Television is in a real state of flux right now. The models of the past are constantly being assailed, and networks are struggling to keep up with the swiftly changing times. More and more, television is becoming a personal and individual process, as there are just so many choices of what to watch that so-called ‘water cooler shows’ are few and far between. That has shifted a little bit this year, with shows like Mr. Robot, Jessica Jones and Daredevil, but the two consistent exceptions to this trend are HBO’s Game of Thrones and today’s TV Roulette selection, AMC’s The Walking Dead (and by extension its related spin-off/prequel hybrid Fear The Walking Dead). People just love their dragons and zombies, and these two shows continue to be central in the public conversation whenever they are on. Now, while I am a huge Game of Thrones fan (and have covered the show in the past), The Walking Dead and I have had a more troubled relationship. It has been a few seasons since I last checked in on the embattled zombie fighters of The Walking Dead, so how have things progressed in the meantime? Find out right after the rundown. Spoilers are shambling Ahead, and yes I know this is late (zombies slow a reviewer down).
TV Roulette Week 7
The Walking Dead; ‘Heads Up’ Season 6, Episode 7
November 22th, 2015
Have I Seen This Show Before?
If So, How Much?
Well, I eagerly watched the first season, struggled through the second season of boring barn-induced hell, and then binged-watched the entire third season so I could go to the next SDCC panel without being spoiled (a panel I didn’t even end up being able to go to). Since then I’ve always meant to watch more, but just haven’t.
For whatever reason, TV Roulette has decided it just likes me writing about penultimate episodes– this being the third penultimate episode before a midseason finale that I have done this month (after Blindspot and Sleepy Hollow). So a lot of what has been said in both of those can be said here, too, as ‘Heads Up’ is mostly spent getting all of the important characters back into the same place in time for shit to hit the mega-fan in the form of a towering barn-like structure falling down and destroying one of the walls of Alexandria, thus allowing the now unimpeded walkers to swarm into town. Setting up a zombie invasion or other similar event is basically penultimate episode 101, but where ‘Heads Up’ changes things up is in how it deals with character death.
A couple weeks ago the Internet exploded when a major character on The Walking Dead might have been killed (the episode had left it ambiguous). I tried my best to avoid discovering who exactly this character was, but considering the fan outrage, it could really only have been one of two people, Daryl (Norman Reedus) or Glenn (Steven Yeun), as outside of maybe Michonne (Danai Gurira), those two are by far the most beloved characters on the show. Eventually, it proved too difficult to avoid, especially as it became increasingly clear that I just wasn’t up for marathoning through all of The Walking Dead I had missed, so I discovered that it was indeed Glenn that everyone was worried about. AMC and The Walking Dead creators did a good job of prolonging the mystery of Glenn’s exact fate by removing Steven Yeun’s name from the credits and basically trolling as many fans as possible. The beginning of this episode starts things off with a bang by showing that Glenn—is not dead. He narrowly survives by having another body on top of him serve as a literal meat shield, and then by crawling under a nearby dumpster.
In my Blindspot piece, I talked about how character death is a tricky thing. The Walking Dead gets to operate on completely different rules, however, when it comes to character death, and that changes how it handles them. Death is a constant part of any zombie apocalypse story, so any show about zombies has to kill characters or it will never have any teeth. Even in the early episodes, Walking Dead characters were dying all the time–before the audience had a true sense of which characters were or were not important to the show. Game of Thrones operates in much the same fashion, except that in The Walking Dead there are certain characters that really do seem to have a degree of ‘plot armor’ making any of their deaths unlikely. This was especially apparent after Andrea’s death, way back at the end of Season 3. She was one of the last major characters the show could kill off without really altering its dynamic (the other two at the time: Hershel (Scott Wilson) and Beth (Emily Kinney), who both died at some point in later seasons).
When character death is on the table for a show, it really makes you evaluate which characters actually drive the action and which merely offer support to those characters. These support characters may be really important and add lots of depth to the show, but they can also be replaced with out radically altering the way a show works. This means that a show can kill off these characters in order to achieve a big emotional impact without necessarily altering the landscape of the show. The Walking Dead has really embraced this principle. The show has realized that as long as it keeps surrounding its core cast with interesting side characters, the show has an endless supply of glorified red shirts whose death will still have a meaningful impact without radically altering the dynamics fans love. This puts The Walking Dead in sharp contrast to Game of Thrones, which is far less concerned with how a character death will radically change the dynamic of the show as long as it fits the story the show wants to tell. (That said, Game of Thrones also has a core group that is likely to survive until the end of the show’s run, but don’t tell Game of Thrones that, or it might just kill those characters off out of spite.)
Since Glenn remains one of The Walking Dead‘s core characters, his death would have been really the most significant one in the show’s history–which is why it ultimately wasn’t that surprising that the show wasn’t able to go through with it. And there’s nothing wrong with that, by the way. While there are definitely people who will watch The Walking Dead as long as there are zombies, no matter who else is on the show, most people need characters they can connect with and root for in order to watch a show as depressing and brutal as The Walking Dead can be.
