With all the focus these last two weeks on the fate of Glenn on The Walking Dead, a more interesting and certainly more unique character development is potentially taking place right underneath our noses. It concerns Morgan Jones, and by placing his flashback episode in between a cliffhanger and its resolution, showrunner Scott Gimple may have accomplished exactly what it was Eastman taught Morgan to do last week: Redirect.
Specifically, by keeping our focus on Glenn, Gimple and co. have been able to lay the groundwork for a potential first on a major television drama.
Let me explain.
Shocking character deaths are old hat these days, thanks to shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. If we know and sympathize with the character enough, the death — shocking or not — can still sting. However, it seems like we’ve seen every iteration of evil overtaking good. The death of Ned Stark on Game of Thrones showed us that anyone — no matter how important they may seem to the story — can die, and The Walking Dead has proven that “no one is safe” time and time again.
However, when a beloved major character like Ned Stark, Hershel Greene, or potentially Glenn Rhee or Jon Snow dies, it’s usually at the hands of a force of evil, or a bogeyman. Ned was killed by Joffrey. Hershel was killed by The Governor. Rita was killed by the Trinity Killer. Will Gardner was killed by a crazed gunman. Glenn was (potentially) killed by a walker.
Here’s how the Morgan storyline could play out in a completely different and novel way.
Morgan Jones (Lennie James) is a fan favorite. He’s been around since the pilot, and by periodically sprinkling his appearances through the next five seasons of The Walking Dead, the folks behind the series have created in Morgan a mysterious, mythical figure whom we all love, and whose return we craved. Think back to all the times we practically applauded with glee at the sight of him at the beginning or end of an episode.
Last week’s flashback episode not only filled in the details about the wheres and whens of his past, but it told us more about his character. We understand him and his motivations. Morgan, in spite of a period of insanity, is a “good guy.” He lost his wife, and he lost his son, and we feel sympathy for him. He’s had a hard go of it, but thanks to Eastman (John Carroll Lynch), Morgan has been able to get back on his feet and find some purpose in life. The man also has an admirable ethos. He believes in the preciousness of life.
How can we think ill of anyone who values life as much as Morgan?
We shouldn’t, and yet we also understand that this is The Walking Dead, where the “preciousness of one life” has to be balanced against the preservation of the many. The Alexandrians believe that “no man should be left behind” and that’s dangerous in and of itself, because it means the weak can hold back the strong. By trying to save the weak, as Glenn attempted to do with Nicholas, he put his own life in danger.
Morgan’s ethos is even more dangerous to the community. Morgan is like a defective prison system: He believes in the speedy rehabilitation of murderers, no matter how evil they might be. Morgan may be quick to beat a bad guy up with his stick, but at the end of the day, he’s going to put them back out into the streets to kill again. That’s dangerous in a zombie apocalypse, because every time Morgan releases a Wolf, he’s putting the lives of Rick and Carol and Glenn and Maggie, etc. in danger. He’s already cost Alexandria several lives.
Morgan is a dangerous man, but he’s also a “good guy,” a likable, sympathetic character who viewers respect and admire. In the normal course of a television drama, a good guy with a wrongheaded but well-intentioned ethos typically has his own belief system come back around and bite him in the ass. He lets an evil guy go, and that evil guy comes back and kills him. We mourn the loss, but we saw it coming.
What’s more devastating and even more novel is to see a “good guy” like Morgan murdered by a another “good guy,” like, say, Carol (Melissa McBride). Have we ever seen a major “good guy” character kill another major “good guy” character? Have we seen a good guy murder another good guy because he’s too good?
I don’t want to read too much into the tea leaves here, but I believe that’s what’s being set up this season on The Walking Dead. I think we’re seeing a showdown between Carol and Morgan, two good people who want the same thing but are going about it in different ways. They both want to protect their friends, and they both want a strong community. Carol believes the way to accomplish that is to kill the bad people. Morgan believes the way to do that is to rehabilitate the evil people and transform them into good people.
Morgan is wrong. It’s a noble belief, and he has the best possible intentions, but in a post-apocalyptic world where the mortality rate is high, threats can’t be neutralized. They have to be snuffed out.
This sets up a unique character twist where a good person (Carol) kills a better person (Morgan) and we celebrate her for it. We’ve already seen hints of this in the past, when Carol killed Lizzie. However, Lizzie was a mentally troubled young girl with a sadistic streak. Morgan is a clear-headed pacifist, but it’s that very pacifism that’s turning Morgan from protagonist to antagonist. We love Morgan, but he’s become the season’s de facto villain by virtue of his peaceful ethos. Basically, he’s turning into Piggy in Lord of the Flies, and the rest of us may be in the position of rooting for Ralph to drop the boulder on him. Because in a land overrun by zombies, it takes someone with some savagery to lead.
In short, we may genuinely want one character we like (Carol) to kill another character we like (Morgan), because the latter believes in the sanctity of life. That’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen on a major television drama, and the fact that we may be put in a position to root for it proves just how much The Walking Dead has messed us up in the head.