Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Walking Dead 4.06: Live Bait

Welcome back to our weekly recaps of “The Walking Dead” with your host, the inimitable Nikki Stafford, and her long-haired, true-bearded, two-eyed sidekick Josh Winstead. Grab a pepperoni stick and settle in, folks. This is a weird one.

Joshua: Let me say this right up front: Philip Blake is not a nice guy. Not at all. Look, even horrid savage lunatics do nice things sometimes. Saddam Hussein penned romance novels. Charles Manson writes silly love songs on the guitar. Maybe Adolph Hitler baked awesome chocolate chip cookies; I don't know. What I do know is that small acts of kindness do not negate torture and mass murder. Playing on our sympathies is one thing, but if the writers are attempting to redeem The Governor and his multifold transgressions with this new take on the character, here's one guy who ain't buying.

This week's episode temporarily abandons the prison storyline to instead pick up right where we last left the aforementioned patch-wearing sociopath in season three's finale, immediately following the coldblooded slaughter of all but two of his own troops in a snarling frenzy reminiscent of nothing more than a six-year-old's temper tantrum, provided you replace the petulant screaming and stomping with a hail of bullets. We are then treated to a lengthy montage of then-to-now, beginning with The Governor's abandonment by those last two men (no surprise there) and progressing through his destruction of Woodbury by fire and the subsequent months he spent wandering alone through the apocalyptic landscape, sidestepping conflict and cultivating the worst tv beard since Jack Shephard's season 4 special. As the sequence plays, it is accompanied by voiceover of a conversation between Philip and an unknown female as he selectively recounts his story, certain to gloss over pertinent details like “...then I bit off several of his fingers and spat them in his face...” or “...then I bound and tortured my girlfriend, stabbed my most faithful assistant several times, and left them both to die...” and the like, careful to make it all sound like such a terrible, typical tragedy.

Also accompanying the montage is Ben Nichols' song “The Last Pale Light in the West,” a melancholy acoustic number inspired by Cormac McCarthy's horror novel Blood Meridian. I call it a horror novel not because it fits the typical description of the genre or because that's where you'd find shelved it in your local library, but because it might be the single most horrific thing I've ever read, a relentless catalog of brutality in which every character is a vile, reprehensible beast and the primary antagonist is basically a physical manifestation of mankind's tendency toward war.

I don't think the choice was incidental, particularly in light of the later discussion between “Brian” and young Meghan as he prepares to teach her to play chess. She picks up a pawn and inquires about its function.

“They're your soldiers,” he says.

“Do they die?”


“Do you lose if they die?”

“No, not necessarily,” he tells her. “You can lose a lot of soldiers and still win the game.”

We as viewers are certainly not meant to forget what he's done, and it's obvious that he hasn't forgotten either. But are we meant to believe that he's penitent? Because nothing he said, and nothing I saw, would seem to indicate remorsefulness to me. Simply moving on isn't the same as being made new.

Nikki, what's your take on the strange and unexpected trajectory of this year's Governor?

Nikki: Well, as we both know, the Governor dies in the comic books in the great prison war we saw at the end of the previous season, so at this point the writers can do whatever the hell they want with the character. And I’m wondering if they’re going to use him to present someone on the long, difficult road to redemption. I agree with you that horrible people can do wonderful things, but it doesn’t make them good. But what if someone has committed the worst atrocities possible (not enough room here to list them all), has hit his lowest possible point (losing Penny), has lost his will to live (he appeared to be wandering through the first 10 minutes of this episode just walking until he dropped), and has given up? Is it possible for him to have a revelation and begin the slow road to redemption?

The clues are subtle: he doesn’t speak for the longest time. He hands over his gun rather than trying to come up with a cunning, sneaky way to hide one so he can kill them all in their sleep, deprive the old man of his oxygen tank and steal the little girl and name her Penny. This is Philip we’re talking about, after all: he could do all of that with a patch over his other eye. He shuffles into the room and helps with the washing, and lifting Grandpa into bed, and when he’s had his fill of these people (and who wouldn’t… come on, Phil, couldn’t we have had a tiny Guvnah moment while you took down Tara, just to put all of us out of our misery?), he tries to get away, but they ask him to do one more favour for them. And he does. He doesn’t have any ties to them, he couldn’t give a rat’s if they lived or died. We watched him kill people he did have ties to, without a moment’s hesitation, and yet here he’s actually helping people where it doesn’t do anything for him in return. They’ve stripped him of all his rights — Lily constantly just walks into his apartment without so much as giving a brief knock first. Just throws open the door and wanders right in, looking at his personal photos, invading his privacy, when they’re squatting just as much as he is. They order him around. Tara keeps holding a gun in his face. He ingratiates himself to Meghan but they still treat him like dirt. They keep thanking him for doing things for them while continuing to order them around, and even when they do something nice, like give him something for the road, she throws it at him when he doesn’t want to take it from her. (His plea for her to not throw the gun at him was very funny in that moment.)

