“You can lose a lot of soldiers but still win the game.”
If, like a number of people I know, you found last week’s rushed conclusion to the epidemic storyline rather a mixed bag of an episode, this week’s Walking Dead offered something completely different. And, I think, rather more interesting.
The show’s established enough that it can take risks with the occasional out of format ep, as we’ve seen already – stories that take a select few of the major characters out of the usual setting, like Internment a couple of weeks ago, or last season’s Clear. But this is the first time they’ve done a show with none of the usual settings and only one main character – and that one being the villain.
Or is he? Certainly last year, David Morrissey’s compelling portrayal of the Governor made for a more nuanced character than the definitive baddie of the comics. Nonetheless, he was still definitely the villain – then. This ep, told in flashback and entirely from the Governor’s perspective, showed a very different figure to the confident, psychotic politician of last year; a weary, broken man retreating from humanity altogether.
Picking up exactly where we last saw him, the ep followed the aftermath of the Governor’s massacre of Woodbury’s army, as he fled the scene with his remaining loyal henchmen Martinez and Shumpert. Barely even reacting when a Walker shambled into his fire to be shot by Martinez, the Governor awoke the next day to find that not even those two had confidence in him any more – they’d buggered off overnight.
There were some nice nods to continuity as the Governor returned to Woodbury in a huge truck – the one that, last season, he massacred a squad of National Guardsmen next to. And we got an unequivocal reason for the usual bunch not to return to Woodbury (not that Rick could feasibly know this) – the Governor’s burned it down.
That was a mixed bag of a set piece. The truck smashing through the gates, Morrissey standing grim-faced in front of the inferno that used to be his house – those were impressive images. The epic long shot of the town burning as Walkers shambled through its streets was rather less successful, mostly because of some very obvious CG fire fakery.
Still, it served to establish that the Governor has severed all ties with his former life. We saw him shambling, Walker-like, through abandoned towns, the passage of time indicated by him sporting one of the least convincing fake beards I’ve ever seen beneath his increasingly shaggy mop of hair. He was getting so far removed from humanity that, when he stumbled and fell, the passing Walker didn’t even give him a second glance. Interestingly, all this made him far more closely resemble the original version from the comics.
Not for the first time this season, there was something of the air of a classic Western to the ep, with the Governor taking the role of mysterious, taciturn stranger who wanders into town and eventually, unwillingly, takes on the role of hero. That trope was set in motion when his wanderings led him to encounter a little girl who reminded him of his beloved and twice-deceased daughter, along with her family who had improbably been holed up in their apartment since the apocalypse began.
That four people had survived this long without starving, or catching the attention of the Walkers (several of whom seemed to be roaming the apartment building outside their door) seemed hard to believe. There was the explanation that the two sisters’ ailing dad had a huge supply of food in his delivery truck just outside; still, it seemed implausible that it should have been full of enough longlife canned goods to support four people for a year or so. And given the Walkers’ tendency to flock towards the slightest indication of warm brunch, it seemed odd that the fierce Lily could shoot them just outside the apartment, ignorant of the need for headshots, and still not have a herd of them bashing on the door.
Your mileage may vary as to how much of that you buy into. Still, its very implausibility seemed to heighten the rather dreamlike atmosphere that suffused the ep, something the show often has in its unfamiliar, post-apocalyptic setting. For a long portion of the ep, I wasn’t sure whether the family warily offering shelter to this shadow of a man weren’t a product of the Governor’s fevered imagination, much like the ghostly apparitions of Lori that plagued Rick last year. In point of fact, I’m still not all that sure if they’re real – we’ve yet to reach the point where we saw the Governor gazing enigmatically at the prison last week.
As so much of this ep was about the Governor rebuilding his identity, able to remake himself anew among people who knew nothing of his past misdeeds, the question occurred to me – what should we call him? After all, he’s hardly “governing” anything any more, is he?
