'Everything is about people. Everything in this life that's worth a damn.'

By Jonathon Dornbush
November 02, 2015 at 03:13 PM EST
Gene Page/AMC

Since Morgan strolled into Rick and the rest of the people of Alexandria’s lives at the end of season 5, one question has lingered: How is this Morgan the same rabid man we saw back in season 3’s “Clear”?

“Here’s Not Here,” addresses that question (which means, yes, we’ll have to wait for resolution to “Thank You”) with a brief frame story bookending Morgan’s journey. For the week, The Walking Dead becomes a two-man play that succeeds or fails based on the performances of Lennie James and guest star John Carroll Lynch (Fargo, Zodiac, American Horror Story, and another dozen major movies and TV shows).

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And wow, does it succeed. I’ve been partial to Lennie James’ performance since The Walking Dead’s pilot, and while some may not love Morgan’s pacifist approach to survival, I’ve been overjoyed to see him return to the show, with “Here’s Not Here” giving reason to his philosophy.

“Here” delivers not just in providing context but in portraying two powerful character portraits, one a journey to reclaim humanity and the other the facilitator of that journey. Even if the outcome is easy to predict from its early moments, the moving tale is well worth taking.

The main heft of the episode’s story takes place in the nebulous time period of “THEN,” though it’s safe to say it comes after Rick ran into Morgan in “Clear” and before he began popping up in season 5. “Here” re-introduces us to the manic Morgan, someone absolutely devastated by the loss in his life. He has to clear, clear, clear, and he’s paying for that mission with an isolated life. His isolation and his panicked state is mirrored on screen as he goes to hunt, the world around him blurring as he steps through the forest.

But as he takes down walkers, as he clears them, so too does his mind clear, at least for the moment. He’s abating his pain but not completely eradicating it. As he takes out walkers, he drags them to a clearing, throwing them into a heap. There’s no regard for the lives that were once there, and instead he lights the pile ablaze. The fire draws more walkers to his location, as he expects, taking them out and using them for kindling. He has to clear, and so he does.

A close call with a walker causes him to up his defenses, however, and he sharpens spears to form a perimeter much like Rick’s group had at the prison. He fashions weapons, boils weapons, and goes out to clear. All he can do is clear (he’s now taken to painting his scrawling we saw in “Clear” on the rocks and foliage around his makeshift camp.

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Walkers aren’t the only ones on the receiving end of Morgan’s spears, though. As he hunts in the force, he outruns two human pursuers, striking one through the neck with a spear and choking the life out of the other with his bare hands. All he can do is clear, and so he does.

This is what his life has become, and the concept of any joy or happiness has evaporated from his existence. On one of his hunting trips, he comes across a beautiful clearing, almost too heavenly to be real. The grass and flowers are sprouting with vibrant health, and the sun is beaming down on the land. It’s a reminder of when Morgan’s life, when the world too, was not replete with death and the dead rising from it. He falls into one of his muttering spats, swinging his spear around until he finally breaks down. But he must clear, and so he moves on.

While doing so, Morgan comes across a cabin in the woods, where he’s met by… a bleating goat. All seems quiet, until a man asks Morgan to step away from the goat and put the gun down so they can talk. Given that this is the Morgan of Then and not of Now, he fires at the man, and attempts to find him somewhere in or around the house. But this unknown figure (Lynch) surprises Morgan, thwacking him over the head and placing him inside a prison cell in the cabin.

But this man is not a hostile captor. He’s given Morgan some food, there’s a childlike drawing on the wall, and the man merely asks for Morgan’s name.

“Kill me,” Morgan says in response. “That’s a stupid name,” the man replies, setting the stage for a beautiful friendship to come. Morgan is not in a kidding mood, however, repeatedly asking the guy to kill him. But all the man is going to kill is time, giving Morgan a copy of The Art of Peace and his own name, Eastman.

NEXT: Morgan makes a friend.

Eastman is an anomaly, not just in Morgan’s life, but in the world of The Walking Dead. He seems genuinely at peace, but his calm demeanor does not mean he’s unaware of the harsh reality of the world outside his cabin gates. He simply approaches it in a different way, as revealed over the course of the episode.