But, like him, they’ve hit the end of their rope. Dad is dying. The little girl has seen too much tragedy. They’re all alone, their nerves are frayed, and they’ve probably been taken advantage of one too many times to trust anyone, especially a homeless-looking guy who won’t speak.

And in the midst of their mistreatment of him, he never fights back, never once loses it, never uses the gun he found on the guy upstairs in the bathtub. He’s humbled, he’s weak, he’s subservient, and he’s given up. He does what they tell him to do, nothing more, nothing less. When he goes to the nursing home, he’s so destroyed by what he saw happen to Penny that he can’t take out any of the walkers coming after him. He could have easily and handily gotten rid of them in seconds, but instead he dodges them, shoots randomly into the air, and runs like a scared child holding only two of the 10 oxygen tanks.

And then he has a conversation with Meghan, and for the first time in months, he chuckles at something she says. He finds somewhere deep inside himself, he’s still a father. And maybe he can help this little girl. Penny’s gone, but this little girl is real, right in front of him. He cleans up, begins hanging out with the sisters, and starts to become part of the family.

And then Gramps dies. When he goes to town on Gramps’ head, it’s the final burden he sloughs off. He finally recognizes that the biters aren’t the people they once were. While Meghan is traumatized for life at the sight of the Gov flattening her Grandpa’s face into the bed, Philip has to do this. After that, he stops being passive, and begins taking charge, taking action. He’s intimate with Lily, has friendly conversations with Tara, and becomes a second father to Meghan.

Could he snap again? Absolutely. But I’m really intrigued at the prospect that the writers might be trying to redeem this character, the maniacal serial killer who was once the Governor. This episode unfurled very slowly, like a play (I’d have to check it again, but other than the Nichols song, I don’t recall any non-diegetic music, and instead just stage noise in every scene), and they showed the very slow, subtle changes in this man. He’s back in action, and has three females following him at this point. Is this a new beginning in a new direction, or just starting over to build up the same group of loyal followers so he can lead them to their doom?

Joshua: I think it's impossible to tell just yet. With the abrupt way the episode ended, it felt very much to me like the first installment of a two-part presentation. It's clear that only in his imminent dealings with Martinez and whatever crew of miscreants he's aligned with since abandoning Philip will we learn what's really going on behind that eyepatch of his. And you're right – redemption isn't unthinkable. Just highly unlikely, in my opinion. It's hard for me to forget that The Governor didn't simply grow to become a lunatic over time, after enduring terrible circumstances and suffering through. Our introduction to the man involved the ambushed slaying of numerous National Guard members for their gear and supplies, after which the one guy who survives is kept alive just long enough to pump for information before being beheaded – BEHEADED – and his severed head added to Phil's bubbling trophy case. The one he stares at while kicked back in a lounger, leisurely drinking scotch. And then? He gets progressively worse. Worse. Than beheading dudes and keeping the heads as undead aquarium fish. That is not the kind of crazy that simply goes away.

That said, I believe the biggest problem I have is less about the notion of his redemption itself and more with the cursory way it's been handled so far. Perhaps I could more easily accept a radical shift in gears like the one I assume they want us to swallow here if it were built up over the course of several episodes. As it stands, everything's just much too tidy for my taste. I can see plausibility in the concept that he would try to be different, try to be better. And as you said, just the fact that he's trying at all is intriguing, an obvious allusion to the idea that he wasn't always nuts, back before the show's chronology intersected with his own. They certainly hit the photo moments hard enough to telegraph such sentiment. But it seems odd that he would fold himself out of the image if he were feeling nostalgic for who he once was more so than what he once had. Meghan is a blatant dead ringer (excuse the phrase) for Penny, and I got the impression that this is all much more about her, and the promise of being a father again, than it is about him, and the promise of being a good person.

There's a great moment during that final scene when he and Meghan fall down into the pit. For the rest of the sequence, we never again see what's going on outside, up above. It's a fascinating choice because it means that when we begin to hear the sounds of automatic gunfire, it's impossible to tell if it is actually happening (as Lily and Tara had no such weapons, and we don't yet know that Martinez and his gang have arrived) or if instead The Governor is merely hearing it in his head, flashing back to the butchery of his troops as he goes full primitive on the biters threatening Meghan. And boy, does he snap down there – ripping one's spine out through its throat, punching through another's skull with his bare fist, and finally tearing the top of the last one's head clean off, like he was popping the tab on a can of peanuts. I don't know about you guys, but that sure looked like the same old Philip Blake to me.

However, despite my narrative problems with it and the qualms I have with the idea of summarily excusing The Governor's previous psychoses, I still thought it was a terrific episode. It was filled with great images and nice touches, from that wide shot of Woodbury burning as walkers shuffled down its streets, to the white barn with all the messages spraypainted across its face like a big roadside dry erase board, to the pillow on the couch of the apartment where Blake holes up, embroidered with the legend 'This Too Shall Pass,' to Meghan adding the eye patch onto the chess king with magic marker. It's hard to quibble too much when the end result is so entertaining. What did you think of the episode overall, Nik?