The result of all this is that, despite constant turnover in the cast, The Walking Dead is really a rather static show. This means it can be a bit tedious to watch week to week, one of the main reasons I fell away from the show years ago. The predictability just got to be too much. I don’t know what I expected when I watched the show for the first time in years, but what I got didn’t seem that different from where I left off. Rick (Andrew Lincoln) is still a flawed leader with control issues whose judgment is being questioned by someone else in the cast; some bastion of safety is showing cracks that will eventually cause it to crumble to the ground; someone is doing something that may be in conflict with what is best for the group; there are annoying teenagers you wish would stop getting screen time; etc., etc.
But TWD‘s repetitiveness doesn’t stop any individual episode from being good and entertaining, something ‘Heads Up’ proved to various degrees. It does, however, make it hard to find a reason to keep coming back to the show consistently. The Walking Dead is probably the poster child for the binge watching model–as long as the show is on its game, you’re fully engaged with the show and want to see what happens next, but if you stop viewing, you have to really think about how the show is just repeating itself over and over again, and it becomes hard to engage with the story each week. Combine this with the emotional gut punches the show brings, which can wear on people, and a week’s contemplation can make it hard to go back for more
But this week’s particular example of The Walking Dead formula worked quite well. Rick’s struggle over whether he should protect all of the residents of Alexandria or simply his own people works as a conflict because it deals with the very question at the heart of the show: what’s important, how you survive or that you survive? Rick has found himself on both sides of the argument throughout the show’s run. This latest variation not only brings out the internal conflict between the idealistic Rick of Season 1 and the increasingly jaded Rick from Season 3 (I am just going to assume that Rick basically just vacillates between these two extremes in Seasons 4 and 5), but it also highlights Rick’s current lack of certainty. For better or worse, Rick began the show as a character who was absolutely certain that what he believed was right, and that certainty has been chipped (if not stripped) away from him. But he still has to lead. I enjoyed seeing how Rick currently lacks the conviction he had the last time I watched the show.
Less enjoyable is the fact that while Carl (Chandler Riggs) now seems to be past the days of being a constant source of teenage angst, he has been replaced with Angsty Teenage Boy (Austin Abrams) and Angsty Teenage Girl (Katelyn Nacon). (Yeah, they both have names, but neither one deserves them, so this is what I am going to call them.) It’s possible that the episodes I missed contain a perspective that would clarify these teens’ actions and make their presences more tolerable. Unfortunately, I do not have that perspective at this time, so instead I am stuck wondering why I need to be with either of them. Angsty Teenage Girl at least is Glenn-adjacent, so he is there to make her interactions more tolerable and generally call her on her bullshit. Plus, while incredibly on the nose, she represents a chance for the show to express its themes about the importance of surviving even in a world as broken as this one. So I guess she can have her own name. Apparently it’s Enid.
Angsty Teenage Boy, however, is angry with Carl about something that isn’t described in the episode itself (the “previously on…” suggests it has something to do with the aforementioned Enid), so he pretends to want to learn how to shoot a gun so he can try and shoot Carl. There might be so much more to this, involving multiple other factors that I am totally ignorant of due to dropping in on the show like this… but it just kind of illustrates that it may be about time everyone agrees that unless your show is about teenagers and their angst, you should just avoid storylines like this altogether. Carl has always been a weird fit as a driving character on The Walking Dead, and involving more teens (presumably to give him more to do) to the show seems to be an equally weird move. My headspace just doesn’t need to be filled with thoughts of wanting someone to punch these teenagers in the face while I’m trying to keep up with everything else that is happening in this show.
One last thing that deserves note: the direction in this episode is quite good. It does a really good job of slowly building an ominous tone that permeates throughout the episode. There are a number of signs that everything is about to fall apart again. The walls are like a dam protecting the town from walkers instead of water, and so the fact the the walls are shown to have a literal hole in them that is leaking blood is a great use of foreshadowing. So, too, are the constant shots throughout the episode of the rickety old building slowly falling apart. At first it feels unmotivated, but at the end of the episode when the entire structure comes crashing down, it puts the episode as a whole into perfect perspective. This allows this particular episode of The Walking Dead to serve its role adequately as a penultimate episode while also giving brief relief to fans, who are happy to know that Glenn is alive (for now).
Notes and Observations:
- There are a lot of characters that I have never seen before in this episode, which is to be expected, considering I have missed almost two and half season, but this episode did feel really cluttered. It probably is about time for a culling to happen, because there are probably too many characters to juggle at this point.
- I am not exactly sure what all is happening in Morgan’s (Lennie James) storyline, nor who the person he’s holding is, but his storyline serves as a nice complement to Rick’s, as Morgan is struggling with the question of how precious life should be in this world.
- The make-up in this show continues to be awesome, and I was especially a fan of the zombie Glenn kills, whose eye is stuck onto a fence post.
- Not much action this week, and to the show’s credit, the episode didn’t suffer because of it. Part of this is probably due to how well most of the stuff where Glenn struggles to survive works early on.
- Rick is not a fan of religion, which is not that surprising. Zombie apocalypses tend to shake a person’s faith.
Episode Grade: B
Would I Watch More?
No idea. It is likely that I will always appreciate the idea that I could watch The Walking Dead more than I would appreciate actually watching it. The show just feels too much like homework at this point. Still, I could see myself watching next week’s midseason finale, just because I kind of care to see how much of what is set up in this episode is resolved.
That’s it for this week’s TV Roulette. We’ll see what next week’s brings. Until then I need to go make sure all my knives are sharpen. You never know when the zombie apocalypse might happen.