Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review The Walking Dead each week in a series of letters.
That was very nearly a great episode of The Walking Dead. And when I say “great,” I’m using it in a snobby way I reserve for actual Artistic-with-a-capital-A television shows that reach the upper echelon. As much fun as The Walking Dead can be, it never quite touches those rarefied heights, what with the bulky metaphors and stilted dialogue and the inescapable bad acting. So the fact that “Live Bait” came close, at least in my opinion? That’s about as strong a backhanded compliment as I can give.
The first thing want to commend is the simple choice to focus on the Governor, or “Brian Heriot” as he’s calling himself after seeing the name spray-painted on the side of a building. It’s always unconventional to stray from the back-and-forth style of most shows, where you jump from one story to another several times within an episode, and it’s starting to look like Season Four is going to be split into three acts. First, the fight against the flu. Second, the adventures of the Governor since his meltdown. Third, the Governor returns. If I had to guess, I bet we won’t even see Rick and company until about Episode 11, but even if things only last for another episode, it takes real confidence for a show to make a huge departure that way.
Credit where it’s due—you know how much I love the Governor, and the only reason The Walking Dead can afford to leave the prison without losing momentum is because David Morrissey has created a character so dynamic and compelling that he can carry a few episodes on his own without a hitch. “Live Bait” was a pretty blatant attempt to humanize the character, and I don’t know about you, Josh, but I fell for it hook, line and sinker.
First of all, I could watch Morrissey stagger around the post-apocalyptic landscape for hours without getting bored. The unkempt, bearded Governor cut quite a figure, and you got the sense that only some internal life force that can’t quite be extinguished kept him going, while the conscious part of his brain wouldn’t have been too upset to welcome death. I think you mentioned last week that The Walking Dead is starting to really hit it out of the park with its music, and Ben Nichols’ The Last Pale Light in the West was the perfect choice for the Governor’s post-spree comedown. It shouldn’t have been a poignant moment when he realized his last henchmen had left him overnight, but the music and cinematography made it work. And then his slow death began.
But he was rescued by chance at the literal moment of collapse, and what followed may have been a bit hackneyed—slowly rediscovering his purpose by way of a replacement daughter—but it didn’t end up feeling too overwrought. (Also, I’m not a Rick-hater like some people out there, but I have to admit that Morrissey’s turn as the damaged, silent type carried a weight that Andrew Lincoln has never really found.)
The restoration of the Governor is a weighty topic, because it goes against what I expected. Redeeming a character so flawed felt a little above The Walking Dead’s pay scale, and I thought he’d resurface badder than ever, the stereotypical villain writ large. To shine a light on his humanity instead was risky business for a show that doesn’t make a habit of going too deep, but it worked. And let’s take a moment to recognize something pretty astonishing—after making a killing in the ratings and having every incentive to basically coast, somehow The Walking Dead came out swinging with what I consider its best season yet, with every gamble (invisible disease as the enemy? Humanizing the Governor?) reaping huge rewards. I expected some wheel-spinning, but instead the show has outdone itself with each new episode.
If anything, I was disappointed that the Governor’s Brian Heriot days came to an end so soon. The Walking Dead is full of Lazarus men, and the interesting thing about its world is that like in pioneer days, there are endless chances for reinvention. I wanted to see what he could make of himself with a fresh start, but unfortunately the redemption theme ran headfirst into the “the past is never dead, it’s not even past” brick wall. The metaphor couldn’t be any clearer; he literally fell into the pit he dug.
Now he’s back in the hell he created, even if it is with his own cronies. You can feel how this will unravel; the men will want the new women, there will be tension, and at some point his new family will learn about his violent past. And the Governor, more than likely, will have to become himself again. Two Fitzgerald quotes come to mind, about boats beating against the current and the frailty of second acts in American lives, and despite his best efforts, the Governor’s sins have probably been too great to hope for forgiveness on earth.
But even if the spark of goodness only lasted an episode, Josh, I have to say it was almost great to watch. And maybe I should feel a little guilty about buying the redemption angle too easily. If that’s the case, I’ll kick it back to you as I slowly fold my picture (the one of us, from that time we got our portraits taken at Wal-mart) to hide my face completely.
Don’t light that photo of us on fire just yet, because I’m fully with you on this one. More than any other character on the show, the Governor’s complexity has been fully fleshed out. You see it most clearly as he recounts the story of losing his eye. All of his efforts at Woodbury—the experiments, the brutality to outsiders—were a (psychopathic) way to protect his daughter and hopefully, one day, bring her back from her zombie state. Okay, maybe not the zombie heads in the tank—I still don’t know what that was about. But when Michonne put that sword through her head, he snapped and had no purpose except revenge. When that failed, he just wanted to erase everything from his past, starting with those who put their faith in him. Once he burned Woodbury, he was little different from the Walkers himself.
