The Walking Dead: Uncaged

Before finding the group in Alexandria, Morgan learned some life lessons from a cheese maker.

Gene Page / AMC

Each week following episodes of season six of The Walking Dead, David Sims and Lenika Cruz will discuss the adventures of Rick Grimes and his group as they try to rebuild in the zombie apocalypse.

Cruz:  I expected to resent this episode, with AMC pulling an absurd stunt last week by undoing the almost certain fate of Glenn (more on that reversal here, but also later). But despite all that nonsense, “Here’s Not Here” proved to be a strong interlude, even a welcome respite, from the disastrous events in Alexandria and out on the road. As expected, the episode flashed back to Morgan’s experiences after he left his hideout in season three’s “Clear” and before arriving in Alexandria at the end of season five. Also as expected, the episode explained how Morgan came out of his deep post-traumatic stress, with the help of a sensei-savior figure in Eastman, played with grace, humor, and emotion by John Carroll Lynch (American Horror Story, Fargo, Zodiac).

After stumbling around in the forest for a while, killing anything in his path (zombies, people), Morgan found Eastman, a former forensic psychiatrist who owns a goat named Tabitha and who practices Aikido—a Japanese martial art whose central creed rejects all forms of killing. Though Morgan, in a paranoid and somewhat dissociative state, was trying to kill him with an assault rifle, Eastman simply knocked him out with his stick (Eastman’s “sorry” was a nice callback to Morgan’s apology before hitting the Wolf at the end of “JSS”). And he kept Morgan in a cage (unlocked, it turns out) until he eventually came around.

This episode was the closest The Walking Dead has ever come to a buddy comedy. It had banter. (“Kill me!” said Morgan, when Eastman asked his name. “That’s a stupid name; it’s dangerous. You should change it,” Eastman replied.) After much coaxing, and after some scuffles, Eastman taught Morgan a new hobby. (That training montage felt like a commercial for your local Aikido studio.) They chatted about good nonfiction. (The Art of Peace is a real thing!) They grubbed together. (Sample menu: oatmeal burgers, falafel, avocado, tomatoes. #eatclean)

I can see how the extended air time was necessary to tell this story properly: To squeeze it into a normal-length episode, the show would’ve had to resort to more hackneyed shorthand to make people care about Eastman. Given the necessary notes the episode had to hit—that it was going to be about Morgan’s spiritual journey toward pacifism, that Eastman was definitely going to die by the end—“Here’s Not Here” achieved surprising depth and emotional resonance, mostly by giving Eastman a tragic and memorable backstory rather than gesturing at some vague loss.

The Walking Dead has had its share of characters hesitant to kill, but “Here’s Not Here” was the show’s most fully articulated case for avoiding murder at all costs. I also think it dodged criticisms of naivete by showing how Morgan’s and Eastman’s anti-killing ideals didn’t form in a vacuum, but in a crucible. The episode smartly eliminated the possibility that Eastman just didn’t have the stomach for murder—forcing the man who massacred your family to starve to death over 47 days is about as unflinching as you can get. While “Here’s Not Here” showed the unfeasibility of refusing to kill in the zombie apocalypse, it also made me sympathetic as to why someone might choose that path.

Admittedly, I still groaned at the contrived staging of Eastman’s death (really, a martial-arts expert, who used only a stick to take down a grown man with an assault rifle, got eaten by a shuffling zombie? He couldn’t have just killed the zombie or knocked Morgan out of the way without fully turning his back on the walker?) But what elevated the episode for me was the framing: “Here’s Not Here” opened with Morgan telling his story to an unknown listener and ended by revealing that person to be the Wolf who almost killed him at the end of “JSS.”

After Morgan told the Wolf he believes he can also find peace, the Wolf replied (in maybe one of the creepiest monologues of the series): “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. Every one of them. Children too. Just like your friend Eastman’s children. Those are the rules. That’s my code.” As awful as this was, without it, the Eastman storyline would have felt too indulgent and tangential. Morgan choosing to lock the door to keep the Wolf in—rather than leave it open the way Eastman did for him—was the final touch that made this all work for me. (And was that Rick calling out, “Open the gates!” at the end?)

The episode also pointed out one of the show’s inherent storytelling burdens: This is the actual-zombie-apocalypse, meaning all of the Walking Dead characters have at some point or another dealt with post-traumatic stress, which doesn’t always gel with the demands of action, pacing, and character complexity. There’s not a single trauma that characters recover from, but multiple, and everyone’s recovery times overlap with new traumas and intersect each other’s. In this episode, it was nice to isolate one character, especially one played by Lennie James, and to give his mental-health situation the full attention it deserved.

