The Walking Dead, Sleepy Hollow and the trouble with headcanon

Sleepy Hollow

Hold up folks – before you read just know that there are spoilers within for the mid-season finales of Sleepy Hollow and The Walking Dead, and possibly some other things that are well past their spoiled-by date.

Have you ever had that moment–maybe it just takes a minute, maybe it happens the next day or even weeks later–when you realize that what you saw happen in a show you just watched didn’t actually really happen that way?  It happens to me all the time. A show just doesn’t do the work and so I construct a make-shift headcanon to help those carefully crafted emotional punches or rousing finale moments land because I really, really want for it to work.

Last week I had major moments like that happen to me in the mid-season finales for Sleepy Hollow and The Walking Dead.Both are shows that I like, that I enjoy, and that I just really want to enjoy more …So I make up the moments I need in my head. 

Sometimes, shows don’t do the work. The framework–whether character-wise or plot or other–isn’t there to justify a big shocking moment or what’s meant to be an emotional payoff. And sometimes those moments are crafted so skillfully that in that moment I forget (credit where credit is due), and sometimes I’m just so attached to those characters that *I* make it work by filling in the blanks in my head.  I’m not saying that I need a show to hold my hand; I like challenging stories, I enjoy solid ambiguity where it’s suited. But I also like internal logic.

The Walking Dead


The Walking Dead put in the work to make Beth a valuable and compelling character over the last two seasons and Emily Kinney took everything she was given and made it great. So now I’m invested. I’m also interested in Dawn, and Noah, and how their relationships work.  So I made Beth’s actions, and subsequent death make sense. I worked out a situation that explained a much more detailed and nuanced emotional connection and backstory, but upon reflection, I’m not sure the show actually did that.

Because why would Beth put herself at risk when she was about to be reunited with her people and her sister? She was going home and she threw it all away. Up until now we’ve seen Beth be smart, cool, and calculated–especially at the hospital. She’s made it this far into the apocalypse, partially by using her innocent-child-sweet-girl cover to lower people’s expectations of her. But she’s never been an impulsive person. She’s a survivor and she was going to get out.

So in my head I’m justifying. I’m thinking about how Beth has felt used by Officer Dawn, and hates her for bringing Noah back into the hospital and for making him want to go. I’m wondering if maybe she’s finally broken and snapped. But why now?

I built a whole story about how Officer Dawn has routinely taken and manipulated one hospital orderly to be her shield and protector. Which could almost make sense, but how well would Beth have gotten to the point where she throws away a reunion with her people, and her family just to violently attack Dawn on the way out? I never quite got there with this one.

And the moment at the hospital where the two groups met to make the trade for their people was built up so beautifully. Here are two groups of people making mistakes and trying to survive. Not everyone at that hospital is a monster, and even Officer Dawn wasn’t really so bad–certainly not worse, in my opinion, than Rick. Dawn was broken under the pressure and trying to hold it together. I don’t support her allowing those things to happen under her watch, but I also sympathize with the fact that she probably also felt threatened by her fellow former officers, vying for control. They could always turn on her, she could be the next victim. She really wasn’t all that much safer than the other hospital residents, she just had to keep it together, doing the best she could. The quiet ceasefire in death and the slow retreat from both sides when they decided to back down was strangely touching, as if both sides suddenly remembered that there is room for forgiveness, room to back down without a fight. It was just that the getting there was a bit rocky.

Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow Orlando Jones

In the Sleepy Hollow mid-season finale, I was all too conscious of my brain doing the work, reconnecting and figuring out the impulses of why these scenarios were supposed to mean so much more than they did. I don’t need everything in Sleepy Hollow to make sense, it’s not that kind of show – but the character motivations are key to the whole thing.

As Team Ichabod and Abbie revved up for the final battle against Moloch and pondered the emotional and apocalyptical stakes of having to fight Henry, I saw those moments in Buffy where the Scooby Gang rallied around and made a plan, coming together to save the day. I understood what I was supposed to feel and so I tried to make it work, but the necessary pieces to make what’s supposed to be an inspirational battle cry weren’t there to make the scene land.

Irving had been sidelined all season just to be sacrificed at the last moment, and it’s a small miracle–likely due to Orlando Jones being amazing and active on social media–that we even really remember who he is, let alone remember why he’s so important to these people.

Then there’s Henry. John Noble, who is always fabulous, convinces us of the conflict and damage in this stunted man who had been abandoned by first his birth parents and now his demonic adopted father. He shows us what Henry was feeling and I understood him-–so in my head I built up a season’s worth of Henry’s conflict over what to do, and Ichabod and Katrina’s conflict in trying to connect with their son. Beyond the whining and bickering we actually saw on screen over whether they should kill him to defeat Moloch; all overlaid by Abbie’s amazing eye-rolls. So the scene where Henry pierces Moloch with the special sword landed in that particular moment, but not for much longer since it wasn’t earned story-wise.

But Headcanon is a Good Thing

Most of the time, headcanon is a good thing. It’s where the deep wells of fanfiction, fan art and so much creativity comes from. It means that the characters and story are engaging enough that we want to play in that world ourselves. It makes the static act of watching participatory, as fans build a deeper world around the world we’ve been given.

It’s a good thing when creators trust the audience to make connections and fill in the blanks. But when the plot holes and inconsistencies get so large–and we’re using our creative fan-fuel scrambling to make up excuses that justify story and character direction that just don’t track–that’s when headcanon becomes a tool that we use to fix a creation problem. That’s when it’s no longer such a good thing.

When do the character inconsistencies and plot holes become too big? When we’re spending more and more time justifying the show, struggling to come up with headcanon that solves the incongruities rather than enjoying the challenges of interpretation and filling in the blanks? When do we just throw up our hands and decide this is the creator’s problem?

I’m not at the walking away point with either The Walking Dead or Sleepy Hollow. There’s still something there for me in each of those shows–even if a lot of it is faith in the people who make it to bring back more of the parts of the shows I enjoy. How long do you let your imagination do the heavy lifting, justifying a show’s internal problems, before you decide it’s just not worth it anymore?


One thought on “The Walking Dead, Sleepy Hollow and the trouble with headcanon

  1. Pingback: The Walking Dead Recap “Conquer” | The Viewing Party

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