And yes, getting shaken out of his stupor by a young girl who was abandoned by her own father—and initially mistook the Governor’s arrival for his return—may have been a little heavy-handed, but it wasn’t particularly far-fetched. (Also a great Zombie Apocalypse Survival Tip: Steal a food truck.) So the humanity has always been there.
Last week I was begging for an all-Governor episode, and this was so satisfying. In one episode, he went from villain to the kind of anti-hero who makes Dexter, Tony Soprano and Walter White all look well-adjusted. But when he pinky swears, or at least crosses his heart, to Megan that he won’t let anything happen to her, it’s hard not to put aside those pesky mass-murdery, tortury flaws for a minute and hope he makes it out of that grave alive. Not because he’s now “the good guy,” not even just because television, as you so beautifully put it in your pro-Governor essay is “a safe place to let our dark impulses run free.” At least speaking for myself, I’m pulling for the Governor, as he now must protect his newly adopted family from both zombies and the return of his only-slightly-less-evil henchmen, because I love to see well-earned redemption on television. Not hokey, “bad guy sees the errors of his ways” kind of redemption, but seeing the cracks in everything, as Leonard Cohen put it, “how the light gets in.”
Even before making any real connection with Megan’s family, he couldn’t bear to look at himself in that photo of his own family. He couldn’t bear to give his own name to them or accept a gift of food. The self-loathing was already there. He gets the chessboard because, why not? He gets the oxygen tanks because, why not? But those acts are selfless and sometimes it takes going through the motions to regain any sort of moral muscle memory. He warns Melody that you need to shoot Walkers in the head. He steps in to protect Tara from her undead father. He even stops by to say goodbye. These are small steps but human ones, and—thanks to a well-written script and David Morrissey’s acting chops—it was kind of beautiful to watch.
So yes, along with the pilot and maybe “Clear” from last season, this was pretty close to Great Television. We agree there, but what do you think of the new characters? And when we see the Governor outside the prison, has he snapped again because he’s lost more people he cares about? I predict he’s dropping off Megan at a place she’ll be safe, while Melody and Tara are toast. Sorry if that turns out to be a spoiler, but that’s certainly how I’d write it.
Before I get to prognosticating, I want to touch real fast on two of this episode’s great (no qualifiers here) moments that you alluded to. The first was the Governor’s pirate story to Megan, which was a lot more than just a funny thing to say to a little kid. The laugh that came out of him after that moment felt really powerful to me, because it felt like the beginning of the recovery process; the moral muscle memory, and the light shining through the cracks. It was the first real risk he took, and the first time he let himself be something other than the remnants of a monster.
The second moment, which felt even more powerful, came when he said goodbye. Again, a seemingly simple act, but by the way he debated with himself about whether to knock on the door, you could tell the decision was far more complex. By saying goodbye, he was really choosing to stay with them, and to take them into his life. Who knows if that’s what he was thinking at the exact moment, but knocking on that door was a choice to stay human, and I thought Morrissey did an excellent job conveying the weight.
You also mentioned the zombie heads in the tank, and I think that’s a great example of another element that’s worth discussion, which is the divergence of the TV show from the graphic novel. I haven’t read the comic version, but I’m really, really happy that the show isn’t following them step by step. There’s a weird kind of freedom in comics to make people debased and psychopathic beyond what might be realistic, and at the risk of sounding like a snob, I don’t always think the medium does a great job of exploring the gray area in humanity. Which is probably fine, because comics are what they are. But I think by at least exploring the humanity inside the Governor (i.e. backing away from the two-dimensional weirdo-villain who kept heads in a jar and actually delving into his motivations), the show is making the better and more interesting choice. I think most fans of books that are turned in to movies or TV shows get upset when the screen version diverges wildly from the text, and I’ve been guilty of that myself, but I think The Walking Dead has earned an exception.
(Side note, apropos of nothing: How friggin’ cool was the shot of Woodbury burning? Even in the depths of self-hatred, the Governor is a badass.)
So, let’s play a little Good Job, Bad Job to round out email no. 2.
Good Job: Well done making Tara a lesbian, writers. Takes away any potential for jealousy or messy love triangles. The funny thing was that you could tell they probably had this exact discussion, because the big “reveal” was in a piece of throwaway dialogue near the end that was clearly shoehorned in to resolve that lingering question. Here’s how I think it went down.
