Wow. After talking last week about themes of exile, isolation, and finding meaning through community, who'd have thought that those would be the exact thematic markers for the story of the Governor (David Morrissey)? I honestly thought that we'd be going in a more over-the-top direction given that the last time we saw him he had just machine-gunned nearly his entire "army" down and driven off with the only two survivors — you know, the two guys who kept their mouths shut and didn't question him.
This time out, instead of playing psycho henchmen, they wisely ditch the shell-shocked madman the first chance they get; which is another win for realistic reactions winning out over the more-common-in-previous-seasons' "doing something stupid because the story demands it" approach to storytelling.
I mean, seriously, that crazy bit of mass murder that closed Season Three (as well as moving all the Woodbury survivors to the prison) was extremely unnecessary and seemed to have been written by exiting showrunner Glen Mazzara almost as a way of thumbing his nose at the incoming crew. I'm sure that's not what really happened, but it played that way, as though he was setting up a nearly unworkable new scenario that Scott Gimple would have to wrangle into something manageable.
Well, he did it.
The script for "Live Bait" is by Nichole Beattie, a veteran writer for two shows I absolutely loved (the criminally underappreciated John from Cincinnati, and the equally underappreciated Rubicon), and embraces this season's move toward quiet internalized performances. The Governor has had a mental break after killing almost everyone around him, and once he's abandoned by his surviving henchmen (more on them later), he begins to just wander the countryside – but not before returning to Woodbury and burning it all to the ground in one of the most gloriously beautiful shots of the season.
That is paired with a heartbreaking shot of the Governor stopping to take in a building that was used to leave spray-painted messages for lost family members — where the survivors were going, who was still alive, who had died, etc. During these sequences, which cover a two month period of his near-catatonic travels, we also get a powerful voice-over, as he tells a woman he has encountered that he used to live in a safe place "full of good people" until the man in charge "lost it" and he "barely got out alive."
His first real interaction with people occurs when he sees a little girl watching him from an abandoned apartment building. He enters and is confronted by a gun-toting pair of sisters, Tara (Alanna Masterson) and Lilly (Audrey Marie Anderson), the little girl Meghan (Meyrick Murphy), and their cancer-riddled father/grandfather David (Danny Vinson). Intending to move on after a night, the Governor, using the name Brian Heriot — a name from that message wall earlier — finds himself drawn to helping the family and being drawn from his psychosis by Meghan, who becomes his surrogate daughter.
It was a bold choice to actually take this character who had become a cartoonish exaggeration by the end of last season and attempt to humanize him in this way. It's probably going to rub a lot of viewers the wrong way, but I loved it. One of the fundamental questions we're seeing asked this season is how far can you go and still be redeemed? As we see by his actions at the conclusion of the episode, he's still capable of brutal violence when necessary, but with a new family to protect, his motivations are clear and we get to see the Governor before he had the pressures of an entire city to protect, before the madness, before he kept his zombie daughter in a secret room full of zombie heads.
That man is still in there, but Morrissey gives a virtuoso performance struggling to repress the horrible things he'd done while trying to recreate himself as a new man. But this is The Walking Dead, and the answer may just ultimately be, you don't get to come back from things you've done. Even at best, you simply can't avoid them. The final moments make this plain, as the Governor and Meghan fall into a man-made walker pit. He puts down the walkers with his bare hands, swearing to never let anything happen to the little girl, only to look up and see former henchman Caesar Martinez (Jose Pablo Cantillo) looking down at them.
He is literally face to face with the horrors of his past and with only two episodes left before the mid-season break, we can only expect bad things to happen because of it.
It's really amazing that after just one episode back, I'm fully engaged with the Governor again as a sympathetic character in search of redemption. That's good writing and excellent acting right there.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor/editor for Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available at Amazon US & UK, along with his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation (US & UK). He recently co
ntributed the 1989 chapter to The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s (US & UK) and has kicked off Comics Bulletin Books with Mondo Marvel Volumes One (US & UK) and Two (US & UK). Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy.