The Walking Dead: Lennie James on Morgan's huge moment
SPOILER ALERT: Read only if you have already watched Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead, “Bury Me Here.”
Once he starts, will he be able to stop? That’s the question now for Morgan after he broke his no-killing pledge in dramatic fashion on Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead. This was not killing to save another, as was the case in the season 6 finale when Morgan had to protect Carol from a gun-toting Savior. Rather, this was straight-up murder: Morgan threw his every-life-is-precious philosophy out the window to strangle Richard to death after the Kingdom fighter’s cantaloupe sabotage got Benjamin killed.
Morgan then exiled himself, telling Carol in one last visit that he planned to kill all the Saviors “one by one,” which does not exactly sound like it came from the book of Eastman. We spoke to actor Lennie James to get all the inside intel on this pivotal installment and what it all means for Morgan going forward. (Click through both pages to read the entire interview, and also make sure to check out our episode Q&A with showrunner Scott M. Gimple.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, showrunner Scott Gimple personally writes all the big Morgan episodes. What is it with you and him?
LENNIE JAMES: It is a love that should never be spoken. I don’t know — it’s a gift, and I genuinely have not spoken to Scott about why he has taken that on. I’m just really glad that he has.
It must be nice for you having that consistency, and also knowing that consistency comes from the top of the food chain.
It does. We’re lucky. We’ve got a very exciting writers’ room and a group of writers who know this show inside out. They have tried and tested and they all have a collective responsibility for us, but Scott, for whatever reason, I’m just so glad that he has taken a kind of responsibility for Morgan. And the word you use is a really important word: There is a consistency, and we both have a clear idea of where we want to take Morgan, and we kind of, in a strange way, challenge each other to keep upping our game and keep taking this character to new levels and exploring the situations and the predicaments he finds himself in.
No pun intended when you say that you both have a “clear” idea I guess, but when did you find out about this big step in Morgan’s evolution? How soon before filming this episode did Scott talk to you about it?
Well, as is tradition on our show, before we start filming the whole season, all of the main characters have to sit down with Scott. I had some idea that it was coming, and it gives you the opportunity to master your character, to have some kind of influence on the way that your character is going when you have a sense of the overview and which direction Scott is thinking about taking your character in. So, I knew very early on that it was coming. I didn’t know the specifics of the details, but I did know the general area in which we were going to be exploring so I could kind of feather in certain moments in earlier episodes knowing that at some point we would be dealing with some of the challenges that happened in the most recent episode.
Let’s get to the big moment. Tell me about what’s going through Morgan’s mind as he sees Richard walk up to the saviors and then makes that big decision to strike.
One of the things I like about this episode is that to a great extent as far as what Morgan is doing, he has no great plan. And as much as he possibly can, he’s trying to resist what becomes inevitable to him right up until the end. He asks Richard, “Have you told them?” meaning, “Have you told the other Kingdomers? Have you told King Ezekiel what you did and how you caused the death of this boy?” And when Richard says no, he hasn’t, it’s kind of the final straw for Morgan. Because if he accepts what Richard says to him in that room, that what he was trying to do with the inevitability of war and the role that he wanted to take in it, Morgan has taken him at his word, and he expects him to tell the other Kingdomers that he hasn’t done that.
Also, I think Morgan has questions about whether or not, as Richard says, he’s fit to lead the new charge against Negan, and in that moment, Morgan snaps and his demons take hold of him and he kills him. But I think until the point where he steps forward and drops Benjamin’s stick and hits Richard with his own stick — until that point, I think he’s hoping that he doesn’t have to do it.
I talked to Scott and he said he worried that moment where Morgan mistakenly says the name of his dead son Duane instead of Benjamin might have been a little too much until he saw the way you handled it. What was your approach to that moment and the scene in general?
I agree with Scott. I had some trepidation about that moment where he misspeaks and calls Benjamin Duane, and the only way that moment really works for me is if that moment takes Morgan by surprise. And not just by surprise that he misspoke, but by surprise that he doesn’t realize how far backwards he’s gone, how much he’s allowed those demons to torment him that have always been bubbling under Morgan right from “Clear” onwards — actually right from the first episode when he can’t shoot his wife.
