'The Walking Dead' Recap: Cabin in the Woods

An oddly timed flashback episode tells the sad story of Morgan's mentor

Lennie James in 'The Walking Dead.' Credit: Gene Page/AMC

First things first: No, this week's Walking Dead doesn't address "The Glenn Situation." Last week's episode seemed to have our Mr. Rhee getting ripped apart and gobbled up, in one of the darkest, saddest moments of a series that's never been all that cheery. Since then, skeptical viewers have given Glenn's death scene the kind of frame-by-frame scrutiny usually reserved for the Zapruder film; and now, after cryptic comments from showrunner Scott M. Gimple, the character's fate seems like more of a toss-up. No one is confirming or denying anything.

So this may be the worst possible time for TWD to trot out another of its occasional muted, moody, stand-alone episodes; there are too many questions and theories floating around among the fandom, and too many plot-threads flapping in the breeze. And while this week's installment — titled "Here's Not Here" — works magnificently as a piece of television drama, it's also painful and heartbreaking in ways that quite frankly feel like overkill after last week's pile-up of tragedies. It suffers a bit from everything going on off-screen.

Let's start with the good. The marvelous Lennie James was partially responsible for the excellence of Season Three's beautifully bleak "Clear" — one of the show's best "interlude" episodes — and he's just as strong here, helping tell the story of how his character went from being a nihilistic madman to a zen zombie-slayer. James is matched step-for-step by John Carroll Lynch, a veteran character actor best-known for his performances in Fargo, Zodiac and the TV series American Horror Story (where he was the deeply disturbing "Twisty the Clown"). He plays Eastman, a forensic psychiatrist who many months ago fended off an attack from the then-feral Morgan, then placed him in a cell in a remote, well-stocked cabin in order to heal his reluctant houseguest. A little bit of Eastern philosophy and several dozen aikido lessons later, our baggage-laden hero is this much closer learning how to value the living in a world overrun by the dead.

Aside from some stray zombies and one of the ferocious, anarchic Wolves — who appears in the episode's framing device — this episode mainly sticks with Morgan and Eastman as the two men get to know each other. Or, more accurately, it watches quietly as the former learns about his new host. Lynch delivers several masterful monologues, speaking softly and compellingly as his character preaches a credo of peaceful existence, simple pleasures, and the importance of community. (At his most persuasive, he offers Morgan a Goo Goo Cluster, saying, "You're alive. Live a little." Who wouldn't follow a man who understands the palliative powers of a Goo Goo?)

Ironically, it's not until the psychiatrist gets bitten and infected during a supply run that Morgan fully embraces his outlook. And that's where "Here's Not Here" starts to stumble a bit. What happens to Eastman isn't just depressing, it's predictable, because it's what always happens on this show. As a result, there's an atmosphere of desperate fatalism hanging over everything here, including the psychiatrist's backstory (which explains that he reached his mellow state only after seeing his entire family slaughtered by a serial killer). Meeting somebody new, hearing his tragic tale, watching him die —  that's powerful stuff for any ordinary show. On The Walking Dead, it's called "Sunday."

That said, the episode does appear to be putting some necessary pieces in place for what lies ahead, particularly in terms of Morgan as the lone voice of morality. So far, this season has been establishing the growing ideological divide between the Rick/Carol "outsiders are liabilities" theory of survival and those who opt for a more humane approach. The argument they've all been having — sometimes openly, often passive-aggressively — concerns whether it's worth rebuilding society and re-establishing trust with other people when, in this universe, human relationships can become an inescapable trap.

On one level, "Here's Not Here" supports the optimistic view, just by making its guest star such a reasonable, likable guy. But at the same time, Eastman ultimately dies because he makes a friend. And after Morgan buries him, he sets out on the road to Terminus, where humans baited and ate each other until our heroes turned the tables. When the episode returns to the present, we see that our wandering hero has been relating this whole saga to one of the ASZ-invading Wolves, who remains unmoved by his captor's insistence that change is possible. As he leaves the prisoner, Morgan locks the door behind him; it's a telling break from his teacher, who'd trusted him enough to leave his cell door open. Once again, doubt and fear prevails.

This hour is supposed to be about how one man rediscovered his compassion for mankind, but like a lot of this season so far, it all takes a sour turn. In the context of the show as a whole, what'll ultimately matter is whether it moves the plot toward a new place, where Rick and company can actually begin to progress. Because in The Walking Dead's grand debate about how best to make it through a crisis, right now only one side's being allowed to make salient points. Their opposition is literally getting killed.

Previously: Goodbye