Last year, we established that his actual name (as in the comics) was Philip Blake; this week, identifying himself to the suspicious Lily, he offered the name ‘Brian’ – a name he’d seen scrawled on a wall during his travels. Interestingly, prequel novel Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor reveals that, in the comics, his real name was Brian – Philip was his deceased brother, whose identity he’d assumed. A continuity nod, or a shadow of things to come? For the audience though, I suspect he’ll always be ‘the Governor’, regardless of his name; much like Doctor Who’s ‘the Master’, who doesn’t actually seem to be in charge of anything.
So, as with the classic Western formula, we saw the Governor haunted by his past, as represented by the fraying family photo which he portentously folded the corner of to obscure himself from his wife and daughter. And again like in a Western, he reluctantly formed new bonds with his suspicious allies – most notably with little Megan, so reminiscent of his own daughter that it felt a little pat.
As ever though, Morrissey’s intense portrayal sold the material even when it felt hackneyed. Gradually developing from speaking in terse, monosyllabic utterances to full sentences, he (thankfully) shed the beard and cut his hair as he approached something like civilisation again. By the end, he was even going on the kind of dangerous supply-gathering mission usually reserved for Daryl, in search of an oxygen tank for the sisters’ cancer-stricken father.
And when said father did actually die despite his efforts, the Governor took on the responsibility of despatching him as he reanimated to try and chow down on his unsuspecting family. Lucky those oxygen tanks are such useful blunt instruments.
It also served to make you wonder whether he’s abandoned the hopeful delusion that the Walkers could be brought back as they were, his motivation for protecting his undead daughter back in Woodbury. Last year, his thirst for revenge was directed primarily at Michonne, for finally putting Penny down; now he accepts that there’s no coming back from ‘undeath’, could he be putting that behind him? With a new ‘family’ to look after (and in one case sleep with) has the Governor become a reformed character?
It certainly seemed so. But the script – and David Morrissey’s performance – kept you guessing. The scene when he first bonded with little Megan was fraught with ambiguity as he related in child-friendly terms how he came to lose his eye. Later, the chess game was particularly revealing as he instructed Megan: “that’s the King. That’s the guy you wanna capture.” Perhaps Rick should be worried.
Gore of the week
Less than usual in this character-driven episode. In keeping with the slightly hallucinatory feel of the ep, many of the zombies we did encounter seemed to have an air of tragedy about them, their sad backstories revealed in little visual cues. The ex-cop, his prosthetic legs removed, writhing in the bathtub, unable to get out, his gun still clutched in his hand; the elderly lady in her wheelchair, her legs too useless to shamble after the tempting taste treat that was the Governor.
It was, in fact, the first time since season one that the show has acknowledged that these shambling pathetic figures actually used to be people, with lives tragically cut short. It’s rare for The Walking Dead to give any of its zombies much of an identity; when it does, it’s usually to make a point, though I’m not sure what that was meant to be.
Proper gore wasn’t entirely absent though. The oxygen tank/head pulping interface was gruesome enough to put little Megan off the Governor until he started repeatedly saving her life:
And said life-saving, later, was pretty gory too. Running from a group of Walkers clustered around a sign saying ‘Live Bait’ (clever), the Governor and Megan found themselves falling into Woodbury’s old Walker pit. Its till had some burned remains in it – and some new arrivals, which the Governor, protective of his new ‘daughter’ literally tore apart with his bare hands.
This was a slow-moving but thoughtful ep – a trait that seems common this year, as the show explores its characters a bit more than it used to. Last week, the balance between character drama and action seemed a little uneven, the story structure a little off; here it worked much better, with the occasional burst of action seeming to perfectly punctuate the story.
It helped that it focused on such a charismatic character. He may have begun as a villain, but the Governor has now outlived his more straightforwardly nasty comics counterpart, so all bets are off as to where his character goes from here. With the reappearance of Martinez, and still some distance to go before he reaches the prison, I’m guessing that next week will bring us some more of this interesting side plot that’s a welcome diversion from the gang at the prison.