The importance of Morgan Jones, played with wonderful range by veteran British actor Lennie James, to The Walking Dead is belied his limited screentime; he only appeared in five episodes prior to becoming a series regular this season and two of those appearances were post-credit cameos.
The enjoyment of Morgan’s character is clear (haha, puns) on writer/showrunner Scott M. Gimple’s part and is the core of what “Here’s Not Here” is, a love-it-or-hate-it 90-minute indie zombie movie (especially in the wake of last week’s controversial episode) explaining Morgan’s transformation from insane killing machine to pacifist Zen warrior. I fell firmly on the love-it side of the equation. I’m a longtime fan of James as an actor and seeing the opportunity for him to become a more integral part of the show’s mythology is rewarding, as is the brilliant performance by character actor John Carroll Lynch as Morgan’s mentor.
Gimple penned this episode’s predecessor, Season 3’s classic “Clear,” which explained how Morgan’s son Duane’s death by the zombified wife he was unable to put down drove him insane. The next time we saw him, he was on the railroad tracks to Terminus, subsequently following the Hunters’ tree markings to Father Gabriel’s church where he found Abraham’s map, leading him to Rick and Alexandria.
“Here’s Not Here” acts as a sequel of sorts to “Clear,” filling in the gap between that episode and Morgan’s cameo in Season 5’s premiere “No Sanctuary.” It begins where we left off: with Morgan ranting and raving in his booby-trapped Georgian hometown. In his late night delirium, he knocks over his lantern, burning down his house and setting the crazed “clearer” on the road (this effectively feels like an excuse not to re-create the sets from Season 3).
He builds a makeshift camp surrounded with sharpened pikes, burning all walkers he encounters and killing anyone he encounters, including a father-and-son duo he stabs and strangles, respectively. It isn’t until he comes across a beautiful clearing that he discovers a cabin, complete with solar power, a garden and a goat. Here lies Lynch’s Eastman, a forensic psychiatrist conveniently suited to forcefully rehabilitate Morgan with a healthy diet of goat cheese, The Art of Peace, and the Japanese martial art Aikido.
There was a lot of fan backlash to Morgan’s philosophy-in-action during episode two “JSS” wherein he spared several of the barbaric Wolves who had attacked Alexandria and slaughtered many of its residents (Rick would end up killing them but not until they’d disabled the RV in last week’s episode). This episode’s two-person story recalls Cormac McCarthy’s play “The Sunset Limited,” which also tells the story of two men, one white, one black and their struggle to convince each other of meaning (or lack thereof) to life.
Over the course of Morgan’s captivity, he repeatedly asks Eastman to kill him and tries to kill him multiple timesyet he never responds violently, except to defend himself. “All life is precious,” indeed. Slowly but surely, Morgan comes around, learning his jail cell is actually unlocked, defending Tabitha from walkers and learning Aikido from Eastman, the art of redirection with a strict creed of no-killing.
Eventually, Eastman relates his story: he’d interviewed 825 men and women who’d committed horrific crimes but only encountered one truly evil person: Creighton Dallas Wilton, a charming psychopath who’s act only Eastman saw through. Upon denying him parole, he escaped prison exclusively to murder Eastman’s entire family, after which he turned himself in. The origin of Morgan’s jail cell? It was built with the intention of kidnapping Wilton and starving him to death. Did he do it, Morgan asked? “All life is precious,” a glassy-eyed Eastman repeates.
Lynch is phenomenal, given the heavy-lifting of conversing with the largely silent-and-sulky Morgan. Of course, this is a flashback and Eastman ain’t around in Alexandria. Inevitably, Eastman is bit by the zombie of the son that Morgan strangled weeks prior. Morgan, overcome with guilt, regresses, fights Eastman and flees into the woods. But when he comes upon a couple, he refrains from killing them. As Eastman would say, progress.
Eastman, who buries every single walker he puts down (in direct contrast to Morgan’s previous pyres), reveals a grave for Wilton. He had followed through, capturing him and starving him to death in the cell. But it gave him no peace, he told Morgan. Only accepting the no-killing rule brought him peace. He encourages to Morgan to give up living alone and find people again, “the only thing that’s worth a damn.”
The “now/then” flashback is framed by Morgan telling the Wolf he captured two weeks ago his story. Morgan, it seems, wants to do for the Wolf what Eastman did for him. But like Eastman, Morgan may be staring a truly evil person in the eye, as the Wolf says while Morgan’s code prevents him from killing, his tells him to murder him and every single man, woman and child in Alexandria. He also reveals he has a zombie bite, dooming him to death regardless. Morgan leaves him tied up in a room but diverges from Eastman and locks the door.
This subplot recalls previous “peaceful black man” archetype Tyreese and Martin, the chatty Termite who grilled him for his empathetic actions. I hope Morgan isn’t simply another bowling pin of morality set up to be knocked down by the show – especially in the wake of last week’s maybe-maybe-not death of Glenn – as if reiterating the same thing would be substantive storytelling. But as it stands now, “Here’s Not Here” was great, a zombie mini-movie that presented us with a pleasant alternative to survival than Rick’s patented no compromises, kill-or-be-killed style.