After ending last week’s episode on a huge cliffhanger – Glenn at the bottom of a pile of hundreds of walkers with no apparent means of escape, whether or not the entrails being pulled out were his, and Rick in a non-functional RV surrounded on all sides – showrunner Scott Gimple continued with this season’s experiments in storytelling structure by cutting away to an extended flashback detailing how Morgan came to be the bo staff-wielding pacifist that found his way to Alexandria in the season 5 finale.
How you felt about this narrative detour, I suspect, will depend largely on how you feel about Morgan as a character. I happen to be fascinated by him, and as eager as I am to find out what happens to Rick, and to have it confirmed that Glenn died (I love Glenn, but he better have died), 90 minutes on Morgan suited me just fine, in part because I assume that if it didn’t have a direct bearing on the Walker Parade story, it would have been later in the season.
When we last saw Morgan, he was dealing with a Wolf attack that appeared to test his resolve not to kill anyone. This week’s episode began with Morgan addressing the Wolf he appeared to have killed before flashing back to a very different Morgan, an almost feral survivalist obsessed with “clearing” his immediate surroundings of anything that moves.
Captured by a former prison psychiatrist named Eastman (John Carroll Lynch), Morgan slowly regains his humanity through Aikido, the martial arts discipline whose central tenet is concern for your opponent’s well-being. This is how he got his staff and learned how to use it, and this is where he gets his conviction not to kill anyone, though Eastman doesn’t make it long enough to see his pupil in a cap and gown.
Flashing forward back to the present, we learn that Morgan is attempting the same rehabilitation program on the Wolf he captured, though early signs are that the Wolves are even farther gone than Morgan was, with a deep-set nihilism and an apparent appetite for blood.
Todd VanDerWerff of Vox loved the episode:
“Here’s Not Here” is The Walking Dead’s best episode in ages and ages — definitely the best one since season five’s all-Carol-and-Daryl hour “Consumed” and quite possibly the best since season three’s “Clear.” Honestly, this might be the best episode of the show ever. That might seem like a lofty claim, but I don’t know that it actually is. Whatever its strengths, The Walking Dead has rarely been a series that breaks down readily into episodes. Fans tend to identify their favorite story arcs — the prison, or the buildup and aftermath of Terminus, or Herschel’s farm. (It’s never Herschel’s farm.) And because of that, the things that “Here’s Not Here” excels at get a little lost in the dust. But the episode is pretty remarkable TV, and it’s remarkable TV in a way that speaks to why the Scott M. Gimple era of this show has frequently been so very strong — and why it often struggles.
Vanity Fair’s Elise Taylor thinks Morgan may pose the gravest threat to the people of Alexandria:
Morgan’s decision to keep a Wolf as part of an experimental rehabilitation program may seem noble at first. He’s just following the message of his beloved teacher. But this program is likely to have a lower success rate considering Morgan’s patient threatened to kill not only Morgan, but also all the men, women, and children of Alexandria. Plus, Morgan’s no psychiatrist. How, exactly, does Morgan think he will bring his captivate back from the brink? He already gave his best inspirational speech a shot to which the wolf replied with a psychotic version of “cool story, bro.” The problem isn’t that Morgan likes to spare lives— in this episode, he was right to let that couple in the woods go—it’s that, following Eastman’s example, he’s decided to spare all lives. Even those that are beyond saving. Take, for example, the Wolves Morgan encountered last season. He let them live, and, in turn, they came back to ransack the town of Alexandria, killing dozens of people in the process. When he spared the Wolves yet again, they ended up attacking Rick in the RV. We’re still not sure if Rick will make it out of that encounter alive. This reluctance to kill was a problem for Morgan long before he met Eastman and discovered pacifism. When Morgan couldn’t pull the trigger on his wife-turned-zombie, she ended up killing their son. Morgan may not like to admit it, but by refusing to have blood on his hands, he, well, has even more blood on his hands. And they’re likely about to get bloodier.
