The Walking Dead’s Morgan Speaks: ‘Hope Must Die’
Lennie James, who is brilliant as the Zen warrior Morgan on AMC’s ‘The Walking Dead,’ opens up about his big episode and Morgan’s future.
Anxious Walking Dead fans eager to find out what really happened to Glenn in last week’s maddening, conspiracy theory-launching episode “Thank You” may have been frustrated by Sunday night’s episode, “Here’s Not Here.” The thoughtful, 90-minute-long bottle episode focused solely on Morgan and finally revealed how the tormented, PTSD-afflicted loner we last saw in Season 3’s devastating “Clear” became the bo staff-wielding Zen warrior who tracked Rick’s group all the way to Alexandria.
Through a series of flashbacks, we meet the “cheesemaker” who made Morgan his Padawan and taught him the art of peace and ass-kicking: Eastman, an Aikido expert and ex-forensic psychologist who’s been holed up in a cozy cabin since the start of the apocalypse. Eastman’s optimism, his dry sense of humor, and his unwavering commitment to rehabilitating Morgan (despite the latter’s murder attempts) make him an immediately likable character, one who represents the rarest of phenomena in The Walking Dead’s relentlessly bleak world: hope.
With Eastman’s help, Morgan (performed, as always, with awe-inspiring ferocity by Lennie James) is able to break out of his mental prison and re-learns the value of human life—a teaching he has already begun trying to pass on to Rick’s group, much to Carol’s thinly veiled disgust.
But Eastman, for all his radical optimism and bo staff prowess, suffers the same fate all designated “moral compass” characters eventually do on this show (RIP, Dale and Hershel): he is cut down by a zombie, this time while shielding Morgan during a paralyzing panic attack. With Morgan now carrying on Eastman’s legacy, is he doomed to the same fate? (The Walking Dead comic book spoiler alert: In Robert Kirkman’s source material, which does not necessarily predicate what happens in the show, Morgan dies in the struggle to defend Alexandria from a massive horde of walkers).
James claims he doesn’t know “what will come to pass on that level,” but says the rest of Season 6 will explore Morgan’s struggle to achieve the same peace Eastman did—and the consequences of Morgan’s questionable attempts to preserve lives, including the murderous Wolf he’s now keeping stuffed in a basement.
“I know I’m probably going to die. But if I don’t, I am going to have to kill you, Morgan,” that Wolf tells Morgan, just before we hear Rick’s voice shout out for someone to open the community’s gates. “I’m going to have to kill every person here. Every one of them. The children, too. Just like your friend Eastman’s children. Those are the rules. That’s my code.”
Whether Morgan’s no-kill code will be his (and Alexandria’s) undoing remains to be seen—let’s hope that rabbit’s foot is as lucky as Eastman said it is—but in the meantime, The Daily Beast hopped on the phone with James to unpack Morgan’s mindset, his mistakes, and his chances for survival.
When we begin “Here’s Not Here,” Morgan is alone and wracked with trauma from having to watch his wife and son get turned into zombies. What was it like putting yourself back in the mad version of Morgan’s mindset and portraying something as heavy as PTSD?
On one level, I hate talking about my process or anybody’s process really, but I will say that I spoke to Scott Gimple about how far down the rabbit hole we were taking Morgan, how far he had to come back to some semblance of—I don’t want to say “sanity,” but some semblance of himself. I read a lot of testimony, is what I did. I read a lot of testimony from people who were suffering some of the trauma that Morgan was suffering. But also, it was testimony not necessarily about the events that caused their PTSD, it was much more about how the PTSD manifested itself in regular life, and what affected that.
What did you read in the testimonies that helped in your performance?
One guy, I listened to his testimony and he said that he was having a conversation with his sister, and his sister said, “You spend all of the morning talking to yourself.” And he said to his sister, “What do you mean?” And she says, “You’re sitting in the room, on your own, and you’re talking to yourself.” And he said to her, “Here’s the really weird thing. I believe what you’re saying to me and therefore I believe that my buddy—let’s call him “Joe”—is not sat there in the room with us and he’s the guy I’ve been talking to. I believe you when you tell me that Joe’s not there. The only problem is that Joe’s there.” And that realization, for me, was really important when I was trying to get to where Morgan’s head is. When the episode starts and he’s just walking around the room and there seems to be no one there, it was really important to me that, in his head, he’s talking to somebody. He sees somebody. His dilemma, the thing that Eastman ultimately shows him, is that there’s nobody there.
