Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review The Walking Dead each week in a series of letters.
I love The Walking Dead, but both you and I have been hesitant to designate it as capital-G Great Television. It’s as entertaining as just about anything on TV, and I have no bias against genre shows (I think Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones are Great Television). But whether it’s the occasional stilted dialogue, inexplicable character motivation or not-quite-Emmy-worthy acting, it’s a show that sometimes stumbles while still telling gripping stories.
But for 90 minutes last night, we got Great Television. Lennie James is a phenomenal actor, and he’s elevated every episode he’s appeared in, so it’s no surprise that an hour and a half of his backstory, as he learns to deal with his PTSD and reconnect with humanity, felt special. Sure it’s convenient that he meets the one man in the apocalypse who’s best equipped to deal with his crazy, but it was gratifying to see this character, who we met all the way back in the series premiere, find his way after years of numbness and violence.
Morgan arrived at the cabin a wild animal, and James’ range from wild-eyed killer to gentle warrior-monk is a pleasure to behold. The longer run-time allowed complexity in his journey beyond a steady path to redemption. Twice in the episode he implores Eastman to kill him, and being faced with the violence of his past sends him back to his starting point. The pacing and the juxtaposition of the beauty of his surroundings and the mindless destruction of the walkers was a nice change of pace after the constant action of the first three episodes. Yes, there’s still a cloud of uncertainty surrounding Glenn, but this was much more interesting to me than any resolution we may get from the present day.
And Morgan’s redemption is beautifully impractical it is in the midst of the Wolves. His actions have already in part led to the destruction of Alexandria. As James said at the end of Talking Dead, he does blame himself for the deaths at Alexandria, but that doesn’t mean he thinks what he did was wrong. And it looks like he’s poised to make the same decision again. He can’t betray his new code. He owes too much to Eastman to compromise. And he’s been where his Wolf captive is, telling Eastman he was going to kill him if he got out of that cell.
Of course, Eastman was alone in the cabin with no one else to protect. Morgan is part of a community that he endangers with his actions. Still, with Rick almost callously indifferent about the lives of the weaker Alexandrians, it’s refreshing to see someone clinging so tightly to his humanity that he simply will not kill. This felt a lot like The Governor’s “Live Bait” episode, except that we know the growth Morgan experiences is not simply a fleeting phase because Morgan at his core is a good man, and The Governor was basically the one evil man out of 800.
But I suspect this Wolf is more like Creighton Dallas Wilton or The Governor and is much less likely to become a young jedi master under Morgan. I know you have less patience than me for mercy in the zombie apocalypse. Is Morgan delusional? By that measure, it seemed like Eastman was, but his work paid off (though it also got him killed in the end). What did you think of this episode and what do you think of Morgan’s new moral code?
I get the sense that the question you just asked me can be the launching point of a thousand discussions, none of them with an easy answer. I agree with you that “Here’s Not Here” was a very strong episode, and yet I’m still wrestling with a question of practicality—is it possible to refrain from killing, and to make a Normandy Cemetery out of dead walkers? Maybe for Eastman, for a while, but even at the very we saw that his commitment to burying zombies cost him the life of his goat. It almost felt like his policies are great in isolation, but quite damaging if taken to extremes.
Aikido, as it was presented here, is a beautiful philosophy. And yet, if Rick and his crew had attempted it in their adventures, they wouldn’t have lasted a day. Eastman might not have had to grapple with human nature alone in his cabin, but his continued survival depended on a lot of luck. Nobody found him until Morgan, and despite his captive’s all-consuming rage, he never tried the prison door in the early days when he would have gladly killed his host in his sleep. Also, there were a few nagging details—if Eastman dealt with hardened killers for most of his life, surely he ran across more than one in 800 who could not be rehabilitated, and who wouldn’t be welcome to share his cabin. In real life, prison employees tend to come away with a more cynical view of human nature, not a more redemptive one.
None of which is to denigrate this episode, only to say that I’m not convinced by Eastman’s creed. As a way to explain Morgan’s actions in the fight agains the wolves, it makes sense, but as a way to justify it, it falls flat on his face. When you let a man with a gun escape, and that man has repeatedly shown an eagerness to kill innocent people, you are not “valuing” life. You are, in fact, devaluing the life of the innocent people who are now in danger. And that’s when you get into the numbers game—if you actually value human life, shouldn’t you be compelled to kill the man that’s going to kill three people? Doesn’t that leave you with a net gain of two? Perhaps, but it does require an act of commission. You need to kill.
It’s like the famous Trolley Problem, which presents a moral dilemma: A train is on course to run over five people tied to the tracks. There’s a lever nearby, and if you pull that lever, the train will be diverted to a separate track. The bad news is, there’s one person tied to that second track. So you have a choice: Do you do nothing and let five people die, or do you pull the lever and essentially participate in the death of a man who would survive without your intervention?
In Morgan’s mind, you probably wouldn’t pull that lever, and the result may be the same—the death of many others as a result. Rick would not agree, and I wouldn’t either, and I would argue that the philosophy presented by Eastman doesn’t hold up in these ambiguous situations. It’s not hard to draw other parallels to questions that we ask ourselves routinely as citizens. Is it wrong to torture someone if doing so prevents a terrorist attack? Are pre-emptive military strikes immoral? Is the killing of innocent people, as in the atomic bombings of World War Two, justified in order to bring war to an end and save American lives?
