Last week was one of the most pivotal and emotional episodes of The Walking Dead. It left many of us hopeless and many of us rewatching a certain scene frame by frame looking for signs of hope.
We don’t get a resolution to that this week. Instead, we see Morgan’s origin story – and all good superheroes have an origin story.
Morgan tells his story to the Wolf that he encountered at the end of JSS, the same Wolf who approached him in the woods in season 5’s “Conquer.” Morgan tells him that if he truly wants to take everything from him, then he’s going to give him everything. Like most of us, “everything” to Morgan isn’t something material. It’s not something he owns. It’s his memories, his history, his emotions.
The first glimpse we get of Morgan’s past is a chaotic one. He’s screaming at nothing, clearly trapped in a memory from which he cannot escape. “Here’s not here” is written on the wall and a lantern is turned over on the floor, spilling flames everywhere. Morgan continues to rant as the fire surrounds him and we cut to the opening credits.
Then we’re with Morgan in the woods. At first it seems like this is the Morgan we know now, but he does something unexpected. We see him kill two people without hesitation. Then, using zombie blood, he scrawls “here’s not here” and “clear” all over stones and trees.
He stumbles upon a house in the middle of the woods. There’s a goat in the yard. We hear a man’s voice ask Morgan not to hurt the goat. Morgan responds by shooting at the house. The man, doesn’t respond with gunfire of his own. Instead, he invites Morgan to speak with him. But Morgan doesn’t drop his weapon. The man comes up behind him and smacks Morgan in the head with a wooden staff, knocking him unconscious.
Morgan wakes up in a jail cell. The man asks him his name and Morgan responds by saying “kill me” The man responds with:
“Well, that’s dangerous, you should change it.”
As a former forensic psychiatrist, he is unfazed by Morgan’s rants and simply introduces himself. His name is Eastman. His goat’s name is Tabitha.
Eastman’s life is simple and kind – as simple and kind as one’s life can be when there are zombies at every turn.
He asks what Morgan’s job was prior to the apocalypse or what he views as his job now. Morgan says his job is to “clear.”
“Walkers, people, anything that gets anywhere near me. I kill them. I clear.”
He says it’s the only way to say alive. Eastman says that’s “horseshit.”
He’s not intimidated by Morgan’s Post-Traumatic Stress. He sees it for what it is and he knows how to help Morgan through it. Morgan confesses his “sins” to Eastman, but Eastman pushes that aside and asks Morgan if he’s saved anyone. He focuses on that and then he talks about Morgan’s wife and son.
He gets Morgan to uncover the trauma that has trapped his mind. The death of his family is what keeps him from being “here.” It’s why “here’s not here.”
“Your body’s here, but your mind is still there.”
One of the great things about this show is that it doesn’t play into PTSD stereotypes. We’ve seen it affect Rick, Sasha and Father Gabriel, among others, in different ways. It’s a complex disorder that carries a lot of stigma. We need more shows that talk about it in such a real and layered way.
Eastman goes on to explain why Morgan is experiencing PTSD. It’s not because he has to kill to stay alive. It’s because he doesn’t have to kill. The need to kill isn’t innate. That’s why trauma and PTSD exist. What Morgan is experiencing is because he wasn’t built to kill. He was built to connect with other humans, to love.
He reveals to Morgan that the jail cell has been open the entire time. Morgan is free to go or he is free to stay, but what he is not allowed to do, is kill Eastman. Eastman plainly says “I will not allow that.” And he means it.
Morgan tries anyway. Eastman almost breaks and kills Morgan, but he doesn’t. Instead, he reiterates that there are two choices, the door or the couch. But, Morgan puts himself back into the jail cell and shuts the door. Morgan doesn’t believe that he deserves to be free.
The next time they talk, Eastman tells Morgan that he used Aikido to “kick his ass” earlier. He started practicing the martial art when he was starting to suffer PTSD from the things the prisoners that he evaluated as part of his job told him. Aikido taught him how to channel and control those emotions.
Inside his cell, Morgan finds a copy of The Art of Peace with a handwritten message on the inside, explaining the code by which Eastman lives.
Morgan hears zombies about to attack Tabitha. He runs out to stop them. While he is dragging the zombies away, he sees a graveyard. Eastman hasn’t been burning the bodies, he’s been burying them.
Eastman finds Morgan before he buries the bodies, and he looks in the zombies’ pockets for identification and then writes their names on pieces of wood.
Even the undead deserve a decent burial.
He’s teaching Morgan to do more than value his connection with the living, he’s teaching him to value the lives of the undead. They were once the living, after all. They have become villains through no fault of their own.
During their time together, Eastman teaches Morgan Aikido, both the physical and philosophical aspects of it. The first step to living Eastman’s code is to value yourself and don’t live in your guilt. You learn from it and you move forward. You don’t deny it. You accept it. It’s part of your history, but it is not who you are.
As Eastman tells Morgan:
“What we’ve done, we’ve done.”
(Are you listening, humans out there watching this? You are not the sum of all of the fucked up shit that you have done or that has been done to you.)
Aikido is about redirecting those negative thoughts, whether those thoughts are directed toward yourself or directed at someone else. You can’t erase the past, but you can figure out how to release yourself from it.
Eastman’s his zen-like skills don’t alway protect him from his inner rage. His wife, daughter and son didn’t die in the apocalypse. They were murdered by one of the prisoners that he evaluated. Eastman built the jail cell to enact his revenge on the man.
After kidnapping him while he was doing road work as part of his prison sentence, Eastman put him in the jail cell and left him there for 47 days. Why 47 days? Because that was how long it took him to starve to death.
During one of their sparring sessions, a walker approaches them and eventually bites Eastman. In that moment, a switch flips in Morgan’s brain and he loses almost all of the stability he’d found. But Eastman never loses his composure. Things don’t go how you envision them. People get eaten by zombies when you don’t want them to – people die when you don’t want them to.
We have to accept it. Here’s never here. The here and now is never everything you hoped it would be.
Part of accepting that is for Morgan to move on and find other people with whom to connect. Eastman’s final wish is for Morgan to search out others. He wants Morgan to find a community, a family. As we know, Morgan embarks on a journey to do just that.
We return to the present and the Safe Zone. After Morgan finishes his story, the Wolf tells him that if he lives, he will have to kill Morgan and everyone in Alexandria, because that’s his code.
This doesn’t sway Morgan to break his code. Instead, he walks out of the building, leaving the wounded Wolf behind. He stares at the door for a moment and you think, like Eastman, he will leave the door open. But he locks the door and walks away.
Does this mean that he’s smarter than Eastman, or does it signify a crack in Morgan’s code? By locking the door, he’s not giving the Wolf a choice. He is choosing for him. Locking the door determines that he will starve or that someone else will discover him and kill him. Is this the start of another downward spiral for Morgan?
Perhaps we’ll find out next week. For now, watch a sneak peak of the next episode below.