So, it turns out the Governor—who is also Brian—wasn’t reformed after all. Last week’s episode was less an attempt to show him breaking good as it was laying groundwork to establish his motives for this week’s series of betrayals. The events of “Dead Weight” don’t exactly redeem the weaker parts of “Live Bait,” but they do contextualize them in a way that makes the whole storyline more effective. The Governor is going to once again be a major villain in the show’s endgame, and in order to re-establish him, the writers took the time to dig deeper into what makes him act the way he does. The resulting arc wasn’t perfectly executed, but there was a clarity of focus which generated strong character development. For the first time in ages, the Governor seems more than just an obstacle our heroes need to destroy. He has an objective, and his decisions make sense with that objective in mind, even as they are clearly the decisions of a disturbed, violent individual. He feels coherent, and while I’m not convinced it was necessary to use two hours to achieve that, I’m grateful for the effort.
Do you like chess metaphors? In case “Live Bait”’s wasn’t enough for you, “Dead Weight” throws one out first thing; it’s a concept that plays like a cliche, but intentionally so. Megan and Brian are playing a game, and Megan’s struggling to make her next move, which leads to some weighted dialogue about needing to move forward and make choices, and oh yeah, Brian’s dad was an abusive dick. The main point isn’t that the episode we’re about to watch unfolds like a chess match, although that’s arguably true; Brian certainly isn’t above sacrificing pieces to achieve what he believes is the greater good. The main point is that this is how Brian sees his life now. He and his small group join up with Martinez’s camp (which seems small initially, until it’s suddenly bigger than the prisoner group), and almost immediately, Brian starts trying to figure out what he needs to do next to protect his new family. Which sounds fine; nearly every character on the show has someone they’re trying to protect. The problem is that, to the Governor’s mind, he’s the only one he can trust to be in command. Megan complains that he never lets her win a game of chess, but to his mind, that’s teaching her a valuable lesson. No one will ever let you win. The only way to survive is to do everything in your power to take care of your own—and to be willing to sacrifice any piece to achieve those ends.
The best parts of “Dead Weight” are when the Governor puts this philosophy into action. The character has always been a comparatively opaque one; as an antagonist, and specifically as an antagonist who was initially ambiguous, he was designed to be unpredictable, someone who could be seemingly kind and trustworthy one moment, and then lash out with horrific violence the next. But somewhere along the way, “ambiguity” turned muddled, and the tension drained away. The character’s opacity, which should’ve made him more of a threat, became tedious. Sooner or later he would do something awful, but that didn’t make him interesting anymore.
Here, though, it works, because we’re given a chance to understand what drives him to kill. It’s surprisingly subtle; after a long hunt in the woods and some friendly chats, Brian makes a seemingly snap decision to murder Martinez in cold blood (all the while chanting, “I don’t want it!”). There’s been little conflict between the two men before this, and while Martinez is clearly uneasy at having the Governor back in his camp, he also believes that his old homicidal boss is a changed man. His belief, in a way, mirrors our own; while intellectually it’s easy to remember all the awful things the Governor did as the leader of the Woodbury community, emotionally, those horrors lose some of their power to shock in the face of the character’s apparent determination to walk the straight and narrow and rebuild his life. He doesn’t deserve to rebuild, but for a while, it looks like he’s on the way to achieving it. But this is all a con; not one that Brian is consciously playing, but that the writers are running on us in order to re-establish exactly what kind of bastard this bastard is. There’s no such thing as a “redeemed” Governor. There’s just a man who is temporarily between tyrannies.
Anyway, about that “seemingly snap decision.” The key moment comes when Brian asks Martinez if Martinez believes he can keep the group safe. Martinez’s actual answer doesn’t really matter much; Brian might tell you it would (if he ever had occasion to justify himself), but the matter is settled as soon as the question is raised, because the question means that the Governor has doubts, and when the Governor has doubts, he feels he has no choice but to take steps. That “I don’t want it!” comes out of nowhere in the scene, but it’s clearly part of an internal argument, and the closest thing Brian can offer in the form of an apology. He doesn’t want this, you see. He doesn’t want to be the leader again, he doesn’t want the responsibility, the power, the stress. But it’s so clear to him that want or not, he’s the only man who can handle the job.
Brian’s desire to protect his new family is decent and good, but it’s also what drives him to be an evil man. This is something we’ve seen on the show before—the way this new world forces people into situations where they have to make impossible moral choices to survive—but “Dead Weight” follows the reasoning that can drive someone to go too far in a careful, thoughtful way. At first, Martinez’s death is a shock, but once the shock wears off, it snaps everything into focus. Nearly everything that follows, from the Governor’s decision to kill good ole Pete (Enver Gjokaj, once again doing a guest spot that doesn’t live up to his talents; great to see him, though) to his rise to group leader to the truck ride that takes him just outside the prison, comes from that that murder. But really, it was all inevitable from the moment Martinez saw Brian in that pit and threw him a rope to let him climb out.
The major flaw of this two-parter is that, as told, there really isn’t enough story to justify spending two episodes on it. It’s not hard to understand why the writers wanted to: by giving Brian a full hour in “Live Bait” to get to know Lily, Megan, and Tara, they had a chance to get inside his head in a way that made his actions in the following episode more powerful. It was a daring slow burn, and on a show that so often stumbles when it comes to writing scenarios more complicated than “Fuck! Run!”, this is impressive, and hopefully we’ll see more like this in the future. But that still doesn’t make “Live Bait” a complete success. It dragged in places, and the amount of time invested in building to the events of “Dead Weight” wasn’t entirely justified by the results. And even “Dead Weight” had sluggish spots. In particular, Brian’s sudden decision to try and get his family out of the camp after he kills Martinez and realizes the new leaders might not be so friendly (and that he might have to kill again) is a pointless plot cul-de-sac; it’s arguably there to reinforce Brian’s feeling that he’s trapped, but it’s not necessary, and even the neat visual of a muddy road full of zombies doesn’t really redeem it.
Still, this was one of the highlights of the season so far, and goes a good distance towards helping to shore up some of the questionable aspects of the Governor’s character. By forcing us to piece together his motives, the writers have succeeded in making the man more than just a vague collection of potential threats. He now has a very clear purpose, and woe betide anyone he decides is in his way. Early in the episode, Martinez tells him and the others that he won’t allow any “dead weight” in his group. It sounds like a threat, but turns out to be hollow; Martinez is a decent enough, and it’s hard to imagine him stabbing anyone in the back who failed to live up to standards. The Governor, though? To the Governor, everyone is weight. It’s just that some of them aren’t dead yet.
- Pete, who refuses to attack another group and steal their supplies, gets shanked; his dickish brother Mitch (Kirk Acevedo) does not. It’s a decent fake-out that underlines exactly what the Governor’s priorities are, and also means we’ll be seeing Acevedo again in the weeks ahead. Between this and Person Of Interest, he’s getting around.
- About that crisis of conscience in the woods: Pete, Brian, and Mitch find a group of campers, Pete decides to leave them alone; they go hunting; when they come back, the group has been wiped out by zombies. The point is to give the Governor a reason to want Pete dead, but it stretches plausibility to have all of this happen so quickly. The whole scenario is too clearly contrived to set up later developments, which makes it less effective.
- As ever, the writers’ ability to tell short, visual stories about one-off characters remains strong. The discovery of the headless soldiers (with signs hanging off them like “LIAR”) suggests without ever making the details clear.
- Tara has found a girlfriend. Her name is Alicia.
- The episode ends with the Governor pointing his gun at Michonne. I think he’s totally going to shoot her!