None of the questions are easy, and that’s the point—unless we are zealots, we cannot come up with a one-size-fits-all answer for every situation. Morgan will have to reckon with that truth now, and it’s sad because with Eastman and aikido, he’d still be a rampaging murder machine who wanted nothing more than to die. It’s beautiful how he recovers from PTSD, but he doesn’t live in a world where he can preserve that extreme spiritual mindset in perpetuity—not if he wants to live around people.
And you’re right about Eastman’s own isolation. Would he feel the same if he still had his daughter to protect? There are no more Eastmans in Morgan’s new surroundings, and if he doesn’t adapt, I sense a massive conflict looming with Rick.
You mentioned “Live Bait,” the closest analogue to this episode. I agree that Morgan’s journey is more meaningful in the broader context, since the Governor immediately went back to his evil ways, but taken by themselves, which do you think was the better episode?
I’m not sure I’ve loved any episode as much as “Live Bait,” and even though Morgan’s redemption was a much truer arc, there’s no competing with The Governor, whose charm and charisma hides such uncaring evil under the surface. It was a redemption arc that even had us a little fooled—has he really changed? Will he sacrifice himself to protect his people? The answer was, of course, no, but it was brilliant television: quiet, cinematic and full of tension.
Last night had it’s moments, but we already knew that Morgan was going to get better, that he was going to eventually accept the teachings of his sensei and learn the Art of Peace. It was joy to watch that journey, but there was no question how it would end. Because of that, it was a testament Lennie James and John Carroll Lynch that their interactions were still such a joy to watch. We knew Eastman wasn’t going to make it Alexandria, but it still hurt to lose him as much characters we’d gotten to know over a couple of seasons. Eastman’s philosophy might not be at all practical, but dammit, it’s Good, and there’s not much Goodness left in this world. That farm with Tabitha and fresh tomatoes and cheese (!) is a little bit of paradise amidst the hell.
So now we’re left with Morgan, who’s like an addict who knows what happens if he falls off the wagon. He can’t kill anymore, Shane. It’s not about practicality or safety or even protecting comparatively innocent life at the expense of psychopaths. It’s about the precarious state of his own humanity and an unwillingness to give in to his demons that are wrestling powerfully just underneath the surface in a way that we couldn’t see before. This episode explains Morgan in a way that seemed almost silly before. Of course it’s better to kill the Wolves than to waste time trying to capture them. Unless you’re Morgan. Unless you’re one slip up from becoming one of the Wolves again.
And because of that, Morgan just got way more interesting. He’s always been a fan favorite, but mostly because he was the man who saved Rick and then he was a badass madman. Now he’s so much more than that, and he’s the only person in Alexandria who understands the Wolves. Whether that’s a bad thing or a good thing is a completely separate question. If there’s a moral to The Walking Dead, it’s that anyone who doesn’t follow Rick’s uber-practical, only vaguely moral, survive-at-all-costs mentality is going to get themselves and others killed. And here comes Morgan, the only reason that Rick made it out of his hometown alive, practicing the polar opposite. There’s a clash coming, and I can’t wait. If I was a survivor, I’d be all in with Rick. As a viewer, I’m pulling for Morgan.
We’ve seen a bunch of groups with varying moral codes, from last night’s Aikido to the Claimers to unusual code. Rick’s can probably best be summed up, “Be decent if you can afford to be, but don’t take any chances.” Does he need a little Morgan in his life at this point, or has he finally settled into a philosophy that will keep his group safe without compromising his soul to greatly? Is there any hope these Wolves or was Morgan’s redemption the result of exceptional circumstances? And finally, is there any place for a Morgan in the midst of this community?
After reading your last email, there’s a part of me that really wants Morgan to team up with Sasha, and for both of them to go into a crazy fugue state and just “clear” everything in sight. Isn’t that kind of a disturbing euphemism? It sounds like something a fascist military state would say after they accidentally destroy a fishing village in a navy exercise. “The area was cleared.”
In fact, if I had to put together my all-star fugue team among living characters, it would be Morgan, Sasha, Rick, Abraham, and (sleeper pick) Father Gabriel. I’m going totally by insanity potential, not fighting skill—I think those five are the most likely to completely lose their shit and annihilate everything in their path while giggling like lunatics. They would be WAY scarier than the current Wolves, and way more dangerous. Rick alone could singlehandedly wipe out an entire state before they brought him down. The great thing about this is that it’s not really that far-fetched. If Carl and Rosita died, Rick and Abraham would be fugue-ready. Sasha and Morgan teetering on the edge already, Father Gabriel badly wants Rick’s approval and doesn’t seem like he needs much encouragement to go off the deep end. Can we please get an alternate-universe spin-off where this happens without it affecting the actual show?
To answer your question, I do think there’s a spot for Morgan in this community, but it’s going to be tough to reconcile his beliefs in certain high-stress situations, as we saw with the Attack of the Wolves. How do you explain to Rick that you just let an armed man go free when he’s shown a predilection for shooting people without provocation? And I’m struggling to see how his worldview will be useful to Rick, who has been through so much shit that I doubt he has much room in his head for anti-killing credos. Maybe he could benefit from a bit of meditation, but in the real world I think he’s doing about as well as he can. The zombie apocalypse requires killing, and that’s an inescapable fact. The flaws in Morgan’s beliefs have already become evident, and it’s only going to get worse and cost more lives.
So yes, there’s a clash coming for sure, but unlike you I’m Team Rick all the way. I dance with the one that brung me, Josh! Then again, I just admitted I want to see Rick go into a murderous fugue state, so I might not be the most reliable source on this one.
Can I ask one question before we leave? Yes? Okay: Where the hell is Daryl this season? WHERE THE HELL IS DARYL?
I just wanted to put that out to the universe. Please don’t die, my hero Rick Grimes,