So it turns out he’s not dead.

By “he,” I mean the Wolf I assumed Morgan killed back in “JSS,” and by “not dead,” I mean, well, you know. Given that last week’s preview apparently promoted a Morgan-flashback episode (I don’t see the previews, one of the few downsides of living in Screenerville), I’m hopeful that most people went into this knowing they probably weren’t going to hear any more about Glenn, one way or the other. If not, this could go down as one of the greatest television bait and switches since South Park’s infamous “Terrance And Phillip in Not Without My Anus.”

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Be that as it may, “Here’s Not Here” is a Morgan-centric entry, and Morgan-centric entries tend to be strong. There haven’t been that many of them, but “Clear” is still a fantastic hour of TV, and since Morgan joined up with the main group, he’s quickly become one of the show’s strongest recurring characters—stoic, tortured, capable, and absolutely opposed to killing. We’ve seen these traits before, but Lennie James brings an intensity and purpose to the role that makes the mix feel fresh.

This extra long episode fills in the gap of time between Rick, Michonne, and Carl leaving Morgan behind them in “Clear,” and Morgan showing up at the end of the season five premiere. In theory, this kind of flashback poses considerable risk. Not only are we moving away from the main action to cover events whose outcome is, more or less, already determined (Morgan’s alive in the present, ergo nothing we see in his past is really a threat to him), but there’s also a danger of providing a banal answer to questions which are best served by ambiguity.

There’s a big gap between the Morgan we saw in “Clear,” a man courting death, a man obsessed with killing the walking dead to the exclusion of everything else, a man tormented by the deaths of his wife and son—and the Morgan of “now,” a badass who preaches the value of all life. It’s a dramatic shift that makes just enough surface level sense (if nothing else, that earlier Morgan couldn’t have survived much longer; it was either change or die) that it doesn’t really need an explanation. At some point, Morgan went through the darkness and came out sane. What else do we need to know?

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“Here’s Not Here” shows how Morgan became the man he is now, and it’s a story whose impact is more in the patient execution than in the details. The arc here should be familiar: A tortured novice stumbles on the home of a gifted, patient mentor. They struggle, the novice terrified of accepting any help or allowing himself to trust someone, but eventually the mentor’s determined, unflinching humanity wins the day. Knowledge is passed on, and then the mentor is killed, because that’s part of the job description, really.

I think I’ve read similar storylines in half the fantasy novels I’ve come across. Other genres, too; for most of its running time, “Here’s Not Here” feels like something that takes place just a few steps to the left of the show’s regular universe. Not in a reality-breaking kind of way, and it’s not an implausible episode, but it offers a perspective that goes so against the apparent core values of the series that it takes some time to adjust. Eastman (John Carroll Lynch), the mentor who rescues Morgan from his self-imposed isolation, has more or less accounted for everything. Even his death isn’t a surprise—he sacrifices himself to save Morgan. (Much to Morgan’s fury.)

Typically on The Walking Dead, anyone who expresses hope or optimism will eventually suffer for their presumption. Positive thoughts have a way of clouding the mind and leaving you vulnerable, because that positivity is based on the assumption that the post-zombie reality is the same as the pre-zombie one. (Random aside: I wonder if the end of the show will be Rick allowing himself to die because he’s realized that Carl, who no longer remembers a non-zombie life, is better equipped to survive than his father will ever be?) Yet here we have someone who embraces a philosophy of non-killing, and somehow manages to get through his time on the show without looking foolish or misguided.

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Part of the secret is that Eastman has the skills (he knows aikido, which he teaches to Morgan) to back up his idealism. He’s able to defend himself against Morgan to a degree that adds credibility to his words; valuing all life means more when it’s clear that you have the ability to kill if necessary. The other part of the secret is Eastman’s backstory, which comes out slowly over the course of the hour and a half. Like Morgan, he’s had some bad shit go down in the past, and the steps he took to avenge what was taken from him both belie and enhance his stature as a peacemaker.

This is maybe the craziest pre-zombie history we’ve heard on the show; it sounds as though Eastman was living in the middle of a Stephen King story that, at the end, took a hard right into George Romero land. But the craziness works well set against the relative placidity of the actual episode, helping to keep Eastman’s commentary from coming off as shallow or unearned. He believes in the value of life; he also lost his family to a psychotic murderer, who he then kidnapped, locked in a cage, and starved to death. The Walking Dead tries to balance on a line between complete despair and naive hope, and Eastman’s life feels like a key part of that balance. Here’s a man who lost everything, and who did something absolutely monstrous, and yet he’s still alive, and still trying to find some good in the world.

I’m a sucker for more or less self-contained episodes, especially when they focus on a single character’s journey, and I thought this one worked well. I especially appreciated how they were able to keep that tension between wanting to do good, and knowing how much that good will cost you; and the ways the script explicitly uses training as a metaphor for working through post-traumatic stress. There’s sadness running throughout, but it’s sadness that’s at least partially mitigated by kindness. Eastman’s death is inevitable, but his final moments on screen help make his existence feel meaningful. (Also smart: We don’t see Morgan shooting Eastman to keep him from turning, and we don’t see a corpse being buried. This show so often wallows in bodies that its unexpectedly powerful when you don’t see one, even though you know it’s there.)

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Which brings us to the present, and Morgan’s decision to try and repeat his experience with Eastman with a Wolf in place of himself. The scene of the two of them talking breaks the spell of the flashback, and reminds us that once again, we are in Alexandria, and here is where hope comes to die. There’s every reason to expect that this Wolf will find some way to get free, and when he does, it’s very doubtful he’s going to be content with just running away. Where Morgan was half-mad with grief and loneliness, the Wolves seem different; evil, the way the man who murdered Eastman’s family was evil. You can’t cure evil, and on some level Morgan must know this, which is why he locks the door on the way out. (Eastman left the cage unlocked.) But he’s still desperate to pass on what he’s learned, because if he can’t, the knowledge will lose meaning—a philosophy with only one adherent is a dead dream.

It’s all heartbreaking, and will almost certainly end badly for everyone. There’s even an argument to be made that Morgan’s present-day actions are criminally misguided. But “Here’s Not Here” does a great job of showing why Morgan behaves the way he does. He may still be the weak man he despised in “Clear”; he may also represent a way forward for everyone, a way beyond Rick’s jittery ruthlessness and Deanna’s incompetent vulnerability. The fact that both of these things can be true is what makes him so compelling—a flawed, broken man struggling to save the world, one monster at a time.

Stray observations

  • No crazy conspiracy theories this week, but if you’d like another take on the episode with a lot more video footage, you should check out this week’s DVR Club entry on the show.
  • John Carroll Lynch is a fine actor, and there’s just enough edge to his kindness to give his story about Creighton Dallas Welton credibility. He’s convincing as a man who refuses to kill, and as a man capable of horrific acts of vengeance, and that balance makes him far more interesting a character.
  • “What’s your name?” “Kill me.” “That’s a stupid name. It’s dangerous. You should change it.”
  • “You stay, or you go. Those are the choices. I will not allow you to kill me.”
  • “I said not here!” “That’s the thing, Morgan. Here’s not here.”
  • Having criticized this show and others in the past for excessive episode running times, credit where it’s due: I thought the added minutes on this one were put to good use.

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