouldn’t have attracted this much attention. Maybe there would’ve been some criticism that the show was getting soft, but that criticism would’ve passed quickly as the show moved on to other subjects. In presenting this as a cliffhanger, the creative team drew attention to the absurdity of it, dragging out the question until everyone had a good chance to argue and write think pieces and generally over discuss what is really just an elaborate fake-out. Glenn is a little more desperate than he was before, but not excessively so, and his conversations with Enid suggest he’s still as determined as ever to be the good guy. So why have such a scene at all, unless it’s to fuck with the audience? (Or to set up a potentially even more sadistic pay off down the line… but that’s just speculation.)
Putting that aside, Glenn’s storyline this week, in which he tracks Enid down (after she tosses him a bottle of water post dumpster hiding) and demands she come back to Alexandria with him, is fine as such things go, but doesn’t play out much different than half a dozen similar storylines in the past. This show is full of people demanding other people come with them, and while both Enid and Glenn have some history behind them (Enid’s theoretical, Glenn’s actual), the conversations don’t hold much insight or surprise. All that’s really distinctive is the newfound vehemence with which Glenn makes his points, as though losing someone he tried to save has made him even more determined to do what he views as the right thing. Also, the balloons they find on the road back to town are cool, and using them to give Maggie her signal near the end of the episode is a nice touch.
Meanwhile, back in Alexandria, things are nearly, but not quite, hitting the fan. Rick, Carol, and Michonne question Morgan’s moral choices, and Carol ends up following Morgan (and Dr. Denise) to the house where he’s keeping that Wolf locked away. This is a potentially fascinating conflict because it’s pitting two of the show’s best characters against one another, in a way that underlines their philosophical differences without (at least so far) stacking the deck too much towards either of them. To me, Carol comes out of this looking slightly villainous, but it’s not hard at all to defend her actions, especially considering we already know that Morgan’s secret will only confirm her worst fears.
But we’ll have to wait to see if that conflict comes to a head. The last we see of Carol, she’s confronting Morgan, but we don’t hear his answer, and the sudden collapse of the tower will probably make any discussion moot for the moment. That collapse is a fantastic closer, a beautifully constructed moment whose peaceful, elegant score serves as a fine contrast to the actual events on screen. It’s striking and memorable, and it’s hard not to be at least a little eager to see what comes next.
That’s something the first half of this season has been doing a lot. Cliffhangers aren’t new to the show, but at its worst, season six has felt like a lot of empty space between shocking moments. Time that could’ve been spent to make the Alexandrians worth caring about is spent instead repeating the same themes we’ve heard time and again: the world has changed, everything’s awful, you have to keep moving, life goes on, etc. It’s not dire (given how many positive grades I’ve given out, I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t enjoying a lot of this), but over time, it becomes less and less satisfying to watch.
The real problem is how rarely we get resolution, even of the small sort. With so much designed to keep us watching, so much designed to raise questions that won’t be answered till the following week (or the week after that), everything starts to feel like a kind of stall. Watching Spenser try and fail to get out of town is an intense sequence, and the aftermath is as close as this episode comes to making some kind of point (Tara telling Rick they’re all in it together, in direct contradiction to Rick’s “Fuck these people if they get themselves killed”), yet it plays less like a contained unit of storytelling than it does a way to pass the time before the really important things happen.
Again, I’ve been enjoying this season, and the parts of it I’ve enjoyed the most are the parts that feel the most self-contained. (“Here’s Not Here” remains a highwatermark for me for a number of reasons, but the biggest is how complete it felt in and of itself.) This isn’t a new development; The Walking Dead has always pushed heavy serialization, and it’s always struggled to maintain the balance between season-long and episode-long stories. But the decompressed timeline of this batch of episodes, the way we keep circling around the same handful of ideas, is tiresome. Of course, that’s always been the show’s main problem: it has nothing to say that isn’t obvious. Six seasons in, it has become surprisingly eloquent, but eloquence alone won’t provide content.
I’m sure things will pick up next week when the new threat arrives (I suppose it’s possible that the first half of the season could end without teasing us with what’s next—those nutters Daryl ran into most likely—but I doubt it.), just as I’m sure the same problem will arise once we shift to a new status quo, and wait for the next explosion. This is, at its worst, less a cohesive narrative than a series of inelegantly choreographed distractions; a shelf full of bookends without anything held between them. For right now, all we can do is wait and wonder and hope maybe Ron will shoot his idiot self in the face.
- Seriously, that kid. This week, after getting a lesson in shooting from Rick (with some hilarious condescension from Carl), Ron steals bullets out the pantry and then stalks Carl on the street. Whatever happens next, I’m sure it will be delightful for everyone involved.
- Rick is getting more positive feedback from the Alexandrians, even as he yells at Tara for risking her life for theirs. Maybe this means he’ll let his guard down in time for even worse things to happen.
- Speaking of worse things, is it weird that nobody thought to check that tower? I’m honestly not sure. They haven’t had much time to think in Alexandria lately. (Although they have had time to interrogate Morgan about his choices, even if checking to make sure the wall holding the walkers at bay was still strong seems more important.)
- Father Gabriel posts signs for a prayer circle; Rick tears them down. I’m not much for religion but even I think that was a dick move.
- Glenn finds the Alexandrian who wanted Michonne to bring a message back to his wife. He also finds the message. This is such an absurdly positive development that I spent the rest of the episode convinced Glenn was going to get killed for real.
- “The only thing that prevents you from becoming a monster is killing.” -Carol
- “I don’t know what’s right anymore.” -Morgan (I love how Lennie James plays this scene; he’s not defensive or angry, just desperate to figure out the right way forward.)
- Steven Yeunn’s name back in the opening credits… after a slight pause.