We've got some good news and some bad news. The good news? Glenn's alive. The bad news? See the good news.
Years from now — hell, months from now — when The Walking Dead's sixth season is up on Netflix and the streaming crowd is binging it, the whole "death of Glenn" bait-and-switch may be no big deal. People will only have to wait hours, not weeks, before they find out what's what. And they won't have dealt with the incessant Internet chatter, fan theories ("Damn, Glenn got ate!" "Nope, he ducked under a dumpster!"), and cryptic postmortem interviews that popped up in between.
Right here and now, though? It's hard to understand the point of all this tomfoolery. To make faithful viewers feel like idiots for prematurely mourning a beloved character? To generate some buzz around a show that doesn't really need it? It surely wasn't to strengthen the storytelling, because Glenn's survival actually screws that up — on two levels. For one, it unravels the spiky "compassion kills" theme that had been clinging tightly to the season's first four episodes. Mistakes usually have more serious consequences in TWD. The death of Nicholas doesn't qualify.
More importantly, an improbable escape defuses tension, which isn't a smart choice for an action-horror show. Case-in-point: After Glenn got away this week, he ran into Enid, who pulled a pistol on him when he told her they needed to go back to Alexandria. One of the great strengths of this series has always been that anyone can die at any time, but did anybody watching this episode expect that gun to off? Granted, that would've been a seriously gutsy move on the writers' part — kill Glenn, wait a few weeks, bring him back, and then immediately blow him away. But it was also highly unlikely, and as a result the entire scene come off flat.
Because this week's episode — “Heads Up" — puts its big twist before the opening credits, the rest of the show feels especially anticlimactic. For the third week in a row, The Walking Dead didn't really advance the plot in any significant way, at least until the end. (More on that in a moment.) Instead, this was another low-boil hour of training and arguments, threaded between superfluous scenes of Rick soaking up the awe of the Alexandrians. Carl and his dad helped Jessie's son, Ron, learn how to shoot, while some of the other locals got a lesson in swordplay. And in the one real moment of action, Deanna Monroe's son, Spencer, tried to rope his way over the massing zombie hordes, in a headstrong attempt to restart the process of leading the undead away from town. Instead he fell, and cost the good guys some irreplaceable bullets during a successful rescue attempt.
The "Spencer falls, everybody panics, Spencer's saved" sequence was pretty much par for the course. After a strong stretch of episodes, the show's been in stall mode, introducing complications only to erase them and restore the status quo. Sometimes, like with the near-death experience of young Mr. Monroe, it's happened in just a few minutes; and sometimes it's taken an entire hour, like in Daryl's circular "Always Accountable" storyline. With Glenn, the writers made us wait an unreasonably long time before they pressed the reset button.
What makes this all so frustrating is that anyone familiar with the source material knows the comics start getting really interesting around this point, by bringing in new characters and new challenges, based around the idea of what it actually takes to rebuild human society. Last week introduced some of those newcomers: enforcers from another community, sure to come back into play soon. And this week teased Deanna's plan to start growing crops and expanding the Alexandria Safe Zone. But these have just been reminders of what the show could be doing right now, rather than almost offing folks.
That said, all the recent navel-gazing and near-misses hasn't been a total waste of time. Morgan gives the proceedings a dramatic boost by answering to Rick and Michonne about his decision to set free a few of the invading Wolves — the same group that nearly killed our leader a few weeks back. The man with the ass-kicking stick skills made some strong points about the vagaries of cause-and-effect, pointing out that because Rick saved his life eons ago, he then saved Aaron and Daryl, in a rescue operation...which ended up tipping off the Wolves. If there's one theme that has been holding strong this year, it's the classic one about "best laid plans."
This week's chapter also ended on a strong note, with a scene of Ron walking behind Carl with a secretly loaded gun, followed soon after by a shot of a tower collapsing. Next week's fall finale could be a return to the relentless intensity that served the early part of this season so well. Zombies streaming into town, a creepy armed Ron running amok, and Daryl due back any minute? Yes, that'll do.
Still, after this week's unfortunate resurrection, it's going to take a lot of clever plotting to rebuild trust among a fanbase that may have been faked out a few too many times. Once the heroes have dealt with this latest crisis — with, like it or not, Glenn's help — it's time for things to start happening again. Things that matter. Things that stick.
Previously: Truth or Daryl?