Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review The Walking Dead each week in a series of letters.
I want to start by re-playing two of our excerpts from last week:
1. Josh: “I predict he’s dropping off Megan at a place she’ll be safe, while Melody and Tara are toast.”
2. Shane: “I think this one, as you said, is a bit of a slam dunk. If he’s truly rediscovered his humanity, it’s not going to go well with the henchmen. Sure, they were less evil than the Gov himself in his badder days, but they were pretty bad dudes, nonetheless. The Governor will run with them while he can, trying to protect the women…the Governor will have to either take a machine gun to his former troops or escape in the dead of night in the hopes of saving Megan. And where would she be saved? Where are the good people? As you said, the prison.”
How could we have been so naive? This is the GOVERNOR, Josh! The f*$%U*ing GOVERNOR. We should have known! We were duped!
On the other hand, I think we should have been right. Last week’s episode, “Live Bait,” was the best of the entire series, in my opinion, because it showed some psychological depth without resorting to heavy-handed metaphors or broad archetypes (psychopath vs. saint!). It was so well done that I bought into the Governor’s redemption arc hook, line, and sinker. I called it “almost great,” because as much as I enjoy The Walking Dead, it’s more or less a guilty pleasure masquerading as serious drama. But “Live Bait” was so beautifully shot, so well imagined, and so well executed, that for me, it transcended the limits of the show.
Well, that didn’t last long.
Last night, in “Dead Weight,” we saw The Walking Dead getting back to The Walking Dead. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, because it does what it does exceedingly well. But instead of weighty psychodrama and underlying questions about man’s ability to overcome his own evil, we’ve got CRAZY PLOT SWINGS and LITTLE GIRL ZOMBIE ATTACKS and SINISTER PSYCHOPATH GOVERNOR. And don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed every minute … but I’ll admit that I’m somewhat of a reactionary viewer, and I thought maybe last week, on the heels of the more-sophisticated-than-usual disease storyline, had staked out new artistic territory. That was probably a dumb and pretentious thing to think, but I thought it anyway. And I guess, in the abstract, I’m a little disappointed.
But, hey, this is The Walking Dead, and the Governor is about to wage war on the prison, and I’m not going to sit here in front of my computer and pretend I’m not totally loving it. In “Dead Weight,” we saw our new pal Brian last about a day in the company of other able-bodied men before completely succumbing to the sociopathic behaviors we thought he might have escaped in his near-death journey to the family. Josh, I get the feeling that pre-apocalypse Governor was the kind of guy who was always distinctly insecure around other men and got real petty and quiet if he wasn’t the alpha dog. But this was a pre-zombie world, so he probably just got passive-aggressive with his wife or accused her of flirting with men, or something. Now, he’s free to really act out his wild desires and let those insecurities assume life-or-death proportions.
Did you notice that both men he killed, Martinez and Pete, offered him a share of command before they bought it? Dude can’t even share, Josh! But in Mitch, he saw the man who wanted to set his own inner murderer loose, yet needed the thin comfort of a leader telling him it was okay. In other words, the perfect henchman. Martinez once filled that role himself, but now that he had a taste of leadership, there was no going back. And Pete wanted to do the right thing from the beginning, which is anathema to men like the Governor who talk a good game but shudder when confronted with any kind of real morality. Unless you’re a woman like Andrea or Melody who can be fooled by a facade of goodness, there’s no room for heart in his universe.
Another thing that went missing last week, but that was back in full-force in “Dead Weight,” was the classic “holy shit, there is no logical explanation for why you are so stupid” move by a main character. In this case, Martinez claims top prize. First, he should have killed the Governor in the pit. Second, and more glaringly, DO NOT LET THE DUDE WALK BEHIND YOU IN THE FOREST WITH A LOADED GUN! Did you not see him kill his entire Woodbury community, man? I know you saw it, Martinez! I know you were there! And then you abandoned the guy! As if his psychotic nature wasn’t bad enough, now he can legitimately accuse you of betrayal, even if it was totally the right move on your part. This is not a person who plays well with others, and he’s particularly bad with rivalry, so, again, WHY ARE YOU LETTING HIM WALK BEHIND YOU WITH A GUN? And why are you getting drunk around him? Why are you making him feed you golf balls to cement his inferior status? These are all things that will get you killed.
Okay. I have a lot more to say, but now that we’ve seen the Governor go from redeemed villain all the way back to someone who’s drawing a bead on Hershel or Michonne in the woods, I’m going to kick it back to you for general thoughts and an answer to this specific question: What do you think the Guv meant when he kept saying “I don’t want it!” while he was sending Martinez to his reward?
