The Head Is the Kind of Crime Show that Proves Twist Endings Make a Poor Narrative CrutchPhoto Courtesy of HBO Max TV Reviews The Head
It’s probably annoying to start a TV essay like this by pointing out the things that annoyed me in a show I generally enjoyed, and it probably says something about the deep flaws in my mindset. Still, when you watch enough crime/mystery/horror-adjacent content, the weird stuff immediately starts to stick out and gnaw at you until it’s basically all you want to talk about when the time comes. The minute something falls short of greatness, the brain turns to nitpicking… or mine does, anyway.
So let me ask you a question, re: the HBO Max six-part miniseries The Head. Let’s say you’re a serious Nordic man of science arriving at a research station in Antarctica after the skeleton crew stationed there for six months of polar darkness broke radio contact. You find almost everyone dead or missing, aside from a terrified doctor, and it turns out that the doctor, while traumatized, is ready to tell her story.
A – Ask her the really important questions first, like who did the murder, where the missing people are, and then fill in the details later, since time is of the essence?
B – Go in for short chats over the course of two days while she tells her story chronologically, with the revelations happening at the very end?
If you’re operating in “real” life, it’s A, but if you’re writing a TV show with poor attention to detail, it’s B. And this might be a little harsh, since there’s some justification in there about gradual memory recovery or whatever, but it still felt irksome throughout the six episodes. Which is either a valid critique, or a sign that I’m getting a bit too picky in my middle age.
I recently wrote about the specific genre of “snow noir,” so The Head should have been right up my alley, and to some extent it was. The performances are solid—Katharine O’Donnelly as the doctor and Alexandre Willaume as Johan, the man forced to investigate the crimes, are particularly good—the setting is both expansive and claustrophobic, and the isolation of the South Pole makes for a tremendous murder cauldron. It hits the right notes, at least broadly, and as far as watchability; I blazed through six episodes in three days.
The problem is that once you start seeing these small flaws in the writing, you can’t stop seeing them, and one seems to follow another in rapid succession, like holes being poked in a dam that must inevitably burst. The chronology conceit may seem small, but it’s actually an omen auguring worse mistakes later. If you start with a certain amount of plot laziness, you tend to get worse, not better.
Which brings us to the twist. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t say exactly what happened, but I will say that I saw it coming a mile away and you will too if you’re paying attention. Worse, when you think about it for two seconds, it makes absolutely no sense. Recently, it seems that I’ve been writing a lot about the extent to which we should hold plot holes against a show, and to what extent we’re just being nags. In the context Netflix’s Lupin, for instance, where a big point of the show is fun capers, I think we can excuse a few whoppers. Ditto for the cliches in Money Heist, which manages to wear them well. In The Head, it’s all less forgivable because the show’s deliberate pacing and ominous aura make the story the engine which drives everything else. If that’s rickety, there’s no reliable secondary element to fall back on. You end up wanting to scream at the writers: TRY. HARDER.
And the twist is quite rickety in The Head, relying primarily on turning off the alarm in your head that says “wait, this isn’t how this would work” about a dozen times during the climax. Because there are a few horror elements sprinkled throughout, I found myself comparing it often to another HBO miniseries, the excellent The Third Day with Jude Law. There again we had a central mystery that felt creepy, dark, insidious, with a few murders and a strange origin story underlying it all. But where that show seeped into your pores and captured you with its intelligent storytelling—in a way that immediately transcended the genre—The Head begins to unravel when you pull at its threads. The failure to create a distinct and realistic world within the dramatic conceit (a paradoxical request, sure, but incredibly important) means that it’s limited to noir-ish fluff for people like me who happen to love the genre.
As a final point, it’s worth looking at the institution of the twist ending in general. Directors like M. Night Shyamalan have made the idea of twist into a kind of punchline, and after watching The Head, it’s hard not to think that’s a good thing. It has its place, no doubt, but in a time and place where we’ve consumed enough media to be completely saturated with twists, it’s harder than ever to actually pull it off in a way that feels organic and unpredictable. Increasingly, I’ve come to think that the only valid choices for this type of show are to tell you the conclusion up front and rely on the strength of the narrative, or to keep the killer or culprit as an outside, unknown figure, a stranger whose identity is only discovered at the end. These Murder on the Orient Express-type stories where a villain exists among a group of known entities have lost their punch, and when the story can’t cut the mustard on its own, the late twist is a crutch made of rotted wood, on which the broken body of the show will lean perilously just before collapsing in a painful heap.
The Head is now streaming on HBO Max.
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