Remember how last week I begged for The Walking Dead to get on with it? Well, this week I got my wish in an episode full of some much-anticipated answers, some great characters moments (amidst some shocking stupidity and assholery), and one hell of a cliffhanger for next week’s fall finale.

Advertisement

“Heads Up” starts slow, which is weird when you consider it begins with the reveal of what everyone has already known for a while: Glenn is alive. As most of us figured out, all that guts-ripping was of Nicholas’ body, and Glenn manages to scoot underneath the dumpster he was previously standing on to relative safety, and then spends the night there until the zombies leave. When he crawls out, he’s thirsty, and he’s still partially covered in Nicholas juice, but that’s really the only consequences of his seeming death scene back in “Thank You.” I find this “twist” incredibly obnoxious, and not just because it seems completely implausible that none of the several hundred zombies surrounding him would fail to even just scratch him while they’re tearing Jolly Old Nick apart mere inches away from his flesh, or during his slow crawl underneath the dumpster.

I’m mainly angry because The Walking Dead cheated. It’s one thing to present something and let an audience jump to the wrong conclusion on its own, but that’s not what the end of “Thank You” was. It told the audience that Glenn was dead—not just by the deceptive camera angle that made it look like the zombies were pulling out Glenn’s intestines, but the entire scene. The slow-motion, the swelling string music—this isn’t just Glenn appearing to die, but the show telling us by the language of visual media that Glenn is dead. The show lied on a meta-narrative level, and that’s bad storytelling. The Walking Dead has cried wolf, effectively, because now whenever someone does die, and the show wants its to be tragic and meaningful, we won’t be able to trust what we’re seeing, which is going to destroy the impact of these future scenes.

Advertisement

So I was all ready to go on a tirade about “Head Up,” especially since Glenn spends half of his resurrection chasing Enid, trying to rescue her when she absolutely doesn’t want to be rescued (she even briefly pulls a gun on Glenn, which Glenn is more irritated about than anything). Eventually he calls Enid out for her “abandon everything first so you never feel the pain of losing something again” philosophy, and talks her into returning to Alexandria with him. Obviously, it’s nice to have Glenn back, but that doesn’t make Enid any more interesting or less one-dimensional.

But the real reason I’m not going off on that tirade about this episode is because by the end, I think it was one of the strongest of the season. “Heads Up” forces Rick to really examine what he’s really doing in Alexandria and what he wants out of it, as he also begins to question himself and his survive-at-all-costs pragmatism. Obviously, I’ve said many times that this conflict is what I think this season of TWD is about, if not the entire show—but here, I think, for the first time in a long time, Rick is starting to see that not giving a damn about the Alexandrians poses its own dangers.

The episode emphasizes the dichotomy between Rick and the Alexandrians in two interesting ways: 1) it shows us that in Rick’s worldview, the Alexandrians are only a means to protecting his people, to be discarded as necessary, which when made known makes Rick an enormous asshole; and 2) it reminds us that the Alexandrians are total imbeciles who need constant help.

The best example of both is when Deanna’s kid Spencer uses a grappling hook to try and rope-climb over to a nearby building in hopes of making it to a car to lure away the herd outside the walls. It’s obvious that Spencer has neither rope-shimmying skills nor grappling hook skills, and the hook breaks, sending him careening into a big pile of zombies. Rick (and others) begin to try and pull him up, while Tara leans precariously over the wall herself, trying to shoot enough zombies to give Spencer a fighting chance. Eventually Spencer is pulled up and saved, and Rick immediately turns on Tara in fury.

Advertisement

Sponsored

“You already almost died once for these people!” he screams, angry that she risked her life to help one of these idiots—suddenly revealing that not only does he not consider the Alexandrians part of his people, but he doesn’t believe they’re worth helping if it poses his group any danger. But this is so transparently heinous that Tara, after she gets over being shocked at Rick’s outburst, flips him the bird. Then Rick turns on Spencer, berating him for doing something so stupid. Spencer replies he only wanted to help, and Rick demands all ideas have to go through him. “Would you have listened?” Spencer asks wryly, and by the look on Rick’s face, we know he’s realized he wouldn’t. Not because it was a stupid idea—although, hoo boy, was it ever—but simply because it would have come from someone outside his group.

Later on, Rick apologizes to Tara for yelling like an asshole (but not for what he said). But when he asked Tara why she risked her life for theAlexandrians, she’s confused by his confusion, because for her, helping each other is what the group is all about. And later, Rick tells Deanna that he thought very hard about letting her son die, to distract the zombies and give Rick a chance to get out, find a car, and lead the herd away. He tells her this angrily, almost as if he wants Deanna to react, but she doesn’t. Because Rick didn’t let her son die, and Deanna doesn’t think he ever really would have. (If Deanna had seen the previous five season of TWD, I’m not sure she’d be so optimistic.)

I don’t want to conflate Rick’s growing acceptance of Alexandria and its people with his forced examination of the Morgan/Batman Ethos of Not Killing, but I do think they go hand in hand. One helps his/her neighbors by hoping that they will help him/her in the future; one doesn’t kill his/her enemies in hopes that they become friends (or at least non-enemies). In both cases, someone does something for another in hope that it will lead to a better future.

