Every week for the sixth season of AMC’s post-apocalyptic drama The Walking Dead, Lenika Cruz and David Sims will discuss the latest threat—human, zombie, or otherwise—to the show’s increasingly hardened band of survivors.
Cruz: I’m inclined to call “Heads Up” one of the best episodes of The Walking Dead’s sixth season so far. But I can’t tell if that’s because it’s actually good or because, after weeks of digression and split storylines, it’s a relief to see everything coming back together again. Sunday’s episode had an air of inevitability that few episodes this season have claimed: Glenn, as predicted, is alive—caked in blood, dehydrated, and traumatized, but alive (ugh, AMC). Enid reappeared. Ron is indeed planning to use Rick’s firearm lessons for evil ends. Morgan was made to account for the destructive consequences of his “all life is precious” philosophy. And, lastly: The walls of Alexandria could not hold.
Though none of these developments came as a real surprise, I appreciated the tighter plotting and that we were finally getting a clearer picture of the show’s endgame for the winter finale. This half-season has suffered from serious miscalculations (the entire Glenn debacle, the decision to stretch out a few days into eight episodes) as well as issues the show has always struggled with (the hackneyed speeches about “the way things are now,” a difficulty balancing multiple character arcs, momentum problems). Much of the time, it didn’t feel like the Walking Dead writers and producers knew exactly what they were doing. More importantly, it didn’t feel like they could convince viewers that they knew what they were doing—a strange problem for a show to have six seasons in.
But “Heads Up” was an exception. It felt confident and well-paced, and it didn’t waste our time (aside from the massive waste of time that was, you know, the entire Glenn debacle). The episode also offered some nice thematic consistency that related back to the title: Enid tossing the water bottle to Glenn from the roof, Spencer’s idiotic and nearly deadly high-wire act, Sam questioning Carol about “monsters” from the second floor, Glenn and Enid sending the balloons up as a signal, and finally, the Alexandria tower crashing through the heretofore indestructible fence. The episode had some sassy moments, too, like Tara flipping off Rick, or Rosita yelling at Eugene, or Carl going next-level patronizing on Ron, or Glenn saying to Enid, “You point a gun at me, and I’m the asshole?” All of which distracted me from the messier bits.
Glenn’s triumphant escape in the first few minutes of the episode would have hit harder were it not for the fact that it was still stupidly improbable, and that the Internet had predicted that exact improbable scenario weeks ago. Because I was tired of getting worked up about Glenngate every week to the point of wanting to quit the show altogether (and David, I know you were tired of hearing me whine about it), I tried to push from my mind the laziness of the show not explaining what magically drew the walkers away. Still, Glenn and Enid made for a decent pairing—him the tortured husband, her the tortured teen. (When Enid told Glenn “I don’t need a lecture,” and he snapped, “Yeah, I think you do,” I couldn’t help but feel like that was an exchange between the audience, which hears lectures every week, and the show, which loves to deliver them.)
The Alexandria storyline was a major improvement on the dreadful “Now” of a couple weeks ago, partly because it moved away from the conventional one-on-ones. The necessary conversation between Rick and Morgan took place with Michonne and Carol. The chat between Carol and Sam took place with ... Judith there, I guess. Michonne was there to witness and comment on Rick’s brief talk with Deanna. A bunch of Alexandrians stood awkwardly and silently in the background as Rosita upbraided Eugene. And the shooting lesson worked well because Carl, Rick, and Ron were all there. It’s astonishing how much more interesting the dynamic can become when you add just one more person to the mix. There’s more subtext to pay attention to, and the philosophical and personal differences between each character become that much more obvious. And it makes the group feel more like a real, cohesive whole.
Some of my biggest questions going into the finale: If not Glenn, who was that calling for help on the walkie-talkie at the end of “Always Accountable”? How will Sam disastrously misinterpret Carol’s speech? (“The only thing that keeps you from being a monster is killing.”) Will Ron successfully shoot Carl, or will he use those bullets he stole to help defend the town? Will Daryl, Abraham, and Sasha make it back in time to help the others? Will Morgan’s decision to protect the Wolf come back to, well, bite him? Will anyone (who we like) die? Will any new characters appear? I’m up for all of it. Bring the chaos.
David, a few questions for you. How did everyone at Alexandria neglect to notice that a crucial chunk of their fortress was structurally devastated? What did you make of Glenn and Enid’s fortuitous meet-up? Is baby Judith really starting to look like her mom? Did you feel bad for Father Gabriel when Rick took down his “Prayer Circle at the Solar Panels” signs? Because I kind of did.
Sims: I’ll admit to being extremely confused by that ending, even though the image of the tower toppling was very cool. How did the townspeople not know that structure was on the brink of collapse? The Alexandria situation is supposed to be chaotic, I guess—they lost so many people, and have so many problems to triangulate, so stuff might slip through the cracks. But after weeks of frustration with Rick’s boneheaded leadership, I found myself sympathizing with him this week just because the Alexandrians are so infuriating. What the hell was Spencer doing? How are they not keeping a closer eye on Ron? At what point should the crew just give up and leave these losers to get eaten? Right now, the biggest compliment I can give anyone from Alexandria is that Nicholas did a very good job getting eaten so that Glenn could stay alive.
To be clear—despite my disdain for the characters, I thought this was a very strong episode that linked back to earlier plotlines quite nicely. As you noted, “Heads Up” began the work of getting the gang back together before they face whatever major threat is lurking in the distance. I was happy to see Enid again—I loved her little mini-movie in “JSS,” and she always felt like a better protege for Glenn than the moronic Nicholas anyway (their brief bits of banter in this episode were a highlight). She has all the survival skills the Alexandrians lack, but without a real understanding of how to live in a community and embrace other people. Glenn, I think, is the perfect teacher to bridge that gap.
It’s great to see Glenn back too, although I have to agree with a lot of your complaints about how the show has handled all this. I don’t want Scott Gimple and his writers to have to keep the Internet in mind every time they plot out a season arc. Gimple and co. can do what they want with the story, in my opinion, as long as they think it’s the creatively vital choice. But I’m not totally sure why Glenn had to be fake-dead (with his name removed from the credits and all!) for a bunch of episodes only to return exactly as the fans predicted. Because of that, the suspense was muted, there wasn’t any emotional impact on the characters (they never fully believed he was dead), so it was mostly just a trick played on the viewing audience—who only briefly fell for it.
Oh well. At the very least, having Glenn back in the mix helps outweigh the silliness of his “death.” (I’ll be interested to see if most viewers feel the same, or if the twist is one step too far.) But once the show paired him with Enid on his way back to Alexandria, his importance to this ensemble was reaffirmed. Who knows what horrors might await him in the future, but at least his death wasn’t at the hands of the incompetent Nicholas.
I appreciated your comparisons to “Now,” Lenika, because this week felt like the decompression episode the season needed—the gang back in Alexandria, picking up the pieces, and engaging in some good philosophical debates about what to do with the Wolves. Both Carol and Morgan had reasonable arguments over whether it made sense to kill the invaders, and Rick’s dispute with Tara felt similarly balanced. Of course life, in some form, has to matter to this group. But the morality of survivalism is so complicated that it makes sense to debate the conditions under which to kill, even at this point in the show.
The reason this conversation is playing out should become clear as new threats present themselves next week. Now that the whole gang is finally back together, and their walls are crumbling, I’m excited to see how they react. The first half of this season was about one particular crisis—what to do with the quarry zombies—but in dealing with it, the group started asking more abstract questions about the future of their community. The second half should start answering them.