Morgan is such a beloved character, in part because his are some of the most emotionally devastating stories ever portrayed on the show—what has it been like to be away from the show for years at a time then come back to that material?
Well you’ve pretty much said it, really. It’s always a fantastic return for me when Morgan comes back to the show because every time there’s just great stuff to do. It’s a great journey to take him on, just purely as an acting gig. It’s been a gift that’s kind of kept on giving, really. So on that level, it’s been a joy to come back. But when I’ve been away from the show, luckily I’ve been working a lot of the time so I only realize how much I miss the people involved in it when I return and go, “Oh, right, yes! This is the place where we have fun and we get to laugh and play make-believe.” So it’s always fantastic returning to Atlanta and to the set and to this group of people who are making this particular program. So on both levels it’s a good thing when they pick up the phone and ask me to come back.
Did you ever have any trepidation about coming on as a regular character? I’ll be honest, I was afraid that might ruin a bit of Morgan’s magic.
It was one of the conversations that I had with Scott Gimple when we sat down to talk about the possibility of Morgan coming back in a more regular capacity. And I think in the end what swayed it is that both myself and Scott kind of have that same protectiveness of the character. That’s what I said to Scott, that I’m very protective of this character and I don’t want him watered down in any way.
But I’m also aware that the journey that he’s had so far in our story can’t continue in the same pace. You can’t tune in every week and something hugely devastating is happening to Morgan because it’s just not sustainable. So my fear was exactly that, which is I’m very protective of him, I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved with him and how we’ve woven him into the mythology of the story and I just wanted to make sure that we took care of that as we moved forward and started seeing him a little bit more regularly.
In “Here’s Not Here,” we meet Morgan’s Aikido teacher, Eastman, who represents peace and hope in a way that is not usually sustainable on such a brutal, bleak show. And sure enough, as always with characters that represent something so optimistic, Eastman ends up dead by the end of the episode.
Yes. Hope must die!
Exactly. So now that Morgan is following in Eastman’s footsteps and trying to become that kind of hope for Rick and his group, should we be afraid for him?
(Laughs.) Well I don’t know what will come to pass on that level, but I do think that there is, to a greater or lesser extent, a fundamental distance between Morgan and Eastman. That is, Morgan has been out there and Eastman has survived the apocalypse by shutting his door and keeping himself away from all of the things, but Morgan’s been walking through it. And he’s not only been walking through and surviving, he’s been doing it on his own. So everything he learned from Eastman hopefully is something he adds to the skills that he already has. That may dilute the fear of him being too hopeful.
Eastman talked about being at peace by deciding not to kill anymore. In the current timeline, would you say that Morgan is at peace too? Or is he still aspiring to be like Eastman?
I think on one level that’s one of the things we’re going to be exploring in Season 6, exactly how at peace is he with his newfound ideology of how to survive in this world. That, I suppose, is the long answer. The short answer is I don’t think Morgan is entirely at peace at the moment. I think he’s struggling with it and whether he’ll be successful or not remains to be seen. But he’s not Eastman when we meet him, when he arrives at Rick [and Alexandria.] He’s not got to the point that Eastman has. He could not say out loud, “I am at peace with myself because I’ve decided not to kill anymore.”
When you read that Morgan was keeping that stray Wolf in the basement did you begin sensing some inevitable doom? ‘Cause a lot of us did.
Well it’s a very weird thing, really. We shot Episode 4 out of sequence. It was just logistics and availability for John and for Benedict, who plays the Wolf man. So we shot episodes 1, 2, 3, and then we shot 5, 6, 7, 8, and then we went back and shot episode 4. So I had already kind of shot the consequences of the Wolf man in the basement before I got to episode 4, so it wasn’t, in all honesty, a surprise to me.
You wouldn’t be willing to share a bit of what Morgan experiences in those episodes, would you?
Well you know the way that this show goes, we’re not allowed to say anything about what’s happening or what’s coming up. I would say that I hope fans of the show and fans of Morgan have shared a great responsibility, I feel, for who Morgan is to this show and who Morgan is in this show. I hope they enjoy [Sunday’s] episode because they had a large hand in it.