Tonight’s episode of The Walking Dead, “Here’s Not Here,” an emotionally fraught two-hander between Morgan (Lennie James) and a forensic psychologist, Eastman (John Carroll Lynch), whose house he stumbles upon in the woods, is partly a tacit confirmation by the show’s creators that, with “Thank You,” they were indeed trolling audiences with the perception that Glenn is dead. Pausing all of a sudden to fill in a bit of backstory in the perpetually haunted Morgan’s character arc may seem like a cruel way to delay our grieving for one of the show’s most beloved characters, but spilling forth from the episode’s prismatic design are all sorts of ruminations about how more than just the characters within the word of the series must cope with loss.
That agonizing sense of discombobulation the series brilliantly summoned across its last two episodes by spatially unmooring the characters, and by extension the audience, from home, and as such hope, is extended here into the realm of the temporal. It begins NOW, with Morgan briefly rambling to an unseen someone—and, in effect, breaking the fourth wall and speaking to us directly. But when is “now” exactly? And before we’ve even gotten the chance to process where this scene takes place in the show’s timeline, the episode flashes back to THEN, and to Morgan aggressively rambling to himself in a spectacle of doubt, guilt, and animosity, inside a building that catches fire as if in response to his rage. On the walls are chalked words of existential despair—CLEAR, YOU’RE NOT HERE, HERE’S NOT HERE—that haunt both him and the episode itself.
Glenn is not here in this fourth episode of the season, and that’s the point, as “Here’s Not Here” exists as a kind of reprieve, to quite literally school us alongside Morgan, and with no caveat whatsoever, about the preciousness of all life. The episode bears witness, in Morgan’s ramblings and weathered visage, as well as in Eastman’s revelation of his own backstory, that others, too, are also not here. It’s a simple but profound point of realization that takes a long while for this cannily charted episode to reach, drawing elaborate lines throughout between not just horrors past and present, but between objects whose very existence remains nebulous even as they unmistakably attest to both Morgan and Eastman’s spiritual evolution in the wake of the zombie apocalypse.
After dramatically fading from a wall of fire and to the show’s opening credits, the episode latches onto Morgan’s timeline at a point, to be confirmed only at the end, before Rick and his survivors arrived at Terminus. But we may as well have been dropped into a vision of the world before man, of Morgan toiling in a field booby-trapped with spears, killing and burning zombies before carving, caveman-like, the word CLEAR onto enormous stones. The most phantasmagorific fright here, and one that surely ranks among the show’s most dazzling to date, is that of a zombie suddenly charging at Morgan through his funeral pyre, though the most jarring is that of Morgan driving a spear through a survivor’s neck, then subsequently strangling the man’s friend, yelling at him, “No, you don’t!” After all, this certainly isn’t the Morgan who, two episodes ago, was appalled by the ease with which Carol dispatched the Wolves who ripped through the Alexandria Safe-Zone.
Already the episode is having us connect dots, here between the Morgan we met then, in the The Walking Dead’s still-high-watermark first episode, to the Morgan we think we know now. This is a self-contained hour-plus of deceptively gentle character shading that seeks to elucidate, after Eastman foists Morgan into a jail cell inside his home, how people can maintain a semblance of a moral compass in a world that’s given them every excuse not to. Morgan’s imprisonment, as a conceit, unmistakably functions on metaphorical overdrive, simultaneously evoking at least a half-dozen psychological experiments on conditioning (the episode’s biggest reveal is that the jail cell’s door has been open all along), but James and Caroll Lynch are so poignantly and intensely devoted to etching out their characters’ agonies that the seams of the episode’s schematic structure only barely reveal themselves.
“Here’s Not Here” abounds in articulations of the choices people make in this world to stay alive and to stay sane, in solace or among others, across interior and exterior spaces that feel like figurative prisons. By the end, Eastman will have taught Morgan to humanely honor the inhuman in ways no one has even come close to expressing across the show’s six seasons, ushering him toward a kind of healing that subtly illuminates the compassion with which he knocked out the Wolves in the season’s second episode. And if there’s more majesty than tragedy in Eastman’s death, it’s because it’s understood as a necessary, Zen-like passing of the torch that may just spell hope for the world’s survival.
Good on them, but there’s also a sense here that “Here’s Not Here” is complicating the lesson Eastman teaches Morgan and, in turn, audiences. In the end, when the episode jumps back to the present, to reveal Morgan speaking to one of the Wolves who broke into Alexandria, you may wonder if his refusal to kill this intruder will have its costs. I have a theory: Glenn lives…only to perversely die at the hand of, say, this Wolf so intent on obliterating all life, and not unlike the madman who broke out of prison just so he could kill Eastman’s wife and children, for no other reason than the way Eastman looked into his eyes and recognized his essential evil. Then, for not recognizing the Wolf’s own essential evil, will we still applaud Morgan for the gift Eastman gave him or will we understand the spiritual purpose of this education to be out of sync with the horrors of this new world?
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