The Walking Dead, The Leftovers Challenge
Courtesy of AMC

Spoiler Warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Walking Dead” episode 604, titled “Here’s Not Here.”

For viewers hoping to get some closure for Glenn’s ambiguous fate, “Here’s Not Here” might’ve felt like the “Walking Dead” equivalent of Lucy with the football (a bait-and-switch made even crueler by the omission of Steven Yeun from the opening credits) — but for folks who are just along for the ride, the extended Nov. 1 episode proved to be one of the show’s most compelling to date, simply by following Lennie James’ Morgan as he relearned how to be human. (The Television Academy’s ongoing refusal to recognize the show in the above-the-line Emmy categories remains baffling, but it’ll be a travesty if James doesn’t earn a nomination for carrying such a punishing, visceral episode with so much nuance and restraint.)

Back when we encountered Morgan in season three’s “Clear,” he begged Rick to kill him, but seemed unwilling or unable to take his own life; this week, he did the same to Eastman, a generous pacifist who took him in despite Morgan’s attempts to kill him (multiple times) and steal his goat.

The episode gave us some insight into why Morgan recently told Rick “sometimes you’re safer when there’s no way out,” since he spent much of the episode locked in a cage (both physically and mentally) of his own volition — comforted by the lack of options those bars gave him.

He expended a lot of energy trying to devise a way out of the cell Eastman put him in, without realizing the door was unlocked all along, and once he found out, he chose to stay inside – an elegant illustration of exactly why Morgan (and arguably many of our other characters) can be his own worst enemy. Eastman expanded this theory by trying to help Morgan understand the cycle of grief he’d been trapped in since losing his wife and son.

“You saw it happen, that’s how this started, right? It’s all happening right in front of your eyes, over and over again. Your body’s here, but your mind is still there. There’s a door and you want to go through it, to get away from it, so you do, and leads you right back to that moment. And you see that door again, you know it won’t work but hell, maybe it’ll work, so you step through that door and you’re right back in that horrible moment every time. You still feel it every time, so you just want to stop opening that door, so you just sit in it. But I assure you, one of those doors leads out, my friend.”

Rick and his group remain stuck in that cycle of violence, trying different doors that have at various points led to Hershel’s farm, Woodbury, the prison, Terminus, and Alexandria, but somehow the outcome is always the same – death and destruction and shattered peace. While they’re often not the instigators of violence (although sometimes they are), the end result seems unavoidable — and with the Wolves and walkers descending on Alexandria this season, it’s easy to wonder if there will ever be a way out for our heroes. But as long as there’s one person who still believes that there’s hope — that “it’s all a circle and everything gets a return,” as Eastman tells Morgan — then humanity isn’t lost and the world hasn’t ended, which is why Morgan’s new belief system is so important for him as a character and for Rick’s group as a whole.

Morgan gave Eastman multiple excuses to kill him, but instead of allowing Morgan to take the easy way out, Eastman slowly chipped away at his walls of isolation and trauma, at first simply refusing to allow Morgan to paint himself as a bad person, even after killing every human and walker he came across (“I clear; walkers, people, anything that gets anywhere near me, I kill ’em… That’s why I’m still here,” Morgan told Eastman) and later teaching him the “Art of Peace” and the practice of Aikido, a martial art that focuses on redirecting an attacker’s momentum and using it against them, to immobilize them without injuring them. In the shoot first, ask questions later world of “TWD,” the concept seems entirely foreign, but as we discovered later, Eastman’s “all life is precious” mantra was hard-won, after his own personal Hannibal Lecter broke out of prison solely to murder his wife and children, leading Eastman to capture him, lock him in his cell and starve him to death over 47 days.

“I was gone — I was where you were, and I wasn’t trying to open up the door anymore either,” he told Morgan. “What I did to him, it didn’t give me any peace. I found peace when I decided never to kill again.”

After learning that, it finally seemed to dawn on Morgan that there’s no act of darkness you can’t come back from, as long as you want to come back — or, as Eastman taught him, “You have to care about yourself; you have to believe your life is precious. What you’ve done, you’ve done. We evade it by moving forward, with a code to never do it again — to make up for it. To still accept what we were. To accept everyone. To protect everyone, and in doing that, to protect yourself. To create peace.”

