Since The Walking Dead launched on AMC well over a decade ago, the most often repeated line of the franchise has been: “No one is safe.” That’s not exactly true, of course… Despite the frequent, shocking deaths on the show and its spinoff series, there are certain characters you expect to survive, including Morgan Jones (Lennie James), who is now the longest running character on any of the series*.
Yet in this week’s episode of Fear the Walking Dead, titled “USS Pennsylvania,” and spoilers past this point, Morgan tested that plot armor surrounding him, as he had the rest of the cast stormed a beached submarine to try to prevent nuclear armageddon. Multiple times, Morgan threatened to run into zombie infested areas, highly irradiated areas, and even got shoved into a crowd of undead without a weapon by the treacherous Victor Strand (Colman Domingo). Ultimately, Morgan did survive, and even let Teddy (John Glover) and Riley (Nick Stahl), the maniacs behind the nuclear plot, go free. But that came at a great cost: as the episode ends, one missile holding ten warheads with multiple targets has launched, and we have no idea where they will land.
“The way the guys are telling the story through this season, and right all the way to the end of it, actually, is a bit like the audience and a bit like you: I’ve never felt my position being more precarious,” James teased to Decider.
So will the plot armor be shed in next week’s season finale? Is there a chance that, in the midst of missiles falling, Morgan and Grace (Karen David) can finally get together romantically? And why does everyone keep trusting Strand? For all that and more, read on.
Decider: This is the first episode in a long time, honestly, where I felt like, okay, maybe Morgan actually is going to die this time out. I mean, obviously he doesn’t, but in a broad sense, I know the line that I always get from everybody is “nobody is safe.” But at this point, do you feel like your job is safe, as the elder statesman of The Walking Dead universe?
Lennie James: Oh God, I hate that title. But it is true. I can’t argue that. No, I don’t actually. And I think that the way the guys are telling the story through this season, and right all the way to the end of it, actually, is a bit like the audience and a bit like you: I’ve never felt my position being more precarious.
Well, let’s jump into the episode then. What was it like filming on that submarine set?
I think they should preserve the submarine set and have it as part of an AMC Walking Dead universe exhibit, because it’s the best of what we do. It’s the best of the detail that goes into the sets that we build, and the world that we’re trying to create. And I think Bernardo [Trujillo], who’s our main set designer and production designer, and his team outdid themselves with the submarine, because they had to create a space that was both claustrophobic, but also open to the new protocols that we’re filming under because of COVID. And he managed both. And I swear, I wish everybody could come down and see it, because the details that they’ve put into that set, not even the camera sees it all and not even the camera does it justice.
It was fantastic to work on it, because it gave us the thing that you hope costumes and props and set design gives you, which is no acting required, that it enhances what you have to do because it makes it real. And that’s exactly what that set did.
Were there multiple locations on the set, or did you guys do it Star Trek style the same hallway, but just keep flipping the camera around?
It was a little bit of both… Because the submarine has length as well as depth, and then it has the different bits, there was quite a chunk of it that was built, but it was built within the studio, but in like seven or eight different pieces. And then we had the exterior of the hull of it, in different places as well: one so that we could be on top of it; and one, so it could be our background.
Talking about one of the major relationships in the episode, Strand and Morgan throughout all the seasons, almost feels like Lucy and Charlie Brown with the football a little bit, Morgan keeps getting suckered into trusting him. Why do you think that is? Is that essential to Morgan’s character? Or is it something specific about Strand?
[Laughs] I think it’s a little bit of both. I mean, it’s about how Strand operates the world. You always expect better of Victor, but you’re never surprised that he turns out to be himself. And that’s the great trick that Strand plays is that you know he’s capable of anything, but you hope he’s not. And it’s a bit like how they describe the devil in Usual Suspects, that the greatest trick the devil ever played was to convince everybody that he didn’t exist. That’s how Strand is, really. His gift is convincing you that there’s something better about him, and then constantly proving that there isn’t. And I think Colman does that brilliantly, no better than he does in this particular episode.