In what should be a surprise to no one, Morgan puts it best during my favorite scene of the episode, and one I wished was at least 20 minutes longer: Rick and Carol (and Michonne) basically interrogateingMorgan because he didn’t kill some of the Wolves. Rick is angry, and Carol looks at Morgan like he’s just another danger that needs to be murdered. But Morgan doesn’t lie, nor does he make excuses. In fact, he fully admits that in a way, it was his mercy that allowed the Wolf attack to happen; it was when he rescued Daryl and Aaron from that Wolf trap that they led him—and thus the Wolves—to Alexandria. Had Morgan let them die, it’s possible the attack wouldn’t have occurred.

But can anyone truly argue that Morgan should have let Daryl and Aaron (but mostly Daryl) die? Of course not. The audience would have hated Morgan for his negligence. Rick looks troubled, as if realizing the only way to stop the Wolf attack would have been to sacrifice Daryl, and suddenly discovering he couldn’t put the greater good ahead of his friend’s life. This is when Morgan hits them with the whammy: He let the Wolves lives because he has hopes they can change. Both Rick and Carol look like they’re about to laugh derisively, when Morgan says simply, “Everyone at this table has.”

Advertisement

Morgan is right. Of course, Carol has gone from subjected housewife to stone-cold killer; it’s arguably a change for the worse, but it’s a still a change. The last time Rick saw Morgan, Morgan literally tried to kill him, but Rick let him live, obviously because Rick had hope Morgan could regain his sanity. And Rick has gone from sane to insane to moral to brutal and back again so many times that neither Rick nor Carol can dismiss Morgan’s hope, even for the Wolves.

By the end of the episode, Rick looks far less certain than he did at its beginning, and he seems more human, too—this is not a coincidence. And, as if a reward for even considering fraternity and forgiveness as post-apocalyptic lifestyle choices, a small group of green balloons float overhead Alexandria at right that moment. On their return to Alexandria, Glenn and Enid spotted some of the green balloons (and the helium canister) the group had used to mark specific places on the road for the great zombie drive. Enid made some more—arguably as a zombie distraction—but when the herd made getting inside Alexandria impossible, Glenn and Enid release the balloons as a sign.

Advertisement

Maggie immediately knows it’s Glenn, Rick is thrilled at least someone from the Zombie Fun Run is alive, and everyone else just seems happy to take a moment to see such a whimsical sight as balloons soaring through the air. And then, because while fraternity and forgiveness may be the true keys to survival, happiness in The Walking Dead is always met with disaster, a building next to Alexandria’s wall tumbles over, knocking down a sizable portion of the wall with it.

Just in time for next week’s fall finale! See you there.

Assorted Musings:

Advertisement

• Father Gabriel puts up signs for a prayer circle, and Rick not only takes one down in front of the priest, but tears it up. Thus we can safely guess that Rick has not forgiven Father Gabriel his trespasses. Also, that may be Rick’s biggest dick move in the entire series, just because it’s so unnecessary.

• Ah, one thing I didn’t mention is that Rick continues to give Jessie’s kid Ron shooting lessons, and even gives him an unloaded gun to carry around. Of course, Ron is 1) a teenage boy who 2) thinks that Carl stole his girlfriend Enid, so he steals some bullets and is basically stalking Carl when the wall comes down. This will obviously end well.

• While Rick is questioning whether violence is always the answer, I think Carol is starting to crack as well, thanks to her traumatic buddy Sam and his incredibly on-the-nose conversations. Sam: “If you kill people do you turn into a monster?” Carol: “The only thing that keeps you from turning into a monster is killing people.” That’s obviously completely insane, and Carol looks like she knows it. It’ll be interesting to see what she does now that she’s figured out Morgan is hiding someone in the cell—assuming she even has a chance to next week.

Advertisement

Advertisement

• When Glenn and Enid first walked by the balloons, I finally realized they were floating, and started furiously writing a snide comment about “Did the group find a helium tank or something?” as if it was the most implausible of occurrences. I had not finished the note when Glenn told Enid “There’s a helium tank just off he side of the road if you want to make more.”

• I assume the episode title “Heads Up” refers to everyone gazing up at Glenn and Enid’s balloon signal, but it could equally refer to the collapsing building. As in, “Hey, heads up, that building is gonna fall on the wall and a million zombies are about to get in.”

• Again, I think this was a good episode all around, but I give the MVP to Nurse Denise, who introduced the world to FWoPP’RS—fever, warmth, pus, pain, redness, swelling—all the signs of impending zombie-ism.

Advertisement

• Spoiler warning, thanks to the comics: I would put a decent amount of money that Negan, the next big bad, kills Glenn. Obviously, everyone loves Glenn, so his death will shock mass audiences, but of course the comics fans know it’s coming and it could have gotten out a bit. So my guess is TWD wanted to make Glenn appear to die and bring him back, so that people think he’s safe for awhile. “They wouldn’t bring him back just to kill him for real!” mass audiences are likely saying, but I think that’s exactly what they’re doing. Also, I think Ron is about to cost Carl an eye.


Contact the author at rob@io9.com. Follow him on Twitter at @robbricken.