I’ve had more than a week to stew on this, but I still think the show royally messed up the way it handled the Glenn storyline. To believe that Glenn’s still alive would require you to accept the following: That a person can fall into a sea of zombies, have someone else fall perfectly on top of them, have the zombies only eat him and not the person lying beneath, that the still-alive person can quickly squeeze under a dumpster and remain totally out of reach of the zombies ... in time for a big enough distraction to send those thousands of walkers away, so that person can crawl out and to safety. This, whether you think it plausible or not, is plain, bad storytelling. That so many people even think this scenario is possible is a sign audiences have been subjected to too many rotten tricks by TV shows. For me, Glenn’s “death” undoes so much of the genuinely good storytelling the show has done in the last season or so. I truly doubt the payoff will be worth this … but I want more than anything to be wrong.

Sims: This will be fun, since I kinda disagree with you (and many others) on the import of Glenn maybe-not-dying last week. Last week we were convinced he was gone: He fell into a zombie horde, after all, and it looked like he was being ripped apart by it (he was certainly screaming the whole time), but the producers’ equivocation has certainly left me wondering. If the “death scene,” and the subsequent poeticism of Glenn’s silence on the walkie-talkie, was just a simple fakeout that will quickly get reversed, then that’s indefensible: Part of the appeal of the show is that no one is safe, and a bait-and-switch would reverse that notion.

But if there’s some larger story arc at work, or if Glenn’s revival is staged at some critical, shocking moment, then I could roll with it. The Walking Dead is a comic-book story at heart, and comic-book characters come back from the dead all the time! It’s all about execution—and certainly, the publicity side of this has been horribly executed. But I’ll reserve further judgment until Glenn’s (potential) return.

On to this episode, which I thought was a standout—even though, as you noted, it could have easily swerved into really formulaic territory. It’s arguable whether we even needed a look at the redemption of Morgan. He showed up at Alexandria possessed with near-supernatural calm and wielding a bo staff; we get that he’s found inner peace after all his turmoil, and is trying to reject violence for violence’s sake. Do we really need to know how? Maybe not, but since the show went down that road, I’m glad they handled it so beautifully. Eastman was an unusual zen master, but as played by John Carroll Lynch, he was a fascinating bundle of contradictions, and an interesting beacon of optimism in a show that rarely allows for that perspective.

What I liked most about Eastman was that he wasn’t defined by the zombie apocalypse: Everything crucial about his life and journey happened before the world ended. The Walking Dead is so deep into the end of the world now, people’s sob stories about losing their families don’t hold much originality. That was why I appreciated Enid’s abbreviated backstory in episode two, which found a new spin on the same trope, and that’s why I liked that Eastman’s personal darkest hour came while the world was ending, but didn’t directly relate to it. After losing his wife and family to a psychopath, Eastman took the killer to that cage to watch him die, and the world died alongside him. Except, as Morgan pointed out, the world hasn’t ended, and indeed, Eastman’s life managed to spin on and find new peace.

I probably sound like a sap. Eastman’s story was certainly a hilariously convoluted mix of coincidences. Despite being a burly white guy, he learned Aikido (a modern Japanese martial art) as self-defense training for his job as a forensic psychiatrist. His experience with an escaped prisoner was about the worst thing imaginable, but it justified him building a protected cabin deep in the woods with a cell inside it, so that Morgan could calm down there and find himself again. As you noted, Lenika, Eastman’s death felt a little too simplistic: After all that, a moment of hesitation from Morgan was all it took to leave Eastman defenseless? Still, it all felt geared toward a larger, more poetic point.

Morgan’s travails on the show have been similarly traumatic, and the loss of his family has been profoundly felt in his past appearances. By all means, he should have the same terrible survivor’s guilt that Rick and others have suffered. I think that’s why we were seeing him move past it: Not just as a counter to the Wolves, who operate without humanity, but perhaps to Rick, whose methods have grown more cold-blooded in the years. His leadership position lacks a significant challenger; I don’t know if Morgan is being set up as the person for the job (Michonne is also weathering her own leadership gauntlet), but this episode was invested with a new philosophy, one that’s less ruthless and more compassionate, a real challenge to the standard view of things in the zombie apocalypse. For that, I appreciated the diversion, and I’m fascinated to see how the show builds on it.