Morgan may not trust Eastman, but the cabin owner trusts him, as he leaves the goat inside with Morgan for the evening. (“You shot at me, I fed you. Please don’t hurt her.”) Morgan complies, and from his cage observes his captor. Eastman trains with a staff, kills the occasional walker, and makes terrible goat cheese. Eventually, he breaks the silence between them. Eastman tells him who he was, a forensic psychiatrist employed by the state, observing the mental health of prisoners being considered for release. Now he lives here, and is quite curious what Morgan does.

He clears because that’s why he’s still here. His life’s mission is this one act that he purports to be of paramount importance. But to Eastman? “That’s the biggest load of horseshit I ever heard.”

Eastman, having psychoanalyzed more than 800 patients before, thinks he knows what Morgan has: PTSD. Some trauma, maybe all the killing he’s done, maybe the loss he’s suffered, which Eastman assumes based on his wedding ring. Morgan calls any saving he’s done pointless because everybody turns, but Eastman knows this defeatist attitude is a coping mechanism.

The loss he suffered has pulled his mind away from the present, Eastman explains. There’s door, he argues, and Morgan tries to mentally walk through that door to get away from it all, but it keeps leading him right back to the moment. He keeps stepping through the door, hoping to escape, but he ends up, again and again in that moment. So he stops going through the doors, but Eastman promises one of those doors will finally let him move on. He seems to be speaking from personal experience, not just professional, but Morgan barely lets the idea seep in. He plans to kill Eastman because he has to clear. But Eastman will not allow him.

Killing is not in our nature, Eastman believes. Of the 825 people he interviewed on the job, he only met one truly evil man. Everybody else can heal, and he knows it. The door is open, he says, but he’s not talking metaphorically .The door to the cage is open, it’s been open all along. Eastman says he can go and clear, or stay and they can work together. But he will not allow Morgan to kill him.

Even so, Morgan tries, but is defeated by Eastman, the child’s drawing on the wall broken in the process. Morgan returns to the cage, closing the door and pretending he has no choice, but Eastman is taking that as a sign of progress.

He tells Morgan how he beat him: Aikido, the Japanese martial art he learned before the walkers came. Eastman’s daughter found him drunk in the garage after a particularly hard day at work and gave him her lucky rabbit’s foot. The next morning, he saw a poster for aikido classes, which saved his life.

He gives no other information about his family, but Morgan leaves his cage that night to find Eastman repairing the drawing smashed during their fight. He’s found some connection in Eastman’s loss and his own, but he’s still wary of the man, so he stays behind while Eastman goes out to scavenge.

It’s lucky he did so, however, as he saves Tabitha the goat from a couple of walkers, but the tunnel vision of his need to kill returns. Curious, Morgan takes the fallen walker through the forest to Eastman’s makeshift graveyard. He digs a grave for every walker he kills, using any ID they have on them to provide a nameplate to remember who they were. It’s a far cry from the burning piles of bodies Morgan made.

Eastman does so because every life is precious to him; aikido is about avoiding killing at nearly all costs. Eastman wants to promote that idea — he fixes Morgan’s spear, but hopes Morgan will instead take a bo staff and train in aikido with him.

The two begin training Morgan’s mind and body, crafting him to be a caring warrior, someone who honors all life. In their time together, they become friends, and Eastman opens up to Morgan about his family. There was a man he had to interview for his job, Crighton Dallas Wilton. He had committed unspeakable acts, but was such a charming guy to all the right people, he was up for parole. So Eastman was asked to interview him, and though he acted like the nicest man Eastman ever met, that’s all it was — an act. A true, genuine psychopath. He could see right through it, and eventually, during an interview, he realized that Crighton knew that Eastman knew his true nature. So model prisoner Crighton started beating Eastman up, his mask slipping away.

NEXT: Morgan loses a friend.

