I wasn’t surprised when I heard that this week’s episode of The Walking Dead was going to be focused on Morgan’s backstory. (I figured they were going to hold onto the is-Glenn-dead-or-not reveal for a couple of episodes, at least.) Though I wasn’t totally excited, either. I haven’t been captivated by Morgan as a character so far, but it’s nice that he’s now more rounded out and less mysterious. Sunday’s episode also ruminates on the sorts of questions that appear to be becoming motifs this season: Is it necessary to kill in order to survive? Can you retain your humanity in the zombie apocalypse? Is a vegetarian in a world full of flesh-eating walkers just too ironic to sustain? (Answer: yes.) The episode explains the origins of Morgan’s no-kill philosophy and takes a softer, more contemplative look at it and the various questions it raises than we’ve gotten so far.
The opening few minutes I loved. It was as if Morgan was the only person left on earth, and it felt like watching Cast Away with zombies. I’ve come to miss the eerie isolation and impending doom felt when watching a character wander alone through the end of the world (I enjoyed the opening sequence of “JSS” for this very reason). Also, Morgan choking that man to death with his bare hands is one of the most savage things I’ve seen on The Walking Dead in a while, so that was effective.
The ninety-minute length didn’t seem necessary (I got bored at a few points), and my biggest critique of the episode is its central premise. It is extremely convenient that PTSD-riddled, madman Morgan happens upon Eastman, a former forensic psychologist who specialized in determining if convicts were fit to reenter society (so he can deftly explain Morgan’s trauma and motivations for the audience). Eastman now seems content mentoring any lunatic he meets according to his aikido-driven “no slaughter” code (as well as living the Vermont country dream—plus zombies—with all his talk of falafel and chocolate and homemade cheese). I get that they needed to explain Morgan’s extreme character transformation in a short amount of time, so some narrative gymnastics were probably unavoidable, but this asks the audience to suspend disbelief too much.
Lennie James’ and John Carroll Lynch’s performances as Morgan and Eastman are so good, and Eastman as a character is so damn likable, I think they mask some of the episode’s weaknesses. The “locked door” metaphor/non-metaphor is about as on the nose as you can get (Morgan thinks his cell door is locked and then realizes he had the power to walk through it the whole time!). I have to say, though, it is so refreshing to experience a character like Eastman with a real, human being personality. (That’s why Eugene is often so likable, too.) Hey writers! Thanks for remembering that characters can be funny and quirky sometimes, even in the zombie apocalypse.
OK, on to the code. In his recap for The New York Times, Jeremy Egner makes a valid point: a “no slaughter” policy is all fine and good until you remember that without slaughter we don’t have a show. Of course, the characters who start to represent any sort of moral high ground end up dying off—Dale, Hershel, Beth, Glenn(?). It’s almost comically predictable now: if a character starts talking about giving people second chances and valuing human life, they’ve just given the audience the cue to not get too attached. We see this very clearly with Eastman, whose value for human life and desire to save Morgan ends up getting him killed, as he pushes Morgan out of the way of a walker and himself gets bitten.
The overall message has been, then, that it’s nice to have some kinder-hearted characters around to sing songs and say prayers and help us feel less dirty, but at some point their goodness will be repaid with evil, and its the ones willing to do the dirty work who
get to keep their names in the opening credits live to fight another day.
Still, I have to appreciate the show at least attempting to explore and even validate an alternative mode of responding to the zombie apocalypse. A long-running theme of the show has been this idea of doing whatever is necessary in order to keep going. Just survive somehow. But now that our heroes have made it this far, the show is presenting a question that’s absolutely worth asking: do we want to “just survive”?
Eugene had a great line in season four (back when he was still lying about being a scientist): “After I save the world, I still have to live with myself.” Surviving these days comes at quite the cost, and it’s interesting to meet characters who’ve decided that maybe that cost isn’t worthwhile. Maybe survival isn’t the ultimate good. But as it’s been demonstrated by those in The Group whose chief goal is survival at all costs, brutality certainly seems necessary to make it in this world, often because our protagonists continually face off against ever more brutal adversaries.
Which brings us to the end of the episode, back to present-day Alexandria where the tables are turned and Morgan faces off with his own murderous maniac: the Wolf I was pretty sure he’d killed two episodes ago, but it turns out Morgan just imprisoned him. Unlike so many viewers on Twitter, though, Morgan’s backstory failed to give this Wolf “all the feels,” which will of course lead to another scenario in which Morgan’s code can be tested. It’s a smart plot device, because however it plays out, it will prompt further examination, introspection, and likely conflict among the main characters.
- I thought Morgan tossing the peanut butter-dipped apple slice to Tabitha was the most human and touching scene in the whole episode and powerfully representative of his healing and returning to himself. Less is more.
- Did anyone else find the training montage to feel almost like an emotionally manipulative commercial? Something about the quiet, repetitive piano track combined with inspirational one-liners made me half-expect the logo for BP or Chipotle to fade in at the end. (Maybe that’s more a jab at emotionally manipulative commercials than anything else.)
- YES YES YES GO TO AN ISLAND. That is an amazing idea and I’m shocked no one’s mentioned it before now. Hey Rick! You don’t have to worry about any massive zombie herds wandering onto an island!
- I wonder how Eastman’s falafel is? It’s not easy to make from scratch.
- I don’t remember which moment spurred him to comment, but let the record show that my husband totally called Tabitha’s death. “Aw, man,” he said early on. “Why does the goat have to die?” Call it Chekhov’s goat, I guess.