Tonight’s episode was a real change of pace from the at times frantic action that has surrounded the prison survivors since the beginning of Season 4. Ending last week with the Governor watching from the shadows created a lot of buzz about what exactly would happen tonight, and I joined in with some of my own thoughts in my sneak peek a few days ago. Love him or hate him, the Governor is back, and tonight gave us all a lot to chew on only two weeks from the mid-season finale.
<<Spoiler Alert: The following review will discuss at length plot points of The Walking Dead S04E06, “Live Bait.” Read more at your own risk.>>
Although the string of episodes beginning with the letter “I” is now officially broken, the close focus on individuals we’ve seen over the last two weeks with Carol and then Hershel continues with even greater intensity, as this episode belongs entirely to the Governor (David Morrisey). The Promo and Sneak Peek videos released last week cover only the first couple of minutes of the episode, meaning we really had no foretaste of what we were getting. And what we were getting was, in my opinion, one of the finest episodes of the entire show so far. I suspect that not everyone will agree with me – after all, there is really very little killing (three zombies through the first 41 minutes of the 42 minute episode), we still have no resolution of the Rick-Daryl-Tyreese-Carol circle, and there is only one familiar character for almost the entire episode, and he the much-hated antagonist of Season 3 at that. Not necessarily a good recipe for a series that relies on over-the-top gore, set action pieces, and carefully crafted tensions between characters both loved and hated. But the best villains are not mono-dimensional, and that is largely what the Governor had become by the end of Season 3. Tonight’s episode goes a long way toward reconstituting his character and giving him depth, a depth that he was sorely lacking.
The episode begins as the Sneak Peek does, right after the Governor has massacred the Woodbury group for failing to go back for another battle at the prison. We see the walker stumble through the fire, and Martinez shoot it in the head, shaking his own in disgust at the Governor’s lack of any sense of self-preservation. The next morning, the campsite is cleared out, leaving only the Governor alone with his tent: Martinez and Shumpert have taken everything else and left in the truck. This is pure pragmatism, and is something the old Governor would have likely approved of – after all, if you’re not helping, you’re dead weight, and dead weight gets you killed in the zombie apocalypse.
We see a montage of scenes showing the Governor moving alone, doing the bare minimum to stay alive, but not much more. Underscoring his actions is this haunting song, “Last Pale Light in the West” by Ben Nichols of Lucero:
The Governor is beyond contemplative – he’s stunned, in a sort of psychological shock. He takes a large transport truck (they were camping at the site of their ambush of the National Guard unit back in “Walk with Me” in episode 303), and drives it to Woodbury, crashing it hard through the protective gates. He then torches the entire town to the ground – he built it, and if he can’t have it, he sure as hell isn’t leaving it around for Rick and the other survivors to take. We see him watching as walkers begin to wander through the now empty streets past burning buildings. I do find it a bit odd, though, that no one at the prison has mentioned that Woodbury has burned. After all, it is pretty close to the prison, and Michonne would most likely have gone there in her searches for the Governor, looking for clues as to his current whereabouts.
We hear a voice-over of the Governor: “I’ve been on the road for a couple of months.” A woman’s voice: “By yourself?” “Yeah.” While we hear them speaking, we see him shuffling toward us down a leaf-strewn road, his hair grown long and a beard on his face. He’s completely let himself go at this point, and his madness is showing in his inability to look after himself. Physical realities have little bearing on his mental state. He stops and looks at a barn covered in writing – people sending messages to each other about where they have gone, and who has died. The woman asks him where he lived before, and if there were monsters there. “No,” he replies, “we were safe. A lot of good people.” “What happened?” “He just…lost it.” “Who?” “The man in charge. Barely got out alive.” It’s no great mystery that the Governor is talking about himself here. We haven’t seen what he’s been doing over the couple of months he mentions, but it appears it has been more than mere navel-gazing. One of the lyrics in the song playing during the montage is, “And I ask / for no redemption.” Yet somehow, I think that is exactly what the Governor is seeking, whether he realizes it or not himself.
This is effectively and wordlessly shown as the Governor stumbles along a road, unshaven and unkempt, shuffling much like a zombie himself, as a walker passes right by him. He literally brushes against it as the zombie reaches for him, but it misses, falling to the ground – the Governor keeps right on walking. He staggers a bit further into a small town, and then collapses to the ground. It appears that he’s ready to give up, but he sees something: a little girl, staring at him from an upper story window in an apartment building. Could this be a hallucination, perhaps of Penny? He goes inside and finds a family – the Chalmers – who have been holed up here since the world went to hell. They are two sisters, Lilly (Audrey Marie Anderson) and Tara (Alanna Masterson), their father David (Danny Vinson), and Lilly’s daughter Megan (Meyrick Murphy), whom the Governor saw in the window.
Having had no human contact for the better part of two months (it is Lilly who we hear him having the voice-over conversation with, although this is a bit later once they’ve gotten to know each other better), the Governor proceeds to do his best Snake Plissken impersonation. When you combine his eye-patch (granted, on the wrong eye), his long hair, and his gruff low voice, you’d think that Morrisey is channeling Escape from New York-era Kurt Russell. The beard doesn’t hurt, either.
