At the most basic level, the narrative of last night’s 90-minute episode—nearly a standalone Walking Dead movie in its own right—is quite simple. It really just fills in a gap in the story: How Morgan Jones went from being the babbling, violent lunatic we saw in season 3’s “Clear” to the preternaturally calm man who showed up at the end of last season, telling Daryl that “All life is precious.”
We know how Morgan went crazy in the first place. He saw his walker-fied wife eat his only son right in front of him, and his mind cracked. He became delusional and obsessive, consumed by a need to “clear” his surroundings of walkers and also most humans, whether they threaten him or not.
But how did that guy—scrawling obscure messages on the walls, talking to people who weren’t there, alternately trying to murder everyone around him and begging them to kill him—turn into the guy we later saw walking calmly down the railroad tracks, following the signs that eventually led him to Alexandria?
The answer: He met the right person. Maybe the only person in the world who could have healed him in this way. A patient, caring psychiatrist who could also, by the by, hand him his ass six ways from Tuesday using only a wooden staff.
It’s interesting, and telling, that two episodes ago when Father Gabriel asked Morgan who taught him how to fight with a staff, he said that was a cheesemaker. Eastman wasn’t particularly good at making cheese. What he really was was a shrink. And he was very good at that.
Note, for example, how to explain Morgan’s PTSD, he uses a metaphor about finding the right door, and then later reveals that the door of the cell that he’s trapped Morgan in has been open the whole time. The object lesson, if a bit over-the-top for us as viewers, works its way slowly into Morgan’s understanding, as he gradually becomes gentler, loses the weird tunnel vision that goads him to violence, and learns to find himself again.
The beauty and power of this transformation onscreen is down to tremendous performances by the two lead actors, Lennie James and John Carroll Lynch (an “Oh THAT Guy!” actor if there ever was one, most familiar to me as Marge’s artist husband from the original Fargo), as well as some breathtaking cinematography and a subtly moving score (listen for the way the slow piano notes of the “Morgan” theme work their way increasingly into the episode as he grows more and more centered).
But the real meaty subject here, obviously, is the issue of Eastman’s core philosophy: He refuses to kill anyone (human), ever. The major thrust of the episode—the reason why, in the frame narrative, Morgan is telling his life story to one of the Wolves—is to show how Morgan came to adopt this philosophy as well. But it leaves the question to us whether this sort of pacifism makes an iota of sense in this twisted world they all live in. A couple of episodes ago, I was firmly in Carol’s camp: no, not at all. But the example of Eastman at least provides a compelling counterargument.
It’s basically impossible not to like Eastman. He’s tough but fair, practical and accomplished, funny and flawed. Hell, he’s introduced brandishing his staff while wearing a bathrobe that basically make him look like a Jedi. Next scene, he’s cracking wise while Morgan begs him to put him out of his misery. (“What’s your name?” “Kill me!” “That’s a stupid name. Dangerous. You should change it.”) He’s known extreme pain but hasn’t been made cynical by it. He’s open, giving and trusting in a way that almost every other character on this show has forgotten how to be.
He’s ultimately the most humane character we’ve seen on The Walking Dead. He insists on giving everyone a name—even so far as to find out the former names of walkers he kills and writing them on grave markers for them. He’s kind, telling Morgan (truthfully, it turns out) that he will one day hold a baby again, and not even once blaming Morgan for the mistake that ended up costing him his life.
It’s no wonder that, as Morgan is nursed back to mental health by Eastman, he adopts many aspects of his personality. Later, he will start to parrot things he heard Eastman say. In “Conquer,” we got several examples, notably during his conversation with the same Wolf he’s talking to now, who held him at gunpoint then: “Everything gets a return,” he tells him, quoting Eastman directly. And later paraphrasing his determined threat, “I will not allow you to take me. I will not allow that,” before subduing both him and his friend.
But this is where it gets tricky. Because he didn’t kill those two Wolves. Following Eastman’s philosophy, he just knocked them out and trapped them in a car. On a practical level, this was a huge mistake. At the end of the episode, we learn that the dark-haired Wolf whom Morgan is telling the whole story to, the same one he left alive that day, was the one who found Aaron’s photos of Alexandria and led the Wolves there. If he had killed him then, the attack would likely never have happened.
Meanwhile, the other one, the blond, was the one Morgan let live yet again during the attack, allowing him to grab a gun and then go fire on Rick in the RV. Leading directly to the dire-straits cliffhanger that our Dear Leader currently finds himself in.
And now Morgan continues the same pattern, locking the dark-haired Wolf into an Alexandria townhouse instead of killing him, even though he just said that he’s going to kill everyone in town if he gets out, including the children.
The whole episode is built around explaining to us why and how he can still maintain this policy of non-murder, even with all of the mounting evidence that saving people’s lives is destructive. But do we buy it?
I think I do. Eastman’s invocation of a martial arts-based Eastern philosophy—it’s right there in his name—makes the episode particularly attuned to the productive nature of paradox. To the way that paradoxical statements and situations can help us see beyond the obvious and the immediate. They can, in Eastman’s terms, “redirect” us. The title of the episode, “Here’s Not Here,” is a self-contradiction, a phrase that gestures at sense without revealing itself. Instead of becoming an explainable thing that we can understand and then discard, it continues to generate various meanings the more we think about it.
So too Morgan’s radical pacifism. After this episode, instead of saying “What a dumbass—just kill people!” we recognize that Morgan’s refusal to kill is compelling because it makes no sense. On a practical level, it’s idiocy, which forces us to take into account considerations beyond the practical.
And primary among these considerations, of course, the by-now-clichéd central question of The Walking Dead, finally after all these seasons made interesting once again: If the price of surviving in this world is to become something other than fully human—is it worth it?