The problem with Morgan is that he’s honest. Sometimes I think that’s his biggest strength, but it’s also his biggest flaw. And one of the things that he realizes almost immediately, even after Strand has left him for dead, is that what’s going on is bigger than him, and it’s bigger than Strand. And he’d be better served by, in this particular moment, having Strand at his side and slightly in front of him, than wreaking revenge in that particular moment. Although I do believe Morgan, and I hope the audience do believe him, when he says to Strand, “We’ll deal with this later.”
Morgan tells Strand, he has this big speech about how he was motivated to keep pulling the sacrifice play, to throw himself into dire danger, because he feels awful about giving the key to Teddy and setting up the whole situation. But it almost feels like a little bigger than that. Is it about Grace as well and what went down with her? Is it about something else?
I think it’s about a lot of things, really. I don’t think it’s about one thing, a bit like you. Yes, it is to do with Grace. It is to do with the needs for not just him to have a future, but the people that he cares about, and particularly the woman that he loves to have a future. And that that future can happen with or without him.
I think it’s a private reaction, because on one level, he also feels like he doesn’t have the right to mourn the loss of Grace’s child, but he does. And I just don’t think he can suffer many more losses like that, and doesn’t want to be part of what he believes causing that, which is why he keeps trying to leave the group behind. He keeps trying to say, “I’ll do this,” because he can suffer the loss of himself, but he can’t really suffer the loss of any more people that he cares about and loves, really. Over the last little while, those that he has lost, as he’s opened himself up to Grace, he has recognized what he’s lost, and it weighs heavily on him at this moment in time.
I mean, on that note, it feels a little ridiculous asking this, where we left off with nuclear warheads about to hit somewhere in the area. But is there any opportunity for Morgan and Grace to move the relationship forward romantically at this point? Or is there just too much going on, and too many things have happened to them, that we’ve missed that chance?
I think when you’re really up against it, sometimes you’re forced to, at the very least, acknowledged the truth of your situation. So it’s entirely possible. But yes, you’re absolutely right, there’s a lot of other things going on.
Why do you think he lets Teddy and Riley go free at the end there? That was, to me, one of the more surprising decisions in the episode.
It took me a while actually, me Lennie, to get my head around that choice that Morgan makes. But I do think it’s the right choice for him, the man that he is, and the moment that he’s in. There’s no point in him killing them. It’s a testament to the moment. The bomb is in the air. As far as he’s concerned, this could very, very, very well be the end of all of them. He might as well let the bomb drop and [spare] their lives, because that’s just about him. And he was never really there for them. He was there for other people. It’s the same reason why he tells them to get the hell out of there. He has no need for them.
He has no need for the grievance that he has with them. He has the need for their excuses. He has the need for their death. He has no needs for their punishment. He has no need for that revenge. It’s over, as far as he’s concerned. And I thought that letting them go emphasized that and was a really strong piece of storytelling there, because the expectation is, is that he lashes out. But actually, the degree to which he believes this to be to the end of the road means that he doesn’t care whether they’re there or not there. Whatever went between them is over. It’s in the rear headlights.
This feeds directly out of that, but that shot at the end of Morgan alone in the control room is so calm and quiet after such a wild episode. What do you think is going through his mind at that moment?
That’s what more would it looks like when he’s lost, and lost both in that he was too late to stop … He stopped some of them, and I believe he can probably take some solace in that. He stopped the bulk of them, but one of them is in the air, and it has 10 warheads on it. So I think it’s just that one moment, where you contemplate the situation that you’re in.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a car crash or an accident, but there’s a moment where everything just slows and everything just stops. And you’re almost seeing it what’s happening to you happen outside of yourself. And I think that’s the moment that he’s in. It’s a real moment of contemplation that I doubt will last very long, but we catch him in it right at the end of that episode.
So just to wrap up, and this is always a difficult question to ask, but with 10 warheads that could land anywhere, and Alicia is still missing, and lots of things in the air… What if anything, can you tease about the finale?
I think I can tease very little, except that in keeping with the way the story’s being told in this season, the next episode is brave storytelling and clever storytelling and beautiful storytelling and links all of our characters, even though they may not always all be together.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Fear the Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.
*If you want to quibble about it, Morgan disappeared for a few seasons on The Walking Dead before popping up again, so there are other characters who have appeared in more episodes. But with Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes missing, for the moment Morgan is the only character who appeared in the pilot episode of TWD, and still appears on screen to this day.
Where to watch Fear the Walking Dead