The Governor gives them a fake name – Brian Heriot – one that he saw spray-painted on the barn he passed earlier. Why doesn’t he tell them his real name at this point? I’m not sure – it isn’t as though anyone would have heard of Philip Blake, even if they had heard of Woodbury. But the Chalmers haven’t left their apartment except to get basic supplies, so they’d have no idea who he is. Thus, he can only be changing his name for himself. This is another attempt to put the past behind him, to bury the Governor persona with Woodbury. His Pyrrhic destruction of all he had created speaks to his desire to reframe himself, and by taking on a new name, he recognizes the power that the past and its labels can have on us. Brian did not lose his daughter; Brian did not murder dozens of people; Brian has hope, where Philip or the Governor do not.
He helps the family with a series of errands (getting a backgammon set from another apartment; retrieving oxygen bottles from a seniors’ home), and begins to grow closer to them, especially to the little girl, Megan. This is the most human we’ve seen the Governor since episode 303, “Walk With Me,” when he takes Andrea on a tour of Woodbury and attempts to seduce her to his way of thinking. Then, he had an agenda, and it was clear exactly what kind of man he was when he took out the National Guard unit; now, his motivation is less clear. He seems to be bonding with the Chalmers family, despite his own desire to remain aloof and indifferent. He realizes just how naive they are, and begins to take on the role of protector. Lilly mentions that Tara keeps shooting the walkers, but they keep moving – he has to tell them that their brains need to be incapacitated. He kills one zombie while retrieving the backgammon board, but seems almost to regret doing it. In fact, it appears he only does it because the zombie is incapacitated and stuck in a bathtub – is this a modicum of humanity creeping into the Governor’s demeanor? After getting the oxygen tanks, he is nearly trapped and escapes with some injuries. Tara, formerly a nurse, looks after him, although he is resistant. She leaves, and Megan asks him point blank (as only a child can do) how he lost his eye. He doesn’t want to tell her at first, but realizes that she’s that rare thing in this world: a true innocent. He tells her he’s a pirate, and she scoffs at him, making him laugh. He then opens up a little, telling her he lost it trying to help someone he loved. “Did they get hurt too?” she asks. “Uh huh, yeah, yeah they did.” “I’m sorry,” she says. “Me too.” He has a hard time making eye contact with her as he’s speaking. He’s been out of touch with his humanity for so long, that he’s having a really tough time making the journey back.
We skip ahead an indeterminate amount of time. He’s shaved, and had time to grow stubble again, so at least a week or two. He’s teaching Megan to play chess, and the inevitable symbolism creeps into the lessons. Pawns “die sometimes” he tells her, and the King is the piece you want to capture. Just in case this weren’t an obvious enough allegory for the Governor and his actions, Megan takes a felt marker and draws an eye-patch on the piece. They get called into the bedroom – grandpa David has passed, and when Lilly says, “He’s gone. He’s been gone a while,” the Governor gets a sudden look of concern on his face. He tells them they should get out, which is perhaps the best sign yet of the changes he is undergoing. The old Governor would have simply done what was necessary and put a knife in the body’s ear; this new man actually cares how these women will react to seeing their family member dealt with in this manner. The fact that this is the first time since the beginning of the episode that we are seeing the Governor as the Governor, clean shaven and in control, says volumes. He may be returning to life in the sense of being aware of himself and those around him, but he isn’t slipping back into old ways. Is this a real change, or only a temporary one? The grandfather turns, and as he is about to bite Tara, the Governor grabs the nearest item – one of the oxygen tanks – and smashes his head in. This in turn alienates Megan, and it is the depth of his hurt at this rejection that really frightens the Governor. He realizes that he is becoming close with the Chalmers, and he knows what happens when he allows people to get close to him. We see him back in his apartment, across the hall, staring at the picture of his wife and Penny. He takes it to the windowsill, and sets it on fire. This appears at first to be a possible regression – denying his feelings, lighting what he cares about on fire – but it really speaks more to his desire to stay remote, to avoid becoming someone who is beholden to and by others. This closeness and sense of belonging become too much, and he decides to leave. He hesitates, and knocks on the apartment door to say goodbye, and Lilly tells him in no uncertain terms that he’s given up his right to leave.
The old Governor would have just walked away; the new man allows her to convince him, and they move on, driving a cube van that was parked outside. We see them travelling for a bit. His growing fondness and responsibility for the Chalmers escalates, as he and Lilly act on a mutual affection that has been growing between them, making love silently beside Tara and Megan. Eventually, the van breaks down and they’re forced to walk, although it is never clear where they are trying to go. They walk, and Tara twists her ankle when she looks back over her shoulder to see where Megan is. Naturally, cue the walker horde: there’s a side street down which a couple of dozen zombies have been attracted to a swinging, squeaking sign. On the sign: Live Bait. They’re spotted, and begin to run. Megan resists at first, but the Governor implores her, and she runs into his arms. Again, old Governor versus new Governor: running to save himself, versus carrying a young child and trying to save her. They pass the two sisters, and then fall into a pit, a trench not at all unlike those he and his men used to trap walkers back in the Woodbury days. There are three walkers inside the pit, and the Governor uses sheer brute force and fury to take them out by hand, with the sound of automatic gunfire in the background. He rips the throat out of one, smashes another’s head against the wall of the trench, punching through its skull with his bare fist, and then rips the top of the first one’s head off using a femur in the mouth. Visceral kills, showing the dark side he’s been trying so hard to hide from himself and others. He tells Megan he’ll keep her safe, cross his heart, but as he’s saying it, he hears, “Holy shit,” and looks up to see Martinez, looking down and pointing a gun at him. “Cross my heart,” he says once more.
