The last time we saw the Governor, he was mowing down a group of his former supporters with a machine gun. After a season full of vacillations, this appeared to be the final, no turning back line for the character; he’d been a monster and a killer before, but killing his own when they were defenseless, for no other reason than they’d pissed him off, was the sort of moment you can’t rationalize. There was no justification for it, no “Well, sure, that looked awful, but from another point of view, maybe?” to balance things out. (The Governor threatening Maggie with sexual violence was horrific, but at least he was theoretically trying to break her for information to help his town; the finale had him going from vile leader to just vile.) It would’ve been a perfectly good time for him to die. The Governor has never worked as a character, because the writers could never pick one approach and stick with it; in the comic, he’s blatantly psychotic, and there were moments of that on the show, but there was no consistency to him. A villain with complicated motivations is fine. A villain who is sometimes crazy, sometimes not, and who lacks a strong motivating agenda, is not so fine. Maybe someone like Michael Emerson could’ve made this work, but as is, the guy is too empty and random to be frightening or believable.
Which is a damn shame, because The Walking Dead could use a good antagonist. When the Governor made his brief appearance at the end of last week’s episode, I was almost happy to see him; the plague storyline had worked out okay, especially with Herschel’s big push at the end, but it was time to move on, and an outside threat would help keep the show from stagnating into yet another series of circular arguments. (This week stays away from the prison, meaning we’re going to have to wait at least one more week for Rick’s confrontation with Daryl re: Carol. I’m sure it will be very exciting.) There’s a definite Charlie-Brown-sees-Lucy-with-the-football quality to this happiness, as it would be surprising for the writers to take a figure as deeply problematic as the Governor is and turn him into something useful, but I’m an optimist. And who knows. The character work this season has been decent, and without Woodbury or Andrea, the Governor could easily be reduced to just an asshole who wants to get revenge. That’s pretty easy to pull off!
And yet. ”Live Bait” ends before the Governor’s back story has caught up with that shot of him in “Internment,” but the fuck-up train seems well under way. To give everyone involved credit, this new version of the character (who introduces himself as “Brian” to the small group of survivors he meets and befriends) is at least more focused than the last one. His trip from silent, unconvincingly bearded loner to the father figure he clearly desperately wants to be is slow, patient, and, provided you can forget everything we’ve seen of him in the past, basically convincing. The arc of the story is a Road Warrior-type journey from self-loathing isolation to human connection, and while it doesn’t always make for the most gripping viewing, it has its moments. By shifting focus onto a different protagonist and isolating that protagonist from any regular member of the cast, the episode feels like a short horror movie, something you might rent for the hell of it, and be okay with, if not hugely impressed.
But what do we make of this? It’s impossible to disregard the Governor’s past; the show even goes out of its way to make sure we remember it, catching up with the character mere moments after he slaughtered all those (relative) innocents. The events that follow depend on us having vested interest in what happens to him. The entire episode is from his perspective, and he spends so much of it silent and glowering that his growing connection with Lily, Tara, and Megan (and the soon to be dead Dad) has a weird emptiness to it. If this was a different character, if his history wasn’t riddled with self-created corpses and betrayal, or if his actions had been slightly less heinous, then it would be possible to take all of this on the most obvious level: a redemption arc for people who desperately need each other. As is, the Governor is such a blank slate—a blank slate who occasionally lashes out with murderous intent—that it’s hard to know how to read anything that happens, which makes it hard to really connect with any of it.
Ambiguity can be cool, no question; I think I’ve mentioned before how the show could use more complexity in its character motivations. But “Live Bait” is an hour that is almost impossible to judge before we see where all of this is going. In theory, there could be tension here in wondering when the Governor will snap again and betray this new group of people who’ve come to depend on him. That’s not a fun watch, but it at least would make sense from what’s come before; this is not a well man, and however much he might want to move on from his past, his obsessions and anger aren’t just going to go away because he has a new family to fixate on. The end of the hour has the Governor running into one of the men who abandoned him at the start of the episode, someone who knows his past from Woodbury, and we already know that somehow or other, the Governor (should I just call him “Brian” now?) is going to wind up outside the prison. Whatever happens between then and now will give us a better sense of just what the hell the writers are planning.
I’d have more faith if there was any sign that we were supposed to view the Governor’s behavior in this episode as anything but the obvious. He burns down the town he built, he wanders around despondent, he finds some new friends, and he earns their trust by helping them. There’s no sense of ulterior motive, no creepy moments in which we’re reminded just how untrustworthy this person is. His scenes with the little girl are actually quite touching and sweet, and if they’d happened to anyone else, they would’ve been effective; as is, they’re still effective, but in a way it’s hard not to fight against. Are the writers trying to reset the character? Are they indicating that his need to rebuild a family is going to push his worst instincts to the side until circumstances break his mind again? Dunno.
This version of the Governor is willing to deal with the walker threat head on; unlike his past self, when he thought the monsters could be saved and kept his dead daughter in a closet (a fact he refers to obliquely when talking with Megan), this new guy understands the danger, far more so than Lily and the others do. The scene where he beats their zombified father to death while they watch, horrified, is a decent reminder of what a survivor might look like to people who still don’t realize the ramifications of this new world. (It also makes you wonder how that group managed to survive so long; this seems like a family you’d discover a few months after society collapsed, not a year or two on.) So at least the Governor is more practical now. That still doesn’t make him someone who’s likable or interesting enough to build a story around.
After a season mostly comprised of slow, laborious attempts to strengthen character, “Live Bait” is something of a curveball: an episode that doesn’t give any major clues to its intentions. That makes it hard to judge. The ending seems to suggest bad times a’coming; it’s hard to know what kind of bad times would make all of this make sense, though. Are we supposed to care that the Governor is trying to be a good person again? I hope not. Will we be appalled and saddened when his attempts to reconnect with others are destroyed by his past actions? Maybe, I guess. I respect ambition, and there’s ambition here; the show’s best episode to date (“Clear”) succeeded in part because it focused on a single chain of events that were separate from the main action, and “Live Bait” plays a similar trick. But where “Clear” had Lennie James, a great actor who was playing someone with a compelling history, “Live Bait” has some okay folks who having nothing much to do with anything. If Carol had been the one to run into them, the scenario would’ve played out roughly the same (although Lily probably wouldn’t have hooked up with her), and would’ve been 10 times more interesting. As is, it’s different, but I’m not sure that’s enough.
- So Tara’s a lesbian. Is this the first openly gay character we’ve had on the show? Surely not, but I can’t remember any others.
- One of the big problems with the Governor’s decision to try and be a good guy again is that we never really get a believable transition between last season’s massacre and his Outsider With A Heart Of Gold act. Yes, he stares mournfully at the fire for a while, and he lets himself go considerably before finding the family, but his entire emotional progression is internalized to the point where it doesn’t really exist. Rick’s wavering between farming and shooting may not have been the most fascinating struggle, but at least he’s easy to parse out. The Governor is too opaque, so nearly every dramatic moment in the episode falls flat.
- Chess metaphors!
- “I’m never gonna let anything happen to you,” the Governor tells Megan, which is definitely not going to be a sentence he ever regrets saying.