Fallout Season 1 Episode 3 Review: “The Head”

Fallout The Head

“The Head” is a tricky little number; for a series about an expansive, dystopian adventure, Fallout‘s third episode feels particularly narrow, tracking its established players as they encounter Dr. Wilzig (or what’s left of him), and pass by a particularly dangerous pond. That’s really about it; but rather than fill in the interior of its characters in interesting ways, “The Head” seems to vacillate between fan-friendly worldbuilding and half-hearted nods towards more philosophic – and interesting – stories; certainly not unwatchable, but a step down from the more ambitious, free-wheeling first two episodes of the series.

“The Head” feels particularly narrow following “The End” and “The Target”; some of this is intentional, given the entire hour is mostly two groups of people walking down the exact same path (but how far apart in time? who knows! Everything’s a mystery!). In theory, their personalities and motivations would allow Fallout to really start engaging with its post-apocalyptic world and how these characters interact with it, as well as each other. “The Head”, instead, feels redundant; not only because each of our protagonists interact with the Gulper lake monster in linear fashion, but in how little it moves the needle, for narrative and character.

Fallout The Head

It begins, however, in a very different place, in a way that frames “The Head” in an interesting way. Flashing back to the before times, we see Cooper Howard filming a movie scene and arguing with a director over his character committing murder, before everyone on set learns one of their writers has been fired over Communist suspicions. It’s a smart way to establish its exploration of identity, using the lavish, colorful world of Fallout‘s past as a contrast to its individualist messaging – and world, given the Vault-Tec’s only purpose for building underground communities was to perform social experiments to destroy the underground collectives.

On a larger scale, it helps frame the world of Fallout when the bombs dropped, one where the powers of the world sowed their benefits through calcifying division, and erasing the sense of self; that idea would clearly hit Cooper Howard harder than anyone, somewhere between becoming the face, smile, and thumb of Vault-Tec iconography, and the Ghoul running on cocktail fumes in “The Head”. (more on the ‘reveal’ of Cooper as Vault Boy later, let’s put a pin in that).

Flash forward to the present, and what’s left of Cooper Howard represents the purest form of this individualism; a man whose very existence relies on his ability to continue generating income, making him a very effective, callous shell of a human being. He’s certainly pragmatic – as he explains to Lucy while dunking her repeatedly in the lake water, torture is an ineffective tool – but he’s increasingly desperate, willing to chase down a human-like crustacean abomination (with fingers for teeth) underwater in order to maintain the drugs that keep his miserable life going.

Fallout The Head

It’s a fascinating concept – and Goggins’s performance certainly brings Howard to life in both his forms, a perfect distillation of Fallout‘s dry, prudent observations of the human condition when untethered from a functioning civilization. But “The Head” continues to play coy with Howard (how did his career falter? how did he become a ghoul? how “sick” is he?), the less compelling the mystery is: he simply feels like an agent of chaos, a reflection of how Fallout‘s apocalypse fundamentally broke something in everyone, in a way the world may never get back. But there’s obviously more to his character, someone Fallout wants to build some sort of pathos through; and that struggles to come through in “The Head” – just as it does with Lucy, whose unaffected optimism clashes nicely with Howard, but still feels strangely unchallenged (despite her dramatic circumstances on her still-brief journey), even after she just cut off a dude’s head (for a completely unknown reason, another in a growing list of ‘mysteries’ Fallout is concerningly building into its narrative).

This flatness of character is not exclusive to Howard and Lucy; in fact, the most disappointing part of “The Head” is how lifeless Maximus’s character has already become, especially when paired with the loyal, effervescently goofy Thaddeus. For someone who knows specific power armor model names and functions, Maximus seems terrible at the use of his equipment; and his treatment of Thaddeus is incredibly revealing; I understand Maximus’s story is aiming for a “what if Finn from Star Wars was an actual piece of shit?”, but through three episodes, it easily the weakest element of the series; if we’re in for eight hours of Maximus making the same “crazy guy eyes” face right before he lies or does something incredibly selfish, it’s going to be a long, underwhelming inclusion of the Brotherhood of Steel (which, despite their name, is easily one of the weirdest components of Fallout lore).

The richest part of “The Head”, oddly enough, comes back in Vault 33, where the remaining Vault Dwellers are all having a collective crisis of identity, as they consider what to do with the raiders they were able to imprison. As the over-civilized consider the feral, Fallout revisits Norm and Chet as the two pick up the pieces of their homes, colleagues, and people they used to be (Chet is just really depressed he’s been fired as Gate Keeper, probably the only job he ever trained for in his life). At a group meeting, Norm scoffs when he hears the debate around whether they should try to rehabilitate the raiders and integrate them into society – he disagrees, with a panache only capable of someone whose entire worldview has been violently shattered.

Fallout The Head

Though it comes completely out of left field, our diversion into Vault politics is refreshing, a scene capable of being inherently interesting, without relying narrative or temporal tricks to create the facsimile of a captivating mystery. It’s also the one scene of the episode that doesn’t feel the need to embody the quote about “thou will get sidetracked by bullshit every time” – though the reflection on side quests in role-playing games is certainly relevant, its application and delivery in the Gulper-featured parts of the hour are unnecessarily overt, and only exist to reveal how thin and linear the storytelling actually is (given its all in pursuit of one thing: whatever is contained in Wilzig’s head).

There are still plenty of moments to enjoy in “The Head”; Maximus trading a tooth for a half second of mechanical work, Lucy enjoying a deviled egg from her backpack, or CX404 sniffing around for the head of his former owner are all fun moments successfully capturing the balance between irreverence and reflection, where Fallout‘s illuminating portrayal of post-nuclear war humanity can ground itself in the few silly and/or revealing moments offered to its characters. Fallout is definitely on a path, which I can respect – but its steadfastness in that pursuit feels a bit limiting in “The Head”, an episode that doesn’t quite make its overlapping narratives, motivations, and reveals feel convincingly arranged.

Grade: C+

Other thoughts/observations:

  • “He died with honor and glory.” Man, Maximus is a piece of shit, and Fallout needs to do a better job showing us why that is compelling. I’m fully rooting for Thaddeus, though, who really gives voice to the effective propoganda of the Brotherhood and where their people derive their sense of purpose.
  • The optimism of the collective is on full display in Vault 33’s meetings; even though none of them have experienced the concept of rehabilitation before today, their collective desire to take the more pacifist, hopeful resolution contrasts nicely with Norm and Barb’s growing desire to wipe them off the face of the planet, in conflict with the orders of the people they know want to stay in charge. Now that they know there’s not enough water to keep everyone alive, this story should get a lot more interesting (and violent) in the next few episodes.
  • Is the Vault Boy reveal compelling? I’d argue not really; it doesn’t add anything to Howard’s character knowing he was the face of a lie that changed the world, and became a haunting image of what was in their current world. He was already an actor; being the face of something other than his own identity is who he was, and his seeming embrace of his Ghoul appearance and identity confirms a confidence in who he’s always been. Or maybe he’s just mad they made him blonde.
  • “Ain’t much stays clean up here, Vaultie.”
  • I would absolutely be down for a CX404 episode, following the goodest boy in the Wasteland as he finds a new purpose in life.

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