This week, we interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to bring you a very special, all–Morgan Jones episode. It takes 90 minutes to explain what happened to our favorite pacifist between his first reunion with Rick in season three and his reappearance on the way to Terminus. The result is a mostly satisfying backstory that answers a few key questions: How did Morgan transform from babbling basketcase to Zen master? Where did he pick up those mad fighting skills? And who was his mentor, the Cheesemaker? The episode also serves as a lengthy counterargument to the Ricktatorship plan — an endorsement for peace over war, even in these darkest of times.
The story begins with an unusually direct time stamp, so we know Morgan’s opening speech is happening “now.” Two weeks ago, it looked like Morgan’s final strike against his Wolf attacker in Alexandria had been fatal, but no — the psycho is alive. Why take a break to chat with a man who’s tried to kill you on multiple occasions? Morgan, as we learn, is unusually dedicated to his adopted philosophy of protecting life. There was a time, he knows, when he wasn’t all that different from this Wolf.
Cut back to “then” and Morgan in that trap-filled hideout where Rick, Michonne, and Carl found him a while back. He’s babbling about the knife and the gun and “you were supposed to!” when a blaze sends Morgan out into the wilderness. Theer he gets back to the business of setting traps and “clearing.” We know he’s obsessed with killing walkers to an unhealthy degree. He’s also slipping in and out of an altered state, illustrated by those blurred edges along the corner of the screen when he’s losing it. But a random encounter with two men in the woods shows how far gone he’s become. Morgan ambushes them, driving his spear through the older man’s neck, then choking the younger guy to death with his bare hands as his victim begs, “I’m sorry.” Those are words Morgan doesn’t want to hear — remember, after Carl apologized for shooting him back in season three, Morgan said, “Don’t ever be sorry.” Grim stuff.
In an idyllic clearing where flowers have bloomed and sunlight dances through the trees, the sound of a goat temporarily breaks Morgan’s mania. A goat? Enter Eastman, a.k.a. the Cheesemaker, who lives in a sweet solar-powered cabin nearby with his ride-or-die girl, Tabitha. (Let’s ignore for a moment that a braying goat is possibly the worst house pet, as it’s basically a walker magnet. She’s adorable, so we’ll overlook that.) Eastman greets him warmly, asking him to please step away from the livestock, and hey, why don’t you put down that rifle, too. (“Have some falafel?” he asks. Ah, what Eastman and Carol could achieve in that Alexandria pantry.) Morgan responds by opening fire, and the Jedi dairy enthusiast swiftly puts the wood to him.
What unfolds next — at a deliberately slow place — is Eastman’s remarkable attempt to bring Morgan back from the edge of madness. Though Morgan’s in a homemade cell inside the cabin, Eastman feeds him (Goo Goo clusters!) and gives him some reading material, The Art of Peace by Morihei Ueshiba, creator of the Japanese martial art Aikido. Eastman doesn’t just practice the discipline, he lives it — from the oatmeal burgers he makes to the makeshift graveyard where he buries zombies and memorializes their human names. Morgan at this point is the yin to Eastman’s yang; he’s killing anything he finds and makes it clear he’ll kill Eastman, too. Eastman asks if he’s ever saved anyone. “Pointless acts,” Morgan says, echoing what he scrawled in walker blood. Then, perhaps nodding to a long-lost appreciation for Michael Stipe, he adds, “Everybody turns.”
Eastman breaks through to Morgan by sharing his own story. As a forensic psychologist from Atlanta, he’s got some experience figuring out whether dangerous folks are fit to return to society. He also knows loss, as made clear by the child’s drawing hung on his wall. Still, it’s a rather bold gamble to leave Morgan’s cell unlocked — one of those plot details that works better symbolically than practically. (For starters, Morgan never tried to tug on the door? And Eastman could sleep knowing a guy who wants to kill him is loose in his cabin?) Eastman delivers a Matthew McConaughey–esque soliloquy about doors and circles and everything getting a return. His point — Morgan is a prisoner in a cell of his own making.
