It’s a story we’ve heard a million times. The troubled student is unsure what to do with his life, aimlessly wandering through the world. The master finds him, sees his potential, trains him in his ways. And then the master dies, forcing the student to put his skills to the test, using them to navigate the world with a newfound sense of purpose. It’s a formulaic story, but it’s one that calls upon our own inability to find purpose in our lives, as well as our desire for somebody to give us purpose. We want so badly to be taken care of, for somebody who has confidence and purpose to deliver that to us. And we want that because the world doesn’t ever give us purpose; even if someone comes around and mentors us, we still have to find ways to transform their message into something that is our own.
That being said, The Walking Dead doesn’t get nearly enough credit. These four weeks are some of the best episodes that the show has put out yet, and considering how most seasons of televisions have god-awful sixth seasons (Dexter, How I Met Your Mother, OZ, etc), it’s nothing short of miraculous how good The Walking Dead is right now. The Walking Dead is also a show that takes a ridiculous amount of storytelling risks. Right after a very controversial episode, instead of resolving the issue at hand, Gimple instead writes a 90-minute flashback episode entirely dedicated to a returning character: Morgan. It’s a bold move for a showrunner that has been full of them over the course of his run, and it has the potential to end disastrously.
But it doesn’t end disastrously. In fact, “Here’s Not Here” is easily one of the show’s best episodes, if not its best. It’s certainly the first episode other than the pilot to put the extended runtime to good use, filling its extra half-an-hour to capacity with one of the most poignant and powerful stories the show has ever done. And the reason for that poignancy comes from the way that it counterbalances the show’s nihilism. I mentioned last week that The Walking Dead has the capacity to dive into misery porn, where the show simply becomes mean and awful for the sake of shock, and last week’s “Thank You” threatened to dip over the line into misery porn. But “Here’s Not Here” certainly helps to bring the previous episode back from the edge, as it reminds us of the humanity still left in a broken world, that every person has the ability to come back from the edge if the right support is in place.
“Here’s Not Here” takes Morgan, a character we knew last from Season 3’s “Clear” (another remarkable episode written by Gimple), and shows us how he came back from the brink of insanity. He wanders through the woods, haunted by his dead wife and child, obsessed with clearing zombies and setting up traps for them. He does this until he comes across a cabin, where a man named Eastman knocks him out and places him into a jail cell within the cabin. Eastman works as Morgan’s master, a man who teaches him that life is precious and should be preserved, how looking at life in that fashion will bring purpose to his own. This wouldn’t work unless Eastman is presented in a compelling light, which is achieved through a backstory that is revealed in small chunks, providing us with just enough detail throughout the episode to both keep the audience intrigued and to give the audience new perspectives on the story. Before the zombie outbreak, Eastman worked as a forensic psychologist until his wife and children were murdered by a killer who disliked him. Before finally committing to a life of nonviolence, Eastman slowly murdered the killer, starving him to death in the cage in his cabin. This story works because giving Eastman a past of great violence makes his nonviolence seem like more of an achievement, validating his role as master by making his accomplishments really mean something. It also validates Eastman’s understanding of peace, as slowly killing his family’s murderer gives him the understanding that murder never brings peace, only trauma and further paranoia.
What makes the episode really work is how Morgan’s transformation is a complete antithesis to what the show has communicated thus far. The Walking Dead is largely about how the new status quo murders who people were, transforming them into something that can exist in the new world. “Here’s Not Here” offers up the thesis that it’s possible to exist as peaceful in a world without law, that having the ability to kill and not killing is actively making the decision to be peaceful. For people like Gabriel who can’t kill, not killing doesn’t mean much. But for somebody like Morgan who has come back from the edge of insanity, who has committed murder over and over, it’s means a lot to be able to remain peaceful in a world where peace is a liability. This also helps his juxtaposition to Rick, who is looking worse and worse as his master plan continues to fall apart.
The Walking Dead needs episodes like “Here’s Not Here” to balance the nihilism, to remind us that love and compassion exist in a world governed by the desire to survive. Surviving means more than just existing, it means living for something, whether that something be a cause or a person or an idea. It means remembering that even the worst people have something precious within them, that even a goat can have value. And even though there are those that would reject Morgan’s beliefs, those that push away compassion for the comfort of violence, that doesn’t invalidate his effort. Because violence and distance is cowardice, not making yourself vulnerable to pain and suffering. Giving value to life is an act of creation, something that can be taken away. And the only way for any remnants of the world to survive is to create.
So what did you think of “Here’s Not Here?” Was it a worthwhile departure from the present storyline? Let me know in the comments!