Right from those moments, Morgan is dealing with regret — he’s dealing with what he’s capable of and what he’s not capable of. And this has always been my thing when I speak to people about Morgan’s philosophy of, all life is precious. He knows what he’s like when he’s killing. He knows what killing can do to your psyche and to your soul, and he’s always just trying to keep that beast down while he’s walking away as the Peaceful Warrior. And at that point when he says Duane instead of Benjamin, I wanted it to be the moment when it takes him by surprise, and again at that moment is the moment where he’s decided that he can’t be around the Kingdomers.
This is tense, this thing that he’s tried to do, which is to allow himself to be a member of a group, and then he can do that with the Kingdom in a way that he couldn’t possibly do it with the Alexandrians because Rick is there, but Rick knows his past. With the Kingdomers he’s “new Morgan,” and he has the opportunity to be who he is now and not who he was before, and all of that is gone when he kills Richard. All of that is gone when he, himself, realizes that he’s closer to the Demon than he is to the Peaceful Warrior and he just thinks it’s safer for everybody around him if he keeps himself to himself. In that moment that both myself and Scott were slightly worried about, it actually became for us, or certainly for me, a really pivotal moment because it was the moment Morgan realized in what direction he had to walk next.
NEXT: What that last shot means, and what’s coming up next
Even right after that when Morgan’s killing those zombies, it just looks different because he’s done that before, but now it’s with anger instead of a form of mercy or necessity. It’s all coming out, right?
Yes, it is coming out to a certain extent. There is a moment right at the end of the episode where Morgan is sharpening his stick, and there’s a moment when he stops and he looks behind himself, and to me, that’s another really important moment because he’s not looking to see if there’s anybody there. He’s almost looking back on himself. He’s looking to see how close the wild Morgan is, how close he is coming back to him, how he’s looking back to see how safe he is, how much in control he is, and he needs to be, and there is anger in the way that he’s killing the zombies.
I think there is no peace for Morgan unless there’s peace on the other side of the wall that’s coming, and I think that’s the rationalization that he comes to. I think it’s Winston Churchill that had a saying which was, “If you find yourself walking through hell, for God’s sake, keep walking, because it’s the only way out.” And that’s where Morgan is going. Morgan’s in hell, and his only way out is to keep walking, and that may well be me walking through a wall to get to the other side and find any kind of peace again.
How does this all play into his move to tell Carol what actually happened? What do you make of that?
To me, that scene was really simple actually. Morgan came to say goodbye and he offered her a very clear option and it was a bit like, do you want the blue pill or do you want the red pill? And that’s what he came to say. If you want to find out what happened to me, this is probably going to be the last opportunity that I will have to tell that to you because when he turns away, having told her, and she says, “Where are you going?” he says, “I’m going to go and kill them all. I’m going to go and kill every single one of them that I find until they stop me.” And that’s where he means to go, so he’s come to say goodbye, and the way he’s chosen to say goodbye is, you can go a different way and find out a different way, but if you want to know from me, this may well be your last chance to find out.
I’m sure when a lot of people see this, they’re going to be like, “Yeah, badass Morgan’s back! He’s in the fight! This is awesome!” But this is ultimately a really sad story, isn’t it?
It’s for other people to judge whether or not it’s a sad episode, whether it’s about a man in torment, whether it’s about a man confused, or whether it’s about a man who’s finding some kind of clarity. I can’t really decide that for other people. But ultimately what I love about this episode is what I love about playing Morgan, which is that it’s never clear. And that’s no pun intended again. It’s never straightforward with him and it’s not as simple as one day he was killing and the next day he’s not killing.
There is no death for Morgan from here on in or ever anymore having met Eastman. There is no life that he will take from then on in that won’t have some kind of effect on him and as a group, as an amalgamation of different kinds of groups come together in order to go to war, Morgan’s journey through that will be about the price that he has to pay in order to get to the other side. So as far as the episode is concerned, there are moments of sadness in it, but ultimately, I think his journey is a journey of some kind of redemption, but it’s never going to be straightforward, and that’s what I love about it.
The symbolism of him sharpening his stick in that last shot is pretty clear, especially after he says he going to kill them all one by one. What does this mean for him going forward?
What I can say is Morgan, along with a lot of other people, are preparing for war, and people will enter that war at different levels, and people will leave that war at different levels. The beauty of our show is that characters are transformed and characters evolve, and there’s going to be a whole heap of transition, and there’s going to be a whole heap of people evolving over and leaving towards the end of this season and into the next, so fasten your seatbelts.
For more Walking Dead scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.