The more characters you include on a show, the more difficult it is to deeply explore them. If The Walking Dead had, say, five main characters, then it might be easier to do episodes that focus heavily on one point of view because you wouldn’t need an entire season for character development. Only The Walking Dead has something like twenty characters that it focuses on, and while not all of them are “main characters”, they’re all characters that are integrated into the story. That means that single-POV episodes are, if anything, a luxury, and that the rest of the multi-POV episodes play catch-up. And catch-up episodes (or set-up episodes, or whatever you want to call them) really aren’t that interesting.
“Heads Up” is a catch-up episode, and while it sets up some major story threads that are sure to converge in the finale, it stumbles quite a bit while doing so. Carol and Morgan run into philosophical differences about how to deal with the world. Ron wants to learn to shoot because he’s mad that the world has taken control away from him and wants to take it out on Carl. Rick and Deanna come to a peaceful resolution. Glenn is alive (hooray!) and takes Enid with him back to Alexandria, where they watch as zombies surround the town. It’s all halfway interesting, but the issue is that it’s largely plot set-up for next week, to the point where it feels like we’re skipping through a highlight reel to get to the bloody action next week.
In an alternate universe, this episode would entirely revolve around Glenn and Enid. Glenn just went through a traumatic experience, watching the man he tried so hard to save blow his brains out and get torn apart by zombies. Enid has had a life filled with trauma, as she watched her parents get torn apart and now runs from any situation that makes her uncomfortable, any situation that looks to end in loss. There’s a great parallel in the way that both of them have experienced the world around them that an episode entirely focused on them could have teased out those parallels into something really great. Instead, we spend half of the episode learning how Glenn survived (he hid under the dumpster) and watching him chase Enid through a series of buildings. The back half of the episode has the two of them returning to Alexandria, picking up some balloons along the way, but little more happens than that. Their interactions are some of the best parts of the episode, but they’re also the most frustrating because they could be so much more than what they are.
This is why “Heads Up” isn’t necessarily a bad episode of television – just a frustrating one. There is so much potential for an episode like this to blossom into something really amazing, like “The Grove” from Season 4 or “Clear” from Season 3, but it just doesn’t. Glenn could have been developed into somebody that we actually know instead of somebody we would like to be alive because, yeah, that would be nice. We could understand more about how Enid clearly is afraid of loss instead of that just being a vague facet of her character. And, as probably the most egregious example of potential wasted, we could understand more about how Ron is reacting to a loss of control and the lie of how the world really works. This is something that could be connected to the way that teenagers experience life now, how the world shifts out from under them and becomes something exponentially more savage and uncompromising, how kids go to extreme measures to take back control from a society that reminds them that they never really had it. Instead, Ron’s just this mopey kid who we’re reminded “lost” his girlfriend to Carl in this ridiculous love triangle. So much potential wasted.
One of the most interesting facets of this episode is the internal struggle within Morgan and how he’s now at odds with Carol. Morgan represents a desire to find peace and understanding in a new world, while Carol represents a desire to push it all out of the way as fast as possible. In what was probably the best moment of the episode, Rick insinuates that it’s Morgan’s fault that he was assaulted by the Wolves, but Morgan traces back his survival to Rick letting him go, to the rescue of Daryl and Aaron, to the Wolves finding Aaron’s bag. You can trace back anything far enough and come up with convoluted results. There isn’t a black and white to the world that Morgan and Rick and Carol and the rest of the Alexandrians live in. You do the best you can to be a person, then you move on. The worst that this show could have done is to make Morgan out to be a villain, but it smartly avoids that pitfall. It shows that Morgan makes himself vulnerable while he tries to navigate the world, that Carol doesn’t understand people who make themselves vulnerable (likely because of her past as a victim of domestic violence), and that they’re bound to clash. That kind of characterization works wonders, and The Walking Dead needs to find ways to use more of it on characters like Spencer who desperately need it. Of course, before Carol or Morgan are able to move forward in resolving their issues with the world, the tower falls and takes down part of the wall, forcing them to fight to survive again. It’s an interesting reminder that these are people who have the power to find their way in the new world, but are so immersed in the fight to survive that they can’t utilize that power. They’re stuck in purgatory, hoping to make it to the other side.
And so we’re back to the zombie carnage that Season 6 has thrived so well on. The mid-season finale, “Start to Finish”, is sure to give us some brutal character deaths, a horde of zombies, and Chekhov’s rocket launcher. It’ll probably be a lot of fun in the same way that the front end of the half-season was so much fun. But The Walking Dead has to get better at connecting the dots between the set-pieces. There’s so much potential, but so much of it goes unrealized. And until that potential is finally realized, The Walking Dead is going to be a bifurcated show, one that boasts fantastic highs like “JSS” and irritating lows like “Now”.
What did you think of “Heads Up”? Was it as interesting as you wanted it to be? And who do you think is going to become zombie food in the finale? Let me know in the comments!