"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.
What makes this episode so special is that it's not an episode of The Walking Dead
"Here's Not Here" features exactly one series regular — unless you count what seems to be Rick's voice shouting at the very, very end (thus possibly resolving one of last week's cliffhangers) — and the zombie encounters are pretty minimal. The vast majority of the episode involves two great actors in conversation, interspersed with lyrical shots of the natural world around them. It's filled with references to Eastern philosophy, the nature of existence, and cheesemaking. Oh, and it co-stars a goat.
It is, properly speaking, a sequel to "Clear," another episode focused on Lennie James's tortured, tormented Morgan — and one that left him in a place where his mental state was clearly dissolving into nothingness. Because the Morgan we now know seems relatively stable, peaceful even, "Here's Not Here" works to show how that Morgan became this one, and it turns out to involve a forensic psychologist, a mountain cabin, and the aforementioned goat.
The script, by Gimple, keeps a very close eye on what Morgan is going through. When it begins, he's almost feral, and by its end, he's found a shaky but lasting inner peace. This transformation should be too much for one episode of television to to handle — even a supersize one that runs 90 minutes with commercials — but somehow, Gimple, James, and director Stephen Williams make Morgan's transition believable and even beautiful.
Granted, there's so much going on in the series' main story right now — with a zombie horde closing in on Alexandria and the uncertain fate of Glenn still hanging in the balance — that many fans probably found "Here's Not Here" to be a frustrating watch. (Twitter suggests this was the case.) But I was so quickly lured into the episode's Zen state of mind that I didn't mind the lack of resolution to what came before. And I'm someone who believes pretty strongly that if Glenn survives, it will break the show.
Such is the power of a Morgan episode. And "Here's Not Here" does something even more interesting: It removes much of the series' escapism.
"Here's Not Here" eschews escapism for poignancy
It might seem odd to label a show as overly grim as The Walking Dead as "escapist," but by and large, that's how it functions. The characters' lives are so far removed from our own that any commentary on modern life remains pretty safely buried in the subtext. You might pick up on it. You might not. Both ways can lead to enjoying the show.
What's different about "Here's Not Here" is that it deliberately forces viewers to look at some horrible, uncomfortable things we might face in the real world. It serves as a kind of crash course to post-traumatic stress disorder, with psychologist Eastman (the always brilliant John Carroll Lynch) trying to help Morgan realize that he can make it to a point where he stops reliving all of his worst moments — like the loss of his wife and son.
Some of this is a little clumsy, and it feels a little like Eastman is introducing these concepts as much for the audience as for Morgan. But it's done with such depth of feeling that I didn't mind. This is an episode about learning to live comfortably with yourself, about forgiving yourself for things that have gone wrong, and about finding a way forward. And, yes, there are zombies around the edges, but it's notable that the trauma Eastman himself had to overcome occurred before the apocalypse. The subjects this episode addresses apply even to those of us living in a non-apocalyptic world.
Too many of us wind up trapped in our own past afflictions, constantly reliving terrible things that happened to us, or even just perceived slights that take on outsized importance in our minds. I don't know that "Here's Not Here" is going to help anyone deal with their own PTSD — especially considering its sole prescription is "maybe take up aikido, why not?" — but at the very least, it might open up the door to admitting there's a problem, which is the first step to seeking healing.
That's something The Walking Dead couldn't do in a more typical episode. By paring everything down to the absolute basics and telling a very simple story about two men and the darkness that unites them, the episode crystallizes, pushing the show into unfamiliar territory — and becoming all the better for it.
"Here's Not Here" is a great reminder of what Scott M. Gimple does well
If "Thank You" — and the possible death of Glenn — is The Walking Dead at its worst, then it's worth pointing out that one of the strengths of Gimple's approach as showrunner is that he can pivot from an episode like that to an episode like this, seemingly on a dime.
The more episodic, time-hopping structure that The Walking Dead has embraced since the midpoint of season four hasn't been as consistent as I would maybe like, but that's allowed the series to come up with new ways of telling stories and new ways to shuffle its deck.
In particular, look at how beautifully "Here's Not Here" contrasts with this season's first three episodes, which have been loud, violent, and occasionally exhausting. That zombie cattle drive of the premiere has now stretched out over episode after episode, and it's starting to feel like this entire half-season of television will be about a roughly eight-hour period, with room for flashbacks and the like. By putting the calm, contemplative "Here's Not Here" at the center of this eight-episode sequence, The Walking Dead buys itself room to go even louder in the future.
Throughout "Here's Not Here," I kept thinking of the way Lost used the time-hopping character of Desmond, who didn't join the series' cast full time until season three and usually received at least one standout episode per season from then on, with season three's "Flashes Before Your Eyes" and season four's "The Constant" (essentially the consensus pick for "best episode of Lost") ranking above the rest.
Gimple's version of The Walking Dead is, structurally, a very similar show to Lost. True, it doesn't have a permanent flashback structure like that show did, but its up-close character focus accomplishes much the same thing, and in its loopy, disorienting structure, it manages many of the same tricks that Lost did, in terms of playing with perspective and the way different characters perceive the same thing.
In Morgan, then, Gimple seems to have found his very own Desmond, a character who lets him tap into what he believes is the very soul of The Walking Dead. And what makes "Here's Not Here" so very good is the way it suggests that Gimple believes the show isn't about what so many assume it's about — the dehumanizing process of living in the zombie apocalypse — but instead concerns something far more interesting: the question of what you hang onto that preserves your humanity in the face of so much death. And while that is directly applied to the apocalypse here, it could just as easily be applied to war or disaster or family tragedy in our reality.
If there's one thing about "Here's Not Here" (and Gimple's vision of the show) that gives me pause, then, it's the character at the end, the captured Wolf to whom Morgan tells his story. Unmoved by tales of Eastman, the Wolf insists to Morgan that he's going to break out of his captivity and kill everybody he can get his hands on. Morgan, unaffected by this threat, merely leaves the man locked up, where he's sure to become a plot point at a later date.
It's not that this is unbelievable or that such a conflict between philosophies wouldn't play out in this universe. It's that it's unnecessary. In "Here's Not Here," Gimple so beautifully suggests the fulfillment that can arise from a life without killing — indeed, from the simple prospect of remembering that the Walkers you must kill to protect yourself were once human, too, and granting them a dignified burial.
He doesn't need to also explain to us that there are others in this universe who are brutal and would take all of that away. The rest of the series has already accomplished that handily. The final scene plays not as a reminder of this world's brutality, but as Gimple underlining a point we don't really need underlined, one that steps on the poignant conclusion of Morgan's flashback.
Eastman dies, because that's the way of The Walking Dead, and even though I liked this episode, I'm not sure I want to watch Lynch and James make cheese every week. But his presence made for a lovely, lyrical departure from the series' usual form, and it's not hard to imagine the kernels of peace he passes on to Morgan taking root in the formerly troubled man's soul and spreading outward to touch everyone he sees. Hopefully, this isn't a random side trip. Hopefully, this is the start of something new.
No culture chat this week
I'm traveling. We'll be back next week, when we'll hopefully figure out whatever the show is going to do with Glenn.