The episode ends at this point, and right away it is obvious that there will be a reckoning one way or the other for the Governor. He is a very changed man from the end of Season 3, but while I don’t take particular issue with the process of this change, I did have some problems with what caused him to snap in the first place. Neither his insanity nor his self-destructive introspection with which we began the episode are a problem for me. While I do see this as a believable reaction considering all of the things that happened last season, I am, however, surprised that it was his killing of the Woodbury citizens that was the straw that broke this camel’s back. Rather, I would think that the greatest psychological shocks the Governor had were the loss of his daughter, zombie-Penny, and the loss of his eye, both at the hands of Michonne. Instead of completely losing his head, these events served to focus him, turning a rather sinister two-dimensional autocrat with some homicidal tendencies into a dangerously focused monster willing to sacrifice even those closest to him (Milton, his trusted adviser, and Andrea, his lover). Why is it that this final act of rebellion – nix that – resistance to an order, is what it took to push the Governor over the edge? Perhaps this is a question that will be addressed at some point, but in the meantime, I choose to see this as the end result and culmination of a man losing his dream, not only the dream of a healthy-again Penny, but of leading humanity through the apocalypse and into a brighter future. He sees himself as a Messiah figure, and can’t grasp why no one else quite sees him the same way. Like most failed megalomaniacs, he is psychologically destroyed by his inability to live up to his own constructed self. If this is the case, his mental dissolution is conjoined with the dissolution of the group he brought together, and his descent into madness then begins to make some sense – but it is important to note this: in much the same way that the positive aspects of the creation of Woodbury were the physical manifestation of his dreams of self-aggrandizement, the fact that it is he himself who pulls the trigger killing the Woodbury survivors (and thus his own dream) – not to mention the burning of Woodbury – show that the negative impacts are not external in nature; the seeds were planted and the crop reaped by the Governor himself. It is ultimately this realization that first leads to his malaise, and later to the first stirrings of potential redemption through his interactions with the Chalmers family, and most specifically Megan as a kind of surrogate for Penny.
I found his adoption of and by the Chalmers family to be a very interesting move, one that clearly echoes Carol’s adoption, at their father’s behest, of Lizzie and Mika. The parallels are fascinating: parents who have lost their children, getting a chance to redeem themselves with a second chance surrogate, taking on the role with initial hesitation (remember, Carol looked quite uncomfortable when the girls’ dad asked her to look after his daughters), but embracing it ultimately. However, the contrasts are of even more interest and, I think, importance considering how much they say about character development. While Carol sees her second chance as an opportunity to harden the girls, to make them more self-reliant and cold in order to help them survive, the Governor sees this as a second chance to protect his little girl. Morrisey does a great job through the simple act of stroking Megan’s hair with his bloody hand, staring down a man who not only has the high ground but an automatic weapon, of showing that he truly loves this girl as a surrogate for Penny. I somehow think that he wouldn’t have the same problem Carol has with Lizzie calling her mom, should Megan decide to call him dad.
While I really enjoyed Hershel’s episode last week, this episode just strikes it home how well cast this series is. To be fair, I found Morrisey’s portrayal of the Governor last season to be a little over-the-top, vaudevillian bad guy, mustache twirling-ly bad at times. He came across as largely two-dimensional, although I think there was a purpose to that – and that purpose began to show itself tonight. Morrisey was able to take a character that I utterly despised, and turn him into someone at least partially sympathetic in just 42 minutes. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t feel that he is all the way redeemed by any stretch. He may very well love Megan and her mother, but we’ve seen how warped his sense of love can be – reference zombie-Penny chained in his closet if you need a reminder. The proof will be in how he handles his reunion with Martinez, and in just how far he is willing to go to protect his new family. But what Morrisey (and the writers, of course!) was able to convey was a sense that this change might very well be legitimate. He’s changed his name, exposed himself emotionally, taken on the role of protector without any kind of ego-stroking, burnt his previous life both physically and metaphorically, and looks to be flourishing in these new roles and existence. Morrisey the actor won me over tonight, even if the Governor still has some way to go.
Steve’s Grade: A
The quietest episode of the season so far, with the lowest body count – only one human, and a handful of walkers are killed on screen – but it’s a welcome change of pace. Most importantly, we see the metamorphosis of the Governor into something new and only recognizable on the outside. But will he be a butterfly, or something else entirely once he’s done?