Moments flash before Morgan’s eyes. His sanity begins to slip as he falls back into disjointed ramblings once more. The lives taken, the lives lost, the lives tainted, all linger with him, brought to the surface again: Ezekiel, Richard, Carol, Benjamin, Duane.
That sort of thing always gets me — montages of past events, the images of old faces and old places returning in a grand, dizzying cacophony. Something about the rush of those little moments makes an impact. I know it’s a device. I know how manipulative it can be. And yet, I cannot help but find it affecting.
So when Morgan starts to lose his mind again, to crack from the equal and opposing pressures of his pacifist philosophy and a world that requires something different to protect those with their futures still ahead of them, I cannot help but feel it too. “Bury Me Here” is not The Walking Dead’s finest hour — more than a few clunky moments see to that — but it’s an episode centered around Morgan’s moral turmoil, the fault lines of his ethical stance, and that gives it power, in harmony with and apart from the glimpses of the path that led him here.
Much of that power owes to Lennie James. Bringing Morgan back was a shot in the arm for TWD, not just because he ties back to the show’s beginnings, but because James is one of its best performers. He can sell a calm on the surface with swirling emotions beneath, giving the choice he’s wrestling with an intensity in even quieter moments.
For so much of “Bury Me Here,” Morgan simply seethes. He stands in front of brutal bullies and strains to hold himself back from unleashing hell upon them. He glares at Richard when his erstwhile ally explains what he did and why he did it and how things went wrong. So much of this season has been about Morgan being pulled away from his Aikido-influenced temperament, and gradually reaching his breaking point. Lennie James brings conviction in showing how so many of these events have nevertheless put Morgan on the edge of his reserve.
And then, he just snaps. Benjamin’s death is too much for him. As Morgan himself put it, he thought he got to choose, to decide whether he could be a part of this fight. He is faced with another young man, one who shows promise and initiative, taken down by a cruel, uncaring hand. All those emotions that have been bubbling under the surface, all the rage and pain that he has quelled through his practiced calm, erupt in a scarily efficient, controlled fury that bursts when he sees those butchers again.
It’s an intense scene and virtuoso work from James, who doesn’t always get the best material. Only his erstwhile running buddy Carol (Melissa McBride) can show the same conflicted burden of someone projecting one thing while feeling another as well as James can. And when Morgan lets the beast off of its chain, he sells the contrast from the measured man that anger supersedes. Morgan is changed. He is immediately recognizable as something else, with a demeanor and attitude to match the way his ethical mores have been shattered and replaced with sharp edges.
“Bury Me Here” needs that type of performance because the episode is otherwise subject to many of the show’s clumsier or more hackneyed qualities. The dialogue is as heavy-handed as ever. The scene where one of Ezekiel’s “subjects” tells him about weevils in the royal garden, but reassures him that even if they burn it down and tear it up, they can grow it all back again, may as well have had a giant neon sign that read “Hooray for metaphors!” Words have never been the show’s strong suit, and while a performer like James can still make that work with body language and expressions, other characters suffer in dull or repetitive conversations.
It also doesn’t help when the episode telegraphs where things are going. I couldn’t necessarily have told you that Benjamin was going to die in this episode, but the attention he received here, from being built up relative to his little brother to his attempt to learn from Carol to his coaching up from Richard made him up to be this bastion of innocent, guileless potential. That sort of thing can’t go uncorrupted in stories like these, and it wasn’t hard to predict that something was going to happen to Benjamin that would make Morgan call his philosophy into question. Not everything has to be a surprise, and it’s better that TWD lays a little groundwork rather than delivering nonsense out of nowhere. But at times, Benjamin may as well have just started singing “I like being alive!”
The show also has a propensity for overly long scenes. The confrontation between Morgan and Richard was an important turning point in the episode, and I understand showrunner Scott Gimple & Co. wanting to give the moment enough time to breathe and unspool naturally. But so much of the scene is spent repeating things the audience already knows or could surmise on its own, and hitting thematic points the show had already thoroughly driven home. To the same end, we don’t need Morgan to say Duane’s name when he means Benjamin to realize the two are connected in his mind, and doing so turns a subtle enough thematic tie into a ham-fisted shoulder-shake for the audience, there to ensure we get it.
That said, the plot of the episode is simple and works well, even if the execution of it leaves something to be desired. Richard’s plan isn’t a bad one, or an ignoble one. He realizes that the bad blood between The Kingdom and The Saviors has been running hot, much of it on his account. It’s reasonable to think that if The Kingdom were short in their delivery, the bad guys would make an example out of him (explaining the “bury me here” sign nicely) and that it might spur Ezekiel to see the need to fight. If nothing else, it works as the thought process of a desperate man.
(As an aside, Gavin, the leader of the crew of Saviors that interacts with The Kingdom, has quickly become one of my favorite antagonists. I love how the show doesn’t redeem him or show him as genuinely reasonable or anything. He is still as cruel and coldly uncompromising as any Savior sub-boss. But in contrast to Negan or his other major goons, Gavin doesn’t really seem to enjoy what he does. Instead, he has the tenor of a put-upon middle manager, constantly dealing with crap from the top and from his knucklehead employees, and that gives him a unique character relative to the other baddies who’ve crossed our heroes.)
Things, naturally, go wrong. Benjamin is killed instead of Richard. Morgan loses it, and yet fulfills Richard’s plan in an unexpected, but arguably more effective way. And the aftermath is striking in how it breaks Morgan’s will.
The no-kill code has been with Morgan since we became reacquainted with him, so when he finally violates it, and it’s to kill Richard in order to lull The Saviors into a false sense of security, there’s poetry to it. When he repeats the words Richard says to him, it’s a hair too much, but it still works as a bitterly ironic fulfillment of Richard’s scheme, and a realization of the promise that, as Morgan has been pushed to act, so too will Ezekiel.
But what motivates Morgan is not simply the tyranny of The Saviors. It’s just not the possibility of a better world. It’s the same epiphany that Rick reached last week in much more hopeful if resigned terms — that fighting this fight is necessary to secure the future for their children, for young people like Benjamin and Duane and Judith. Morgan has become wrath, the pain of the loss of his wife and son that he’d managed to put behind him rushing back in an uncontrollable flood. And it drives him to cast aside that which healed him, to take lethal action in the hopes that no more such innocents need suffer the same fate.
The cinch is that the three major figures here who became something else, did so when they lost their children. We hear Richard recount how he lost his daughter by failing to act. We see how the memory of Duane’s loss lingers with Morgan. And last but certainly not least, the indomitable Carol embarked on a very different path after Sophia died. It’s Carol who gives Morgan another place to “go without going,” to stew and seethe and turn a blunt object into a sharp one.
As he sits there carving his stick, we can feel those moments tumbling around in his brain again. Once, he could block it out, silence the tumult and go on. But no more. His turn is a potent one, made all the stronger by the sacrifices, moral and mortal, that the old guard makes in the hopes that the next generation won’t have to, and the lingering images of those losses that can be put off, but never fully escaped.