Alan Sepinwall of HitFix does not appreciate the interruption in the Rick/Glenn cliffhanger, even though he liked the episode:
The show had a long way to go to turn the Morgan we saw in “Clear” to the more serene Morgan of his more recent appearances, and mission accomplished. Isolate him in a lake cabin for a while, with a patient but firm instructor who’s conveniently an expert in both forensic psychology and aikido, and this kind of breakthrough can happen. Lynch, last seen terrorizing people as Twisty the Clown on the freak show season of “American Horror Story,” was in a much calmer mode, and his energy was a good match to the jittery style James was using back in “Clear.” This was 90 minutes of two fine character actors bouncing off each other, and occasionally pausing to bury zombies, and it was time mostly well spent. That said, Eastman eventually started to come across as second cousin to Hershel on the farm, or the Alexandrians, in that he’s had it relatively easy since civilization fell. He’s in the middle of nowhere, and while zombies will wander through the fence from time to time (and not a ton of them, based on the size of his cemetery), he hasn’t had to deal with anyone like the Governor, the Termites, the Wolves, or even that gang Daryl fell in with for a couple of episodes. It’s easy to say that killing is always wrong when you’re isolated from the very worst and most dangerous parts of humanity, as opposed to someone like Rick or Carol, who have time and again been placed in positions where killing was the only realistic way to protect themselves and those around them. Eastman’s consumed with guilt over murdering the man who slaughtered his family, but that was a killing done for revenge, not self-preservation. Many societies through history, both secular and non, have had laws against killing that have exceptions for defense of yourself or others.
The A.V. Club’s Zack Handlen thinks even Morgan sees the futility of keeping the Wolf alive:
I’m a sucker for more or less self-contained episodes, especially when they focus on a single character’s journey, and I thought this one worked well. I especially appreciated how they were able to keep that tension between wanting to do good, and knowing how much that good will cost you; and the ways the script explicitly uses training as a metaphor for working through post-traumatic stress. There’s sadness running throughout, but it’s sadness that’s at least partially mitigated by kindness. Eastman’s death is inevitable, but his final moments on screen help make his existence feel meaningful. (Also smart: We don’t see Morgan shooting Eastman to keep him from turning, and we don’t see a corpse being buried. This show so often wallows in bodies that its unexpectedly powerful when you don’t see one, even though you know it’s there.) Which brings us to the present, and Morgan’s decision to try and repeat his experience with Eastman with a Wolf in place of himself. The scene of the two of them talking breaks the spell of the flashback, and reminds us that once again, we are in Alexandria, and here is where hope comes to die. There’s every reason to expect that this Wolf will find some way to get free, and when he does, it’s very doubtful he’s going to be content with just running away. Where Morgan was half-mad with grief and loneliness, the Wolves seem different; evil, the way the man who murdered Eastman’s family was evil. You can’t cure evil, and on some level Morgan must know this, which is why he locks the door on the way out. (Eastman left the cage unlocked.) But he’s still desperate to pass on what he’s learned, because if he can’t, the knowledge will lose meaning—a philosophy with only one adherent is a dead dream. It’s all heartbreaking, and will almost certainly end badly for everyone. There’s even an argument to be made that Morgan’s present-day actions are criminally misguided. But “Here’s Not Here” does a great job of showing why Morgan behaves the way he does. He may still be the weak man he despised in [season 3’s] “Clear”; he may also represent a way forward for everyone, a way beyond Rick’s jittery ruthlessness and Deanna’s incompetent vulnerability. The fact that both of these things can be true is what makes him so compelling—a flawed, broken man struggling to save the world, one monster at a time.
Vulture’s Richard Rys puts together more of the puzzle:
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?).
And Rolling Stone’s Noel Murray sees the episode’s (and the season’s) moral conflict as a little one-sided:
The episode does appear to be putting some necessary pieces in place for what lies ahead, particularly in terms of Morgan as the lone voice of morality. So far, this season has been establishing the growing ideological divide between the Rick/Carol “outsiders are liabilities” theory of survival and those who opt for a more humane approach. The argument they’ve all been having — sometimes openly, often passive-aggressively — concerns whether it’s worth rebuilding society and re-establishing trust with other people when, in this universe, human relationships can become an inescapable trap. On one level, “Here’s Not Here” supports the optimistic view, just by making its guest star such a reasonable, likable guy. But at the same time, Eastman ultimately dies because he makes a friend. And after Morgan buries him, he sets out on the road to Terminus, where humans baited and ate each other until our heroes turned the tables. When the episode returns to the present, we see that our wandering hero has been relating this whole saga to one of the ASZ-invading Wolves, who remains unmoved by his captor’s insistence that change is possible. As he leaves the prisoner, Morgan locks the door behind him; it’s a telling break from his teacher, who’d trusted him enough to leave his cell door open. Once again, doubt and fear prevails. This hour is supposed to be about how one man rediscovered his compassion for mankind, but like a lot of this season so far, it all takes a sour turn. In the context of the show as a whole, what’ll ultimately matter is whether it moves the plot toward a new place, where Rick and company can actually begin to progress. Because in The Walking Dead’s grand debate about how best to make it through a crisis, right now only one side’s being allowed to make salient points. Their opposition is literally getting killed.