Why tonight’s very good ‘The Walking Dead’ suffered from very bad timing

A review of tonight's “The Walking Dead” – and still more thoughts on last week's controversy – coming up just as soon as I give you a rabbit's foot…

“I have come to believe that all life is precious.” -Eastman

There are two ways to talk about “Here's Not Here.” One is within the context of the episode itself: a  sequel to the last Morgan spotlight episode, “Clear,” a fine acting showcase for both Lennie James and guest star John Carroll Lynch, and a thoughtful meditation on the value of life and death, even in the world of the zombie post-apocalypse.

In that context, it was a very good episode, albeit one that stacked the deck too much in favor of Eastman's argument. And we can talk about that in a bit. But the other way to discuss the episode is in the larger context of the season, and particularly in the wake of an episode that seemingly killed off Glenn – followed by a big PR bungle, whether he lives or dies – and ended with Rick moments away from being besieged by a forest-ful of zombies. To conclude “Thank You” that way and then come back next week with a 90-minute Morgan solo spotlight is either another terrible miscalculation, or else a level of sadism that usually exists within the show's universe more than in ours.

I'm sure Scott Gimple hoped “Here's Not Here” would better establish Morgan as a core part of the show, as well as giving context to his anti-killing philosophy, and join the pantheon of Very Special “Walking Dead”s to go with both “Clear” and “The Grove.”  I'm also sure he figured he was playing fair, since this season has toggled back and forth between what's happening with Rick's stupid plan to put zombies on parade and what's going on back inside Alexandria's walls (which this technically was). And it's clear neither he nor anybody else in the creative team would realize that they had inadvertently set up a no-win scenario in the way they both presented Glenn's “death”(*) and the way they've talked about it in the days since. 

(*) Steven Yeun's name is no longer in the opening credits. Make of that what you will. 

In one of those interviews, Gimple busted out the tired Please Don't Judge My Television Show Like a Television Show lament, even though he's making a series that is not only aired weekly on a television channel (and gets enormous ratings while doing so), but uses cliffhangers and teases and other devices that are fundamentally about the week-to-week experience. We've reached a point where a lot of showrunners talk as if they wish they were working for Netflix or Amazon, and are even starting to structure their shows for a binge. And perhaps in the context of watching a half dozen episodes of this season on a Saturday afternoon, jumping from “Thank You” to “Here's Not Here” would seem less of a taunt to the audience.

In this context, though? Dumb. And that would be the case even if they had definitively killed off Glenn, had Steven Yeun appear on that night's “Talking Dead,” etc.

I think back to “Across the Sea,” perhaps the most hated “Lost” episode of them all. That was another one where the creators at the time were giddy to be doing an off-format episode, then surprised when the fans didn't like it. “Across the Sea” had a lot of problems, which even Lindelof and Cuse eventually acknowledged, but one of the biggest at the time was that it was airing a week after “The Candidate,” which ended with the deaths of several major characters (along with the fakeout death of Frank Lapidus, who mattered much less to the grand scheme of “Lost” then Glenn does to this show). Even if “Across the Sea” had done a much better job of explaining the show's mythology, I think a lot of fans would have hated it because they wanted to see the immediate aftermaths of those deaths.

There's a time and a place to step away from ongoing story arcs. This does not seem like one of those times, and that becomes doubly so if the show intends to have Glenn survive his predicament in ludicrous fashion.

But back to “Here's Not Here” itself. 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.

We saw last week that Rick was attacked by some of the Wolves whom Morgan let escape Alexandria, and the Wolf tied up in that house makes his homicidal intentions very clear to Morgan at the end of this episode. They can hope to keep him locked up for the rest of his life, devoting meager resources to that task, and maybe Morgan could even get through to the guy the way Eastman did for him, but the show doesn't seem to be treating Morgan's side of the argument all that seriously.

In a different week, though, I imagine the episode could have generated a robust debate among “TWD” fans about whether Eastman, and now Morgan, represent a legitimately alternate option to all the violence that Rick's been involved in, or if it's a philosophy only possible in safe isolation.

In this week, though, I suspect many of you were just annoyed to not get more of what was happening with Rick, Glenn (even if he was just a zombie now), Michonne, etc.

Before we go to the comments, it's time once again to explain how this blog's No Spoiler rule applies to this show:

1. No talking about the previews for the next episode.

2. No talking about anything else you know about upcoming episodes from other sources – and, yes, that includes anything Gimple and Kirkman have said in interviews.

3. No talking about anything that's happened in the comic that hasn't happened in the TV show yet. (Or anything that's been revealed, like character backstory and motivation.) As with “Game of Thrones,” the goal is to treat “The Walking Dead” TV show as exactly that, and not as an excuse for endless comparisons with the comics. If you want to talk about the comics, feel free to start up a discussion thread on our message boards.

What did everybody else think? Did you love the Morgan spotlight, or did the delay in resolving everything from last week feel like a troll move?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com