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Did ‘The Walking Dead’ Just Jump the Shark?

Did 'The Walking Dead' Just Jump the Shark?

Spoilers for “The Walking Dead,” Season 6, Episode 7, “Heads Up” follow

Here’s a fun exercise: Pull up any recap of last night’s “The Walking Dead,” and do a search for question marks. “Heads Up” answered the question of whether Glenn died in “Thank You,” but it spawned many more, less about what happens next then whether the show can survive the blatant violation of its own rules. “Pulling a Glenn” could easily become the new jumping the shark.

What was striking about Glenn’s escape from the walkers that appeared to rip out his guts four long weeks ago was how much less elaborate the writers’ solution was then the ones fans came up with: As many guessed, he was shielded by Nicholas’ lifeless body, and crawled under the nearby Dumpster to escape, but where fan theories had Glenn using his flare gun to distract the pressing hordes or his walkie-talkie to call for help, “Heads Up” simply had them lose interest and amble away — which flies in the face not only of the show’s established history, but the plight of the Alexandrians in the very same episode. It’s a huge cheat that had several critics independently referencing Annie Wilkes’ angry rant from “Misery” about cliffhangers and cockadoodie cheating.

Read more: Why TV Needs to Stop With the Fake-out Deaths

The cheat didn’t seem to bother the show’s fans, who flooded Twitter with ecstatic “Glenn’s alive!” reactions, but pleasing fans in the short term isn’t always the best thing for a show. As critics pointed out, saving Glenn — or, more to the point, stretching the question of his survival out over a month’s worth of episodes — leaves “The Walking Dead” with a major, possibly fatal credibility problem. The idea that anyone can die at any time is central to “The Walking Dead’s” ethos, but this proves that’s not the case. Showrunner Scott M. Gimple may spin the wait as a way of illustrating the characters’ uncertainty, but using carefully chosen camera angles to deliberately mislead the audience — especially when those angles aren’t grounded in another character’s point of view — isn’t about storytelling. It’s about playing the show’s viewers for chumps, trumping up bad-faith suspense rather than organically extracting it from the situation. It’s a cheap stunt, one that leaves serious doubts about “The Walking Dead’s” long-term viability. The show may not be dead, but it’s on its back and gasping for breath, and it’s going to take more than a convenient Dumpster to keep it alive. There’s only one way, as far as I see it, to regain its credibility, and that’s to do next week what it pretended to do a month ago.

Reviews of “The Walking Dead” Season 6, Episode 7: “Heads Up”

Paul Vigna, Wall Street Journal

Glenn surviving is not believable. It is not believable that he was pushed off the dumpster with his head pointed away from it, and landed with his head right next to it. It is not believable that two men landed in a clutch of dozens of walkers, one was torn to shreds and the other was not harmed at all. It’s even less believable when you see how much of his body was exposed to the walkers. I’m starting to feel like Annie Wilkes, because there’s no way Glenn made it under that cockadoodie dumpster.

Jeremy Egner, New York Times

Thematically, “The Walking Dead” draws much of its emotional power from the fact that everyone is on the menu. The characters choices, musings and constant separations and reunions have more weight — and the suspenseful moments are that much more so — because the show is demonstrably willing to kill off nearly anyone. But if you can’t trust that the people it’s apparently killed are really dead, it undercuts its own greatest strength.

Zack Handlen, A.V. Club

Just because Glenn survived this week doesn’t mean he’ll make it through the next. The biggest flaw in the actual event is how easy it all is. No pretending to be a zombie, no sudden tricks. He just pulls himself under a dumpster for a while. It’s plausible, but only barely. Yet the presentation is, I think, more frustrating than what happened. If Glenn had pulled off this escape in the middle of an episode, if we’d seen the whole thing unfold from beginning to end, it wouldn’t have attracted this much attention. Maybe there would’ve been some criticism that the show was getting soft, but that criticism would’ve passed quickly as the show moved on to other subjects. In presenting this as a cliffhanger, the creative team drew attention to the absurdity of it, dragging out the question until everyone had a good chance to argue and write think pieces and generally over discuss what is really just an elaborate fake-out. Glenn is a little more desperate than he was before, but not excessively so, and his conversations with Enid suggest he’s still as determined as ever to be the good guy. So why have such a scene at all, unless it’s to fuck with the audience?

Richard Rys, Vulture

Suspension of disbelief is critical for “The Walking Dead,” and even if it weren’t, it’s tempting to nitpick nonsensical details in each episode. Glenn’s survival is still a series of most unlikely events. He tumbles to the ground, lands conveniently close to the dumpster, and somehow — impossibly — his screams don’t alert the horde of ravenous zombies. When a few walkers do catch on, Glenn simply stabs them. Their bodies make for an opportune corpse-wall around the dumpster, which we see when he finally scrambles out. Sure, I’m glad Glenn is alive. But dragging this out was a lame tease, made even more annoying by all of the peripheral hype: Steven Yeun wasn’t on “Talking Dead”! His name wasn’t in the opening credits! If the goal was to generate blog posts and tweets, well, mission accomplished. As a plot device, though, it feels like a cheap stunt.

Laura Prudom, Variety

So what was the point? Why remove his name from the credits, why even make it a mystery? Theoretically, I’m not opposed to shows manipulating their audience, as long as the producers are willing to acknowledge that they’re manipulating us — because there was no real justification for this mystery beyond toying with the audience. After six seasons, they’re certainly within their rights to misdirect viewers, but the choice will make me less willing to buy into the relative reality of the show in future, now that the producers have proven willing to stretch credulity to suit their cliffhangers.

Jeff Stone, Indiewire

So, was the month of non-suspense worth it? If the storyline had been resolved in the episode after “Thank You,” then it probably would have been okay, but stretching the cliffhanger out over several weeks just made the wait irritating rather than suspenseful. Even this episode seems to treat his survival as a shrug rather than a revelation. “Yeah, of course, trtyGlenn’s fine. We just wanted to show you everyone else hooking up, first. Now back to the action.”

Alan Sepinwall, HitFix

As to that solution that many of you guessed, and that the show used? Ridiculous. It requires that A) Nicholas’ skinny little body was somehow able to block every zombie from getting a tooth or hand on Glenn, B) Glenn was able to squeeze under the dumpster, staying just out of reach of every zombie trying to claw at him, and, most maddeningly, C) The zombie herd — in a violation of every zombie rule the show has worked so hard to establish — just wanders away over time, despite there being no outside stimulus we’re aware of, despite Glenn being fresh meat they can smell very close by, and despite the rest of this episode reminding us that zombies will stand around forever if they know they’re near meat, and nothing distracts them.

What, exactly, was the point of all this? If you want to leave the audience and/or Maggie worried about Glenn’s fate, that’s fine, even if it’s a trope the show has exploited too often in the past (including just last season with Glenn and Nicholas). But when you put him in a circumstance where death seems all but certain — when you not only have him completely surrounded with no hope of escape, but deliberately frame the shot so that it looks (unless you’re studying it like the Zapruder film after, as many “TWD” fans did) like Glenn is screaming in pain as his insides are being torn out and eaten — only to have him literally wiggle out of death under silly circumstances, and you wait a month before that dumb payoff, then you’re just jerking around the audience because you can, and because you don’t much care about the show’s internal credibility, about whether the audience trusts you going forward, and about whether they’ll believe you the next time you endanger any of the central cast.

Noel Murray, Rolling Stone

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.

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