The Walking Dead plays me like a goddamn banjo sometimes. It seems to know that there are people like me out there, obsessive bloggers who pride ourselves on looking deep into the show, deeper than anyone really should, past the gratuitous blood-splattering and skull-stomping and skin-ripping to the real philosophical meat, justifying the gunplay and swordplay and bow-and-arrowplay by citing moral complexity or existential pathos or whatever grandiose, amorphous concept that ultimately, regardless of our efforts, remains a concept, an invention of our own rather than anything gifted us by Scott Gimple and his team of well-fed goons, who after all are only doing their best to satiate our bloodlust for forty-seven minutes a week, tedious trailers for upcoming AMC DVR-bait be damned. The knowledge that We Are Out There enables them to drag us through traumatic character deaths (or rather: deaths?) in one episode and then fart around with reverse-engineered “exposition” in the next, dangling the disinterred intestines of our beloved Glenn on a fishing line just out of our reach for, fuck, who knows how long. They know we’ll sit patiently through a Morgan bottle episode because Our Brand Is Sitting Patiently–returning, every damn week, chins poised thoughtfully upon knuckles as if we were regarding fucking Guernica. Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole, but perhaps we need a new epithet designed specifically for showrunners who stamp faint question marks onto major plot points and then set them on the narrative back burner in favor of Karate Kid interpolations starring Norm SonofaGunderson from Fargo as a backwoods Mr. Miyagi. But what, pray? Fuckrunners? Dickhangers? The possibilities, I fear, are not endless, are not even plentiful, and yet they must be explored because these fuckers must be dealt with!
Okay, enough with the histrionics. Frankly, I’m a lot happier with “Here’s Not Here” than I’m sure most of my TWD faithful friends are. Finding the roots of Morgan’s “first, do no harm” philosophy was something we had to take care of eventually, especially given what a basket case he was the last time we saw him before he started tracing Rick’s footsteps way back in Georgia. If anything, the most irritating thing about “Here’s Not Here”–apart from the aforementioned bloat proffered by the trailers for two upcoming AMC shows that will HAVE THEIR TIME ANOTHER TIME, DAMMIT!–is that it allows the Glenn Truthers another seven days (at least!) to quack about how he’s still crouched under that Dumpster, scratchless and Nicholasless. As laden with symbolism and implication as “Here’s Not Here” was, it doesn’t benefit either the Glenn Is Alive faction (who have to wait a week or more to proclaim, crossarmed and prideful, “I knew it”) or the Glenn Is Dead faction (who have to wait a week or more for those insufferable dinguses to be proven wrong). For better or for worse, this is what the show has done to us. Gimple & Co. created a monster, and now they’re stalling for time before they finally put it to bed.
Nonetheless, let’s sort out Morgan: So clearly our nearly forgotten friend had some serious feels over Rick’s lack of response over the walkie way back in the salad days of Atlanta. After Rick’s disastrous visit to Morgan’s Kurtzian bunker way back in season three, it appears the tortured Morgan dealt with his frustrations as any of us would: he burnt his painstakingly fortified living space to the ground and fucked off to who knows where. Well, that’s one way to Clear, I guess. Another is to kill every person you see within your stylishly blurred periphery, although Morgan of all people should know at this point that people are never just people, not in the New World. They’re living, lurching ghosts, and they always come back to haunt you. We knew that way back in the pilot episode, when Morgan’s beloved wife, Jenny, walked the streets in front of his house, zombified, a wrenching reminder of the personal damage caused by the zombie apocalypse, let alone the larger damage done to civilization as a whole.
Lo and behold, Morgan, mostly if not entirely reformed by his captor-cum-savior, Eastman, is confronted late in “Here’s Not Here” by the walker-ghost of a man he killed on the way to Eastman’s cabin in the woods. He had killed the man and his companion not so much out of fear or necessity but because he had to Clear. (/’kleer/, verb, to make damn sure you’re the only moving object within a foreseeable radius.) Now, having finally swallowed Eastman’s Aikido-flavored Kool Aid of peace and compassion, Morgan sees in the animated corpse the ripples of the man he (Morgan) was just weeks earlier, a man who killed because he no longer had any sense of what it meant to live, so much so that he practically commanded Eastman to kill him while he was locked in the noble woodsman’s curious living-room jail cell. Eastman provided Morgan with a reflection as well, albeit a much darker one.
Eastman, too, lost his family, but it had nothing to do with the walker epidemic. Eastman’s tale contains echoes of the thirst for vengeance we’ve seen in Rick as of late, but Herr Grimes’s .45 has nothing on Eastman’s hell in a cell, where he imprisoned one Crighton Dallas Wilton and watched him starve to death while the fall of mankind happened just far enough beyond the pines for Eastman to have no idea it was even underway. When we find that Wilton killed Eastman’s entire family–his wife, son and daughter–it nearly dwarfs Morgan’s sense of tragedy, until Eastman’s murder and subsequent rebirth remind us that tragedy is relative, and that what matters in this life is not so much what you take from the world (or what the world takes from you) but rather what you put into it. “Everyone has a spirit that can be refined,” wrote Morihei Ueshiba, creator of Aikido and author of The Art of Peace. Back in the season three episode “Clear,” Morgan described himself as weak, likely because the loss of his wife and child, compounded with what appeared to be his doom to be alone for all eternity, had left him feeling inadequate, unfit for life in this New World. Eastman’s role is to remind Morgan that strength lies in connection with humanity. It lies in community, in seeing and appreciating the connection between human beings–the only thing in this New World that can really keep humans human.
And because he is such a perfect mentor, we know Eastman has to die. Not only to die, but to sacrifice himself for his protégé. This was not a tragic miscalculation but an integral part of Morgan’s training. Now he understands why all life is precious: because all life has potential. To be reformed, refined, reborn. And all life deserves the opportunity to explore that potential, because a bad life redeemed is worth so much more than a neutral life wasted. Humanity after the fall may never be saved, but in Morgan it at least has a chance.
However, we must always remember the words of Eastman when Morgan attacked him: “I will not allow you to kill me.” There is peace, and there is self-preservative violence for the sake of peace, and then there is the hard place. Sooner or later it will be “kill or be killed” for Morgan. The Wolves have arrived and the walkers are on their way. The training was thorough and enlightening, but the test is just up ahead. All life is precious. But I will not allow you to kill me