Achtung… spoilers ahead for those who are not current in your Walking Dead viewing pleasures.
Live Bait, the first of what will apparently be two Governor-centric episodes, will probably be an extremely divisive hour of television. On one hand, you have viewers who disliked the Governor from the get-go last season, or at least believed that his arc was dragged out and unbelievable. These are the viewers who cried foul when he was allowed to live at the end of the third season and had no interest in seeing him return. On the other hand, there are some of us who not only enjoyed the portrayal of The Walking Dead‘s most famous villain by David Morrissey , but have been looking forward to his return, knowing that his story was incomplete and had more to offer.
I would venture a guess that comic readers and those who have read the three Governor novels got more out of this episode than those who only watch the show… but the quality of a show should not be whether or not a person has done their homework, but rather, does it stand on it’s own as an enjoyable and compelling hour of television? In my opinion, Live Bait easily stands on it’s own.
Picking up immediately after the Gov has mowed down his make-shift army in the season three finale, we finally get some answers as to what happened in the aftermath… and ultimately, we get another glimpse at the overriding theme of the season. In the season premiere, 30 Days Without an Accident, Clara asks Rick, “Can you come back?” If the third season was a question of how one can maintain their humanity in an apocalyptic world, the fourth is asking the question of whether or not you can be redeemed after your humanity slips.
We’ve seen Rick return from a temporary insanity thanks to having the responsibility of raising two children, plus having seen a very dark mirror of himself in the guise of Morgan having gone plumb-loco. We’ve seen Carl turn his fortunes around thanks to having the support system of his father and a community who cares for his well being. Carol opted out on coming back and found herself disassociating herself from her past to the point where survival trumped humanity. But the Governor? Who would have expected to see a redemptive story arc for The Walking Dead‘s primary antagonist (second only to the undead)?
Whether or not a redemption is even possible for a man who committed so many atrocities against our band of survivors and his own people seems to be the crux of the argument most critics of the episode are making. For many, all they want from a villain is pure evil with little or no nuance. The notion that someone could fall as far from grace as Philip did, then snap back thanks to a little girl, is stretching credulity to the point of farce.
I see it a bit differently. I believe that Philip Blake was a good man at one point, able to survive the zombie apocalypse thanks to the desire to protect that which he loved, his wife and daughter. I completely subscribe to the idea that everything the Governor did in setting up Woodbury was for Penny’s sake… a hope of bringing a sense of normalcy and community back, and in finding love in Andrea, a potential new family to raise his little girl. Even Milton was employed for the sole purpose of bringing back his daughter. Was he manipulative and opportunistic in how he went about making that happen? Indeed he was. Did he go to far at times and become a wee bit drunk with power? Absolutely… but, much like Carol, I believe his intentions were good… but his actions were inexcusable… much like Carol’s.
Does this mean that I think Philip Blake is redeemed? Hell no… but I like seeing something other than a two dimensional version of a mustache twirling baddie (although, I was hoping to see him with the classic Fu Manchu mustache from the comic… alas), and David Morrissey and the writing team found a way to make me feel and sympathize with a monster. When the Governor wakes up the morning after his massacre to find Martinez and Shumpert have left him… I felt a strange pang of sadness. This is a man who has lost everything. Penny was his reason to continue, his henchman were his means… without either, what is left?
After months of wandering, finding a family in need gives us some insight into how it was that Philip Blake could become the leader of a community. There is obviously an inherent charm in the man, and for all his efforts to isolate himself and to not attach to anyone or anything, his need to help those in need overwhelms any desire he may have for solitude. When he gave the false name of Brian Heriot, a name he took from the scrawled message on the wall earlier in the episode (as well as another reference for those who have read the novels), I couldn’t immediately decide whether or not this was another manipulative lie… but after a while, it becomes clear that erasing his name, much like burning the photo of his family, were an attempt at starting over and allowing his past sins to burn along with his dreams of a happy life before the world turned to shit.
Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed watching his struggle as he meets the Chalmers; Lilly (yet another nod to both the comic and the novels, that may have some very serious implications in a later episode), a new lover; Tara, the fast talking younger sister; David, the dying patriarch; and of course, Megan… the cute little moppet that becomes the Governor’s new reason for survival, something to protect, someone to fill the void in an empty man left behind by the death of his Penny. Seeing his discomfort around Megan when he first arrived was palpable, and again, I found myself feeling for this man… and when David had died, and Tara (or was it Lilly?) mentions that he may have been dead for a while, the look on Morrissey’s face was amazing… he understood what they didn’t, and he did what had to be done, which to anyone who has not been inoculated to the horrors of this world, must have seem both brutal and cruel.
If there was any aspect of this episode that was a bit too unbelievable, it would be this family and how they have survived this long without having ventured outside much. How could they not know that they have to take out the brain? If Tara kept putting bullets into someone’s body and nothing happened, how could she not think to hit the noggin? And why would they admonish their father not to smoke because of the oxygen when there was an open flame right next to him in the lantern?
Other than a few minor complaints, I thought Morrissey’s portrayal of a conflicted man to be tremendous. As he struggled with whether or not to say anything to these people, whether he should help them, and whether to stay or to go… his performance was subtle, yet amazingly effective in getting across the idea that this is not a man who is comfortable with what he has done, but instead, realizes that he is not worth the very life that even his instincts would protect (when he is simply shuffling along and dodges to the right to avoid a walker, who subsequently lands face down in the street, that is pure instinct).
Of course, this wouldn’t be The Walking Dead if we didn’t get some incredibly violent and gory zombie action… and for as much as I liked the zombies in the old folk’s home, and got that perverse thrill at watching him pound an oxygen tank into David’s skull, those can’t compare with the bare handed throw-down that was the pit fight. Charged with protecting Megan, watching Philip Blake take out three zeds with nothing but his hands and a belly full of rage was quite the spectacle. Greg Nicotero has made a career out of coming up with new and creative ways of killing off humans and zombies alike, but using a bone to flip the top of someone’s head up and over was an inspired choice, and one that had me squirming on my couch. Plus, punching through someone’s face? Ugh.
Sadly, for as much as the Governor desires to leave his past behind him, the episode ends with Martinez staring down at him and Megan… and Brian, nee Philip, simply reaffirms his promise to protect her… cross his heart.
With only two more episodes left in this first half of the fourth season, we have many looming unanswered questions and scenarios. We still haven’t reached the point in the Gov’s story that finds him standing outside of the prison, so the next episode will probably have to bridge that time gap… but will we return to the prison next week to finally see what happens when Rick informs everyone, specifically Daryl and Tyreese, that he has banished Carol? Will Michonne and Hershel be in danger since they left the prison right as the Governor was glowering in their direction? Will there be a power struggle as Martinez either allows Philip back into his group, or will he out the Gov for the monster that he is? What will happen when Lilly and Tara discover the truth behind the eye patch? And if anything were to happen to Megan, will he snap again and return to his murderous ways?
Intention is yet another main question begging to be asked. We still don’t know what he was doing outside of the prison… and I have a suspicion that he may be going to Rick and company with a white flag and the desire to find sanctuary for either the Chalmers, or possibly himself. Although, I tend to imagine that he knows there is no chance for him to be seen by those in the prison as anything but a menace to be destroyed… certainly can’t imagine Michonne, Glenn, or Maggie greeting him with open arms… but I could see him, after this episode at least, doing something right by the Chalmers… a final act of redemption, thus answering Clara’s question once and for all. If Philip Blake can come back… anyone can.
I thought you were dead,
Cornelius J. Blahg