Writer 1: “Oh, crap, what do we do about the Governor having to choose one sister without pissing off the other one?”
Writer 2, joking: “Let’s make her a lesbian.”
Everyone laughs, an hour passes without a better idea.
Writer 1: “Okay, so Tara’s a lesbian…”
Bad Job: Don’t have sex next to your sister and child, Melody. I’m giving her the blame here because it wasn’t the Governor’s family, and also he hesitated, and even raised an eyebrow, before getting the nod of approval. Then again, it’s slim pickings in the zombie apocalypse, so I should probably give them both a pass.
Good Job: To the Governor scraping the Spaghetti O’s out the window to save Melody’s feelings. She doesn’t understand your self-loathing, and she’ll think she’s a bad cook!
Bad Job: Hey Governor, here’s what should have happened a day or two before the father died. You should have pulled Tara and Melody aside, and been like, “Hey, I’m not sure if you know this, and I’m sorry in advance, but when people die they become zombies even if they were never bitten. So, let’s maybe have a contingency plan. Otherwise I might have to bash your father’s head in with a fire extinguisher while your daughter looks on, and look, I’m no shrink, but that may be traumatizing.”
Back at you with a question: It’s driving me crazy, but who did the Governor look like in his apocalypse beard phase? I can’t tell if it’s reminding me of some indie rocker or an indie-rock-looking actor, but I need to pinpoint this before we’re through or I’ll go crazy.
I’m not sure who he exactly looked like, but it was sort of a cross between Will Oldham and Crazy Joaquin Phoenix.
By the way, this was a rough episode for anyone who suffers from gerontophobia (the fear of old people). That nursing home was pretty creepy. And as much as I’m pulling for the Governor, I have to say that I wouldn’t have minded him getting bit in the ankle by the woman in the wheelchair. She may be my favorite zombie. Let’s at least get her some rats.
And I’m okay if you just want to refer to Brian as The Pirate from now on. That was indeed a wonderful moment when he surprises himself with a joke and a laugh. I don’t recall another TV show that used pathetic attempts at humor so well. But up until then, he hasn’t had to confront the truth of what happened that day. There are two steps to finding that sliver of humanity. The first is the shame he lives with on his sullen journey. The second is remembering that there were people worth fighting for. Maybe this time he finds a better way to fight.
By the way, the Governor certainly has more depth in the TV version than in the comics. But I’m reading through Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman right now if you want to find a comic that does do a great job in exploring the gray area of humanity.
I can’t find fault in your good job/bad job logic, but I still want to hear your prognosticating.
Okay, time to put on the prognostication hat. 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 men will have their eyes on the gals, and they will resent that one is taken and the other isn’t playing on their team. This will lead to tension, and I think you’re right that either Tara or Melody is going down. And 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.
What remains to be seen (assuming any of that is right, of course), is whether he drops her off, or gives himself up to the mercy of their justice as some final act of attempted redemption. Either way, it’s going to be insanely interesting.
You asked before what I think of the new characters, and my answer is, eh, they’re fine. But right now they seem like touchstones for the Governor’s spiritual and physical journey, and my immediate take is that none of them are dynamic enough to overcome that sort of support role. But who knows?
Another thing we should talk about: Will Carol and the Governor team up at some point? Could he tolerate her? If the Gov had run into Carol instead of Tara/Melody/Megan, would it just have turned him more evil? Or would he not have gotten up from the ground, choosing the “might as well just starve” route. If anything, he could teach Carol a thing or two about winning at all costs. She’s like Governor-lite at this point.
I’ll kick it back your way for final thoughts, and leave you with this question: Give me the five most unlikely romantic couplings between adults on The Walking Dead.
One final hats off to the writers for completely subverting the expectations that were set up with the end of last week’s episode when we saw the Governor watching Rick. That was Grade A misdirection before revealing something so much more interesting.
As for next week, remember that Tara has a gimpy leg and she’s not interested in boys—two things that are going to make her particularly unpopular with the Henchmen. Things are going to come to a head pretty quickly, I imagine.
Carol is definitely the wild card. She’s a survivor with no real direction when she’s exiled. But she’s not evil. I really hope she didn’t end up with the Henchmen. But I think we’ll see her again soon.
As far as least likely pairings, I think that’s pretty easy. They all look like this:
5. Tara and The Governor
4. Sasha and The Governor
3. Beth and The Governor
2. Michonne and The Governor
1. Maggie and The Governor
...though he does look pretty good with that beard.
Please don’t die, Governor.
Follow Shane Ryan at @ShaneRyanHere and Josh Jackson at @JoshJackson on Twitter.