He would have killed him if not for his aikido lessons and that lucky rabbit’s foot. He tried to make sure Crighton never got out again. But he did when he broke out. Crighton had no intention of remaining free, however. He escaped to kill Eastman’s wife, daughter, and son, only to turn himself back into the police immediately after the act. He only broke out to destroy Eastman’s life.

So he returned to prison, and a year later Eastman built the cage with the intention of kidnapping Crighton, bringing him to the cell and watching him starve to death.

Did he? Well, all he’ll tell Morgan for now is that all life is precious. It’s a fantastically powerful speech from Lynch, the actual truth of what he did not mattering in the moment.

The next morning as they discuss plans for a trip, Morgan tells Eastman about the wife and son he lost. Eastman apologizes and once again Morgan imparts his old way of thinking on Eastman. “Never be sorry,” he tells him, only for Eastman to demand they practice aikido forms. He’s good at redirecting, but his plans take an unexpected turn when walkers come to their spot in the forest.

Eastman wants Morgan to handle it, to finish them off with his new fighting style. But Morgan freezes up when he recognizes the walker — it’s the man he strangled only days earlier. He can’t fend him off, and so Eastman comes to push Morgan away, only to be bitten by the walker in the process.

Morgan begins to shout in anger, he’s regressing, but Eastman won’t play into it. He knows Morgan made it out the door, and wants him to come back, but Morgan starts to fight with Eastman until he knocks Morgan off his feet and onto the ground, where he stays, asking for the relief of death. Eastman ignores that request, taking the walker to his graveyard.

Morgan didn’t want for them to stay here, at the site of his former camp, but that’s the thing, Eastman explains. Here’s not here.

Eastman leaves Morgan be, the latter continuing to act like the clearing hunter he once was. He takes down walkers in his path, but something changes when he comes across fellow humans. He threatens them, but allows them to leave alive. He may not have accepted it, but Morgan has changed, and so he returns to Eastman’s cabin, only to find Tabitha being eaten by a walker.

He makes his way with the walker to the graveyard, where Eastman is toiling away, the bite causing the life to fade from him. Tabitha figured out the door was open to the cell, something Morgan points out he never realized.

The Morgan who arrives at the graveyard is a changed Morgan. He has Eastman sit while he finishes the grave, though while out there he notices a grave for one Crighton Dallas Wilton.

Eastman did succeed in kidnapping Crighton, but he knows it would have been better if the police had caught him. It took 47 days for Crighton to starve to death. By that point, Eastman wasn’t trying to open up the door anymore either. Crighton’s death gave him no peace. He found it when he decided to never kill again. He was going to turn himself in, but that’s how he discovered the world had ended.

It hasn’t ended, Morgan tells him. And that proves there’s a little more time for progress before Eastman dies. He explains to Morgan the importance of that drawing. His daughter drew it on their home walls, and when he realized the walkers had overrun the world, he made his way home to grab that piece of drywall. The scariest thing he ever did, and the best thing he ever did, he explains. That’s because, according to Eastman, “Everything is about people. Everything in this life that’s worth a damn. It couldn’t be just me, it shouldn’t be just you.”

Morgan could stay at the cabin, but Eastman doesn’t want him to live that type of life. He’s ready to die, and so Morgan takes him to the gun he has stored outside, but not before giving Morgan his daughter’s lucky rabbit’s foot.

With Eastman gone, Morgan spends a little more time training alone (and digging a grave for Eastman) before he heads out on the mission to find people, to save lives. And that mission so happens to lead him to Terminus, and, of course, Alexandria, where Morgan has been telling this entire story to the wolf who ambushed him in episode 2.

Morgan has him locked up in a house, believing what was done for him can be done for this wolf, even though the man tells Morgan if he’s kept alive, despite the injury he has, he will work to kill everyone in the town. That’s his code.

But even with that threat, Morgan doesn’t kill him, he leaves him holed up in the house. Unlike Eastman, however, Morgan locks the door and leaves, only to hear calls for the town’s gate to be open, the test of his now-explained resolve far from over.

For more on Morgan’s decision to lock the door, check out Dalton Ross’ interview with Lennie James.