I’ve made some terrible predictions in our Walking Dead, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones letter reviews, but I think this one beats all. I was completely prepared for the Governor, after finding a real human girl to protect instead of a zombie on a chain, to ride the redemption train all the way to a showdown with the still-evil Martinez. It was a brilliant set up—show the Governor’s ominous return to the prison, let us all believe he’s there to kill ‘em all and then surprise us by having him sacrificially protect the women he loves by sending them to the one safe place he couldn’t follow. That would have been beautiful to see. In fact, you can read about that Governor in my new fan-fiction short story “Patching Things Up,” in which Brian starts the first post-apocalyptic commune for vegan pacifists.
But then the writers made last week’s arc the whole head-fake instead, which was kind of disappointing and yes, kind of awesome. Disappointing in that last week we were surprised by the complexity of the show’s scariest villain, and this week he turned back into a psychopath who let his demons run rampant, justifying it all with the thin veneer of “protecting his family.” But as you say, it’s hard to complain too much about the Governor being the Governor or The Walking Dead being The Walking Dead. Why strive for something sublime when you can get 10 million people to tune in to see that epic showdown we’d been anticipating all season? The journey from Brian to the Governor wasn’t as compelling as the opposite transformation we saw last week, but it was hardly boring.
Brian tried to hide from his past, but Martinez was a constant reminder. I think he really wanted to have changed, but he wasn’t going to be able to do that if Martinez was always bringing back the past. Offering part of “the crown” was what broke him. I don’t think it was a calculated response, but the Governor is well past sanity at this point. So, to answer your question, I think he didn’t want to have to be the Governor again—this was, ironically, his final attempt to try to simply be Brian.
But if you’re trying to turn over a new leaf, four out of five doctors don’t recommend cold-blooded murder. Doing that required shutting his heart back off. And if he made it another day, the trifecta of finding out that there is a roving group of murderers nearby, having the car blocked by a zombie pit (what exactly was that?), and seeing his new “daughter” attacked by a walker sent him over the edge. He decided he would have to become the Governor again if he was going to protect his new family. And for him, the role has its perks.
Because Philip/Brian/the Governor is wired for cruelty. He likes the power over others and has shown it via the aquariums in Woodbury and his new “dead” lake. Keeping Pete on a chain is a sure sign that our favorite psychopath is really back to his old ways. So I never thought I’d be a little let down by the triumphant return of the Governor to the prison (this time, he’s got a tank in his arsenal!), but I feel like we got a glimpse of the show that could’ve been.
So, break down for us the trip to the cabin and the survivalist who liked to make cardboard signs. How did that factor in Brian’s transformation back into the bad guy?
And as Paste’s resident golf expert, what did you think of the Governor’s swing?
First things first—we didn’t get to see the Governor’s swing (I feel like maybe we did in an old episode), but Martinez gets an A for effort and a D for execution. They only showed one or two full swings since he’s clearly not a real golfer, and it looked semi-competent. It’s easy to teach a novice to shoot a basketball, harder to teach him how to throw a baseball (see Tim Robbins in Bull Durham), and harder still to teach a golf swing. It’s an evolved skill with a lot of moving parts, as evidenced by the fact that even people who have been playing for years stink. So while Martinez probably fooled non-golfers, the eagle-eye fans out there could still spot him for a fraud. Also, I think he was using a 6- or 7-iron to try to make a 50-yard shot into the pit. Again, total amateur hour.
As for the reunion between the Governor and all things crazy, I agree that the “protecting the family” excuse was awfully thin. I couldn’t really tell if that was the motivation for his transformation (“I need to be a madman to keep us all alive”) or if he just craved the power again and couldn’t play second fiddle. I was more in the second camp, judging by the fact that he seems pretty desperate to attack the prison and eliminate the only group that’s gotten the better of him so far. Again, he doesn’t do well around other strong men, and as much as he hates Michonne, I have to think Rick is the demon he sees in his nightmares.
But it sounds like you think he might be chiefly concerned about protecting his new family and just doesn’t know any other way to make it happen. And to be fair, that midnight escape did seem like an attempt to get away from his own demons and take care of his group in the calmer, saner Brian style, rather than reverting to the Governor. Then again, he had already killed Martinez, so it’s all pretty vague.
And honestly, I think that one’s on the writers. There was a very clear journey last week, but it all felt super haphazard this time around, and there wasn’t a lot of justification for the Governor’s spiritual crises. If the road to redemption was beautiful, the road back was awkward. It’s probably a good thing that we’re done with transformations for the time being. We need to get back to some old-fashioned zombie apocalypse warfare.
As for the trip to the cabin, we saw the words “liar,” “rapist,” and “murderer” on cardboard signs, a photograph of a father with his wife and daughter, and a bunch of zombie heads kept in a secret compartment. Sounds pretty much like the Governor’s whole life, right? (As for rapist, I guess he stopped short of that with Maggie, but it was too close for comfort.) I saw it as a journey down memory lane, almost like the Governor’s own version of the Ghost of Christmas Past scene. Great call connecting that to his unraveling; it’s not exactly easy to escape your demons when identical reminders are shoved in your face by a cruel god (or a heavy-handed writer), is it?