After the two have an MMA-style brawl in the cabin, Morgan taps out, physically and emotionally. He starts reading The Art of Peace, slips treats to Tabitha when Eastman’s not looking, and begins his Aikido lessons. (Cue obligatory training montage! Morgan, it appears, is a fast study.) As Morgan makes “progress,” Eastman opens up more, sharing the long, harrowing tale of Crighton Dallas Wilton, the one inmate he interviewed who was purely evil. Rather improbably, Wilton escaped from prison, then killed Eastman’s wife, son, and daughter. Even more improbably, Eastman kidnapped Wilton, locked him in the cell he built, and starved him to death over the course of 47 days. Instead of peace, Eastman’s revenge had the opposite effect — hence his throwing the cell key in the river as an act of penance and healing. Now Eastman’s talismans are that book, the chunk of drywall with his daughter’s drawing on it, and the lucky rabbit’s foot she gave him.
The episode comes to a head back at Morgan’s makeshift camp, where he has another PTSD regression and a walker chomps Eastman. The Cheesemaker heads home as Morgan stumbles into the woods in “clear” mode. There he finds a couple who thank him for saving them from certain death (and for not killing them himself). They offer him a can of chicken-noodle soup and a bullet, then hobble away. Something clicks for Morgan here — he reconnects with his humanity and rushes back to Eastman’s cabin. But there’s little he can do for his pal, who’s already breaking into the walker-bite sweats. Even poor Tabitha is a goner; not since Buttons the horse was beset by zombies last season have we cried such tears.
Another riddle solved is the meaning of Morgan’s offerings at the altar of Gabriel’s church. He left behind three items — a rabbit’s foot, a Goo Goo cluster packet, and a bullet. Those weren’t symbols of his departed wife and son. They were his talismans, reminders of the Cheesemaker and his new philosophy on life. His moral compass now reset, the Teddy Roosevelt of the apocalypse no longer needs them. And let’s keep it 100 — that rabbit’s foot wasn’t so lucky.
Now it’s clearer than ever — Rick is The Art of War and Morgan is The Art of Peace. No telling if Alexandria is going to withstand the oncoming walker herd, but whether the survivors stay in the safe zone or hit the road, coexistence will be tough for these two. I’m not convinced the peace plan will catch on with this crew; it’s hard to imagine Carol adopting the Aikido way or Michonne trading her swords for practicing forms. Most important, it would also make for some boring television. Last night’s ending suggests the show knows this, too. Even after storytime with Morgan, Wolf wants to kill everyone, even the children. His role model in Morgan’s tale isn’t Eastman; it’s Crighton Dallas Wilton. The Wolf throws Morgan’s line back to him — sorry not sorry, dude. Morgan doesn’t kill the Wolf, but as he leaves the house, he’s sure to lock that door — tightly — before running to see who’s calling for help at the gate (Rick, perhaps?).
[Brief coda regarding Glenn and whether he’s really dead after his Dumpster dive. First, a little TWD recap insight: AMC is kind enough to send screeners in advance, and my editor appreciates copy before the show airs on Sunday nights. I rarely watch The Talking Dead (or the previews for next week) when I write these, and didn’t see the curious absence of Steven Yeun on the show, which fueled the “Glenn’s alive!” theories. I took Glenn’s apparent demise at face value — for good reason, I believe. But here’s some more gasoline on the fire: During the title sequence, Yeun’s name usually appears with the shot of Hershel’s pocket watch. Last night, the watch was there, but Yeun’s name was missing. Curious, indeed. Why not just cut the watch shot altogether? So that TWD obsessives can hand-wring and theorize for at least another week, of course. More on this later, but as much as I love me some Glenn, I’ve got some serious problems — both logically and from a storytelling standpoint — if he’s still alive and unbitten.]