It’s a noble goal, but as the last two episodes have proved, it also might be untenable in such a harsh and brutal new world. Morgan’s decisions to put peace ahead of practicality have undoubtedly left all of his allies at Alexandria in danger, with the Wolves he allowed to escape very nearly killing Rick in the RV last week.

But Eastman didn’t even seem angry when Morgan froze up at the sight of a boy-turned-walker he’d killed a few days before and inadvertently got Eastman bitten, sealing his fate. He seemed far more exasperated by Morgan’s subsequent guilt-ridden meltdown and backslide than he was by his own impending demise. In the end, Eastman still got to die on his own terms, and he got to help a man who otherwise would’ve been trapped in a life of misery and self-destruction: That’s progress.

In the episode’s final moments, we also discovered that Morgan didn’t kill the Wolf he knocked out at the end of 602 — instead, the hour closed with him trying to reason with the Wolf by telling him the story of his redemption — but some seed fell on stony ground, since the Wolf refused to listen, much as Morgan did in the beginning: “I know I’m probably going to die, but if I don’t, I am going to have to kill you, Morgan. I’m going to have to kill every person here… Those are the rules, that’s my code. I’d say I’m sorry, but you said it, right? ‘Don’t ever be sorry.'”

Morgan made a similar (if less ominous) threat to Eastman and was prepared to back it up earlier in the episode, but Eastman still let him live, and Morgan followed that example with the Wolf — although he at least made one sensible choice and decided to lock the Wolf in his makeshift cage, recognizing that his threat wasn’t just against Morgan but against all the inhabitants of Alexandria.

Many installments of “The Walking Dead” take time to remind us of the beauty of nature amid the decay, but few bask in the peace of the untouched woodland the way “Here’s Not Here” did, offering shots of lustrous sunrises and pristine fields of wildflowers (even if Carol kind of ruined flowers for everyone thanks to the events of “The Grove”) courtesy of Stephen Williams’ artful direction. Those tranquil vistas helped create a tangible feeling of hope and possibility throughout Morgan’s journey, even when presented alongside the frenetic, disorienting energy of Morgan’s more emotionally volatile scenes.

The episode also featured plenty of callbacks to past episodes that neatly positioned Morgan’s arc within the larger narrative: we revisited Morgan’s shelter in King County where Rick, Carl and Michonne ran into him (and Morgan first told Carl “don’t ever be sorry”); Eastman made him a poignant promise that someday, “you’re gonna hold a baby again” — which added context to the beautiful moment when Rick offered to let Morgan hold Judith in the premiere; we got a different perspective on Morgan coming across the Terminus sign on the train tracks as he began his quest for Rick last season; and Williams even visually paralleled Eastman apologizing to Morgan before knocking him out with his staff with the way Morgan knocked out the Wolf in 602.

A few simple touches helped add depth to an already evocative episode; there was something deeply affecting about Eastman’s decision to dig graves for every one of the walkers he killed, complete with grave markers that bore the names of the dead, gleaned from their driver’s licences. It’s easy for our characters and the audience to lose sight of the walkers’ humanity unless it’s a character we’ve loved and lost, but each one was someone’s parent or child at one point, and it’s nice to be reminded of that between the carnage sometimes. Likewise, Eastman asking Morgan his wife and son’s names — probably the first time he’s had reason to speak them out loud in months.

Despite being an extended episode, “Here’s Not Here” felt far shorter, sharper and more impactful than many regular episodes, proving that well-written character drama (this week courtesy of showrunner Scott Gimple) is every bit as compelling — if not more so — than adrenaline-pumping zombie mayhem. Still, it feels exceedingly callous (if not at all surprising) to interrupt the momentum of the first few episodes — especially after the producers chose to engineer Glenn’s fate into a cliffhanger — with an episode almost entirely made up of backstory, which will doubtless make some viewers turn against an otherwise beautifully crafted episode.

“The Walking Dead” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.

What did you think of “Here’s Not Here”? Were you frustrated by the lack of answers about Glenn’s fate?

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