Back to you, and let’s talk about next week: Does the Governor pull that trigger, and if so, is he aiming for Hershel (pure sadism) or Michonne (revenge)? It felt like Hershel had his pre-death moment when he went outside the fence with Michonne, and I’m scared it’s about to come to fruition.
Really, I was just talking about the swing the Governor took to Martinez’ head, but I’m glad I got the full on breakdown on Martinez. (Was he not leading with his hips? I feel maybe you’re supposed to lead with your hips.) The Governor did make a habit of hitting golf balls off a truck down the lane outside of Woodbury, though. I think he probably could have taken Martinez in a round of 18 (or clubbed him to death on the back nine).
I think the “protecting the family” justification is just that—a way to allow himself to be ruthless. He seems to enjoy killing people way too much for it to really be about “protecting” anything but his ego. That’s why he ends up right back at the prison. But I don’t think he’s going to settle for a pot-shot on Hershel or Michonne. The spoiling scenes from next week show him returning in force with his new henchman in a tank. This may spell the end of the prison for everybody.
I agree that this week’s reversion weirdly didn’t feel as earned as last week’s redemption. But I guess entropy is the natural state of things, and the life of Brian was always pretty fragile. “Live Bait” will always be one of my favorite episodes, though.
So next week is the showdown we thought we were going to get at the end of last season. Now everyone has grown, changed, died or in Carol’s case, moved on. The Governor has gone from trying to bury his past to trying to reclaim it. He’s got a brand new flock drinking his Kool-Aid. And we’ve got Chekhov’s tank in a midseason finale. This is going to be bad for a lot of people.
So you’ve been pro-Governor, and last week, I think we were all on board. Are you ready to see him die now or are you hoping this rivalry with Rick lives on into the rest of the season?
That’s a great question. The one thing I think I know is that we’re going to be cliff-hung by the writers at the end of next week’s episode. The Governor won’t be dead, and the prison will be in the midst of a fight. As to my thoughts on the Governor, I have to say that I think I’m ready for him to die. It’s almost like he got super interesting at the last moment after always being really interesting, but the surge into the stratosphere, accompanied by the sad plummet, makes it seem like the character has more or less outlived his usefulness. At this point, there’s nowhere new to go with the Governor, you know? He can only be evil, he can only lose his family once they realize his true nature, and he can only die. And that, again, is another sad part of his sudden reversion to the dark side. I could have watched reformed Governor struggle against his nature and try to protect his family endlessly, but this version of him is old hat. I’m ready for it to end.
One thing I’m curious about—will the show ever put Rick and the prisoners back on the road, and on the run? There’s been a measure of stability ever since they found the Greene homestead early in Season Two (There’s an implied time on the road between the farm and the prison, but we barely see it), and though there’s omnipresent danger and all that, I’m missing the raw sense of Season One, when they have to travel the highways and you never really know what’s coming next. Since then, the group has maintained a pretty defensive stance, protecting their home against invaders both living and dead. But I want to see them forced back onto that old dusty trail; I think it would rid the show of some of its current claustrophobia and invite new characters into the mix. The disease is cured, and really, how long can we milk the Governor vs. Rick showdown? It feels like we’ve already been there.
So, as I throw it back one last time, I’m curious what you think about that, and also where you place Martinez’s instant trust of the Governor on the list of all-time stupid Walking Dead character blunders. Is it maybe no. 1, considering what he knew?
I think we may be saying goodbye to the prison soon, no matter who wins the coming war. The fences have long been under stress, and now the opposing team has a big-ass army tank. But I think I’m ready for the road. We’ve got a glimpse of what’s out there these last two weeks, including a mysterious gang of murderers that’s more frightening than the Governor’s ragtag camp (even without a tank). We’ve seen some kind of mudpit in the middle of the road that has walkers buried to their wastes, looking like some weird wriggling mass of garden eels. It’s freaky out there, and it’s time to hit the road.
And I think it’s time for the Governor to get deposed. I agree that struggling-to-be-good Brian would have made for a compelling character for seasons to come, but evil Governor needs an epic sendoff—preferably one that leaves him zombified and stuck in some Sisyphean loop.
As far as the biggest character blunders in all of Walking Dead-dom, Martinez trying to buddy up with the Governor may be the most Darwinian since Hershel decided to keep a barn full of undead friends and neighbors. That Hershel’s move didn’t end up killing him doesn’t really get him off the hook.
We’ve got a battle coming, so I have to say it…
Please don’t die, Daryl Dixon.
Follow Shane Ryan at @ShaneRyanHere and Josh Jackson at @JoshJackson on Twitter.