The Head (2020)

2 out of 5

Created by: David Pastor, Alex Pastor, David Troncoso

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a mini-series so precipitously fall off after establishing a solid footing. That, wholly isolated, is kind of amusing, as it seems like a relic of 5-10 years or so ago (as of 2020), before streaming and the success of longer form shows like Breaking Bad seemed to affect the way non-serialized TV was structured. But I highly doubt that The Head was hoping to entertain us by that.

An Antarctic research station is set to shutdown for the long stretch of dark, meaning that the bulk of the on-premises crew – including Johann (Alexandre Willaume) – will be departing for the sunlight and warmth of the mainland, while some core staff – Johann’s wife, Annika (Laura Bach); bigwig researcher Arthur (John Lynch) – stay on. After the season passes, Johann and a team return, troubled at the lack of communication coming out of the station. They discover: a locked station; and bodies. Some mutilated. Some burned. And one survivor: Maggie (Katharine O’Donnelly), the station’s doctor, whose convenient amnesia starts to lift as she slowly remembers and fills in details of what’s happened…

This structure is familiar, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a setup for something intriguing, and The Head’s moody atmosphere and isolated setting sets a compelling standard. When Maggie’s tale begins, there’s further promise, as it’s outright weird and brutal – an initial crime giving the series its title – and also pleasantly self-aware, namechecking The Thing even as the winter staff falls in to the habits of staring at each other accusingly when there’s no clear culprit for that initial offense, and other problematic incidents, such as severed radio contact, start to occur. The show takes a dual timeline approach – Maggie recalling pieces from the past, which has Johann doing some sleuthing in the present – and there’s intelligence and restraint in how this works that gives the show good, binge-worthy momentum. While the staff in the flashbacks are eyeballing daggers at one another, and certainly on edge, they keep to believable actions and outbursts for their range of personalities – not devolving in to the usual shouting matches and nonsense behaviors of such TV / movie scenarios – and the conclusions Johann draws from Maggie’s story seem to be appropriately skeptical, not jumping to silly fallacies. Yes, there are some detail and logics dropped, but its within a relative realm of credibility; disbelief is effectively suspended while the mystery is poked at and prodded at, and gets more devious.

…Until all of this takes a nose dive, almost immediately after the fourth episode. Some larger gaffes are visible prior to this point, but it’s possible to read those as purposeful questionable-narrator moves, just somewhat sloppily applied. However, a combination of irrefutably stupid decisions and an encroaching problem in which the narration just completely forgets to account for characters X and Y during key points makes the tension fart out in a couple of big blasts, and then The Head starts to remove the restraints that had previously been in place – irrational behaviors; dumb fights; etc. – and gets to work making up for lost time. The script plays the “here’s an inconsequential detail I forgot to mention before – don’t worry about it!” game that, to anyone who’s seen 1 or 2 versions of these stories will immediately identify as the likely explanations behind what’s going on, and the show slides in to more of a hate watch, wanting to see if it’s actually running straight toward the flaming wreck it’s building, and yes, yes it is.

To be fair, the conclusion itself isn’t bad, just like the premise itself – though somewhat cliche – had promise. But it’s the way we get there, and the way the show very unsuccessfully tries to drum up tension and force characters into positions and decisions that the story doesn’t sell, that ends up tanking things, rather drastically.