“You said you wanted everything I had. Every last bit. Well, here it is. Every. Last. Bit.”
Walking Dead showrunner Scott Gimple sure knows how to ratchet up the tension. After last week’s events left various of the characters in mortal danger – and in one case seemingly dead – you’d have expected this week’s extra-length ep to resolve those cliffhangers. Not a bit of it – we’re going to have to sweat over the fates of Rick, Glenn et al for another week.
Instead, this week’s extra length ep, written by Gimple himself, spent the time filling in the backstory of how Morgan Jones got from being the PTSD-addled madman we saw in season three’s Clear to the figure of Zen-like calm we know today. You might have been frustrated at the hiatus in the high-octane action of the previous few eps, but if so, you were missing a treat. Lennie James is always magnetic on screen, and here he got an episode in which he was the lead, which paid off well.
The show likes doing these occasional out of format episodes, and they’re usually a refreshing change; this is the first ep with only one of the regular cast since Live Bait, which centred on the Governor. About the first fifteen minutes had no other characters than Morgan, as we saw him ‘accidentally’ burn down his refuge in Rick’s home town, and go wandering, still ranting and deluded, into the ubiquitous Georgia forest. Lennie James was captivating as he sobbed and ranted, offing Walkers and the living alike, still trying to “clear”. As with the graffiti in his home town, cryptic messages scrawled on nearby rocks left hints as to his fragmented mental state.
His solitary madness was conveyed effectively, especially in the moment when he killed two living people for seemingly no reason – a decision which would come back to bite, not him, but somebody else. It was clear at this stage that he was far from reluctant to kill, and obviously something major had to happen to change his philosophy to its current “all life is precious” outlook. That something turned out to be a chance meeting with what he probably needed most – a psychiatrist.
Yes, it is more than a little contrived that a man suffering profound mental disturbance in a post-apocalyptic world nearly devoid of people should randomly encounter a medical professional qualified to ‘treat’ him. But if you got past that contrivance, which was necessary for any of the story to ensue, the second half of the episode was a rewarding two-handed piece of drama, its claustrophobic setting making it feel almost like an effective piece of theatre.
As with the best such plays (Equus sprung instantly to mind), it helped that the therapist was not as sorted as he first seemed, and the drama cleverly revealed layer after layer of his own trauma as the ep unfolded. As former prison psychiatrist Eastman (we never learn his first name), John Carroll Lynch offered a performance the equal of Lennie James – necessary, since they were the only two in it.
Eastman was clearly no pushover, which was just as well since we’d already been shown how dangerous Morgan was. His initial imprisonment in Eastman’s rather suspiciously convenient cage gave him a chance to vent his trauma, and start to deal with it. The dialogue was rife with metaphor, as Eastman talked of a ‘door’ through which Morgan could go to find his own self, then amusingly revealed that in fact the door of his cage had been unlocked all along. He hadn’t thought to even try it until he regained some vestige of sanity.
The goat too was clearly symbolic – the old expression “scapegoat” means a goat upon whom the sins of others can be placed to absolve them. As such, the goat was given a deal of significance in both the script and Stephen Williams’ direction. For Morgan would leave with the sins that tormented him absolved. And the death of the goat, later on obviously foreshadowed the death of Eastman, who fell victim to the consequences of Morgan’s sins – and, perhaps, his own compassion – when Morgan’s last murder victim turned up as a Walker and bit him.
First, though, Morgan’s now recovering mental state led to scenes in which Eastman became both mentor and trainer to him; shades of Master Yoda, and particularly Ramirez in Highlander, which had a training montage uncannily similar to the one here. It was now clear where he’d got his skill at stick-wielding aikido, and the choice of martial art played into the ep’s themes, since one of its central tenets is to defend oneself without killing.
The charismatic Eastman clearly had a profound effect on the still-suffering Morgan, but aikido alone didn’t convince him that further killing was wrong. No, that was impressed on him in an emotionally charged exchange of recollections, as both described how they lost their families. We already knew what had happened to Morgan’s, but being able to talk about it meant that he was starting to heal.
Eastman, however, turned out to still be as traumatised as ever, and for similar reasons. That cage had been a big clue to the fact that he had some kind of Dark Secret – it turned out to be that a prisoner to whom he’d denied parole had escaped and murdered his wife and child in revenge. And Eastman’s revenge, in turn, was to catch the man, imprison him, and watch him slowly starve to death.
The parallel was very clear between the two. Both had lost their families in ways for which they felt personally responsible; and both had reacted violently and harmfully. The only difference was that Eastman was further along the recovery process than Morgan. The way Gimple’s script gradually revealed this through hints and clues until Eastman’s confession worked well to elicit your sympathy, then make you question whether this man was truly as likeable as he seemed. And that emotional involvement gave real weight to his ultimate fate as a Walker victim. Significantly, we didn’t see his actual death, but I’m guessing Morgan did the necessary before he could turn.
The framing story, with Morgan recounting his tale to the Wolf he apparently didn’t kill a couple of weeks ago, was sparse but similarly significant. We didn’t get to see who he was actually talking to until the very end, but I’d had a fair idea from the start. The Wolf represented the polar opposite of Morgan’s philosophy, and like Eastman, Morgan wasn’t fooled by his apparent conversion to the ways of peace. The Wolves’ savagery does appear to have some kind of actual code beyond mere pragmatism; it’s what distinguishes their killings from those of Carol. I have a feeling we’re going to be learning more about it in coming weeks…
Gore of the week
After the last few eps giving us veritable hordes of the undead, this week was at heart a character drama and the Walkers were kept largely to the background. They weren’t absent altogether though, and we got some of the show’s usual head squishes in the early part of the ep:
Along with some lovingly displayed entrails in one still-wriggling corpse:
Though it’s worse seeing that kind of violence inflicted on the living, and my top gory moment of the week was Morgan’s savage murder of his penultimate victim, the stick tearing out his throat so he staggered helplessly around bleeding to death and trying hoarsely to breathe.
The characters are what lifts this show over, say, Z Nation, which is enjoyable but lightweight. After the imbalance between character drama and action in the second season, the show has learnt that, however deeply dramatic you may get, you always have to counterbalance that with some actual zombies. Scott Gimple clearly understands that people are tuning in to watch a zombie show, and if he can sneak in some well-written character drama, so much the better. If you were waiting breathlessly for some closure to last week’s traumatic events, this ep may have frustrated you, but as a standalone, out of format piece, it worked well. And I have a feeling that the philosophical gulf between Morgan and the Wolves is liable to inform much of the drama to come.