Nikki: I LOVED the episode. I’ll pretty much watch anything with David Morrissey in it (so I’ll admit in the longterm I’m happy they diverged from the book with his character) and I’ll take him evil, good, or in between. He’s a mesmerizing actor, and did a brilliant job in this episode.

And you’re right; whether Philip can become Brian or will revert to the Governor remains to be seen, and could be quite a tension builder in episodes to come. I agree that this will definitely be a two-parter, especially since episode 5 ended with him sitting just outside the prison. We need Philip’s story to end at the prison (where, unfortunately, he appeared to be alone). If something happens to the women and Meghan, then I could see him turning into the Governor again. But if he can keep them safe and find a way to be a good guy only with them, then maybe he’s at the prison not as a threat, necessarily, but as penance. A stretch, but The Walking Dead is full of them. I mean, back in season 1, who would have foreseen Carol becoming a knife-wielding badass?

I thought it was interesting that Philip burned the photo of Penny. Yes, she’s gone, and the monster that invaded her body is also gone, care of Michonne, but why burn her picture? That’s a picture of his family when he was a good guy, before he’d done terrible things. First he folds the photo over so you can’t see him in the photo, as if he can’t bear to look at the happy family man he once was. Then he burns the photo, saying goodbye once and for all to any tangible evidence that he was once a part of a stable, happy family unit, rather than the broken shell of a thing he is now, with large-scale massacres in his background rather than Sunday dinners and birthday parties.

I do think his goodness/badness will all rest on Meghan. If he fails to keep her safe, he’ll turn into the Governor again. But until then, he’ll do his best to be Brian.

What did you make of the characterization of Tara and Lily?

Joshua: Tara and Lily weren't incredibly distinctive characters (and the actress who plays Lily looks so much like Lauren Cohan that it drove me to distraction, as my eyes were constantly fooled into thinking that Maggie had somehow entered the scene), but they were both very plausible, and I think that's more important. Tara was textbook tomboy tough, all surly posturing in an effort to mask her own fear, but she did it well, and her attitude made for some fun exchanges (“...I have enough ammo in here to kill you every day for the next ten years...” was a particular favorite). In fact, when she hurt her ankle near episode's end, I found myself genuinely concerned she might not make it, which is quite a feat in such a short amount of time, and on a show where death is so ever-present that you come to assume any new characters won't last long.

Lily is a bit more of a blank slate, with nothing particularly unique about her and really no definition at all save a brief clichéd backstory, but again, I think it was just right for the purpose she serves. In both cases, their commonality allows for an easy realism in their relationships, but with Lily in particular, that generic quality provides the perfect empty onto which Philip can project his desires – for a family, for a lover, for a fresh start, a new place to call home. Though I'm still unsure why they chose to leave the apartment building that had kept them safely sheltered for so long, I suppose it was necessary to get the plot moving in the right direction, and I'm willing to concede such breaks in logic as the price of sustaining a lengthy narrative, so long as they're infrequent, and provided the payoff makes it all worthwhile.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this left turn away from my expectations. Despite my skepticism regarding the circumstances, I must admit that I find myself much more engaged by the continuing saga of The Governor than I ever could have predicted a few weeks ago. Now it's up to the writers to bring it all home.

Nikki: I couldn’t more on Lily looking so much like Maggie! I kept doing exactly the same thing. It was uncanny. I didn’t like Tara at all, though, and have to say that in the dark, in the back of the truck, at first I thought that was Tara turning to Philip and that Lily was the one curled up with Meghan in the corner, and I thought, “No, no, no…” before realizing it was Lily. (But, um… awkward next to sister and child? Hm…) And when Tara twisted her ankle I was rather hoping that would make her quicker zombie bait. So I guess you and I diverge a wee bit there. ;)

But yes, I love the Governor side story, and hope we stick with it for at least one more week before returning to the prison. Although I have to mention one major nitpick in the episode: they lecture Grandpa about smoking around his oxygen tanks, yet they have kerosene lamps everywhere in the apartment, including one RIGHT next to the tank! You can’t have a kerosene lamp within about five or 10 feet of an oxygen tank, so that struck me as mighty strange, especially after the words in the script that talk about the dangers of flames next to the tanks. But we’ll just let that one go.

On to next week, where good ol’ One Eye continues his saga all the way to the prison. 


Anonymous said...

Thank you as always for the recap.

Isn't TWD supposed to be in real time? If so they've probably been in that apartment for at least two years and now that "Brian" has I'm sure told them the National Guard isn't coming they'd probably rather risk it on the road rather than stay there and wait for the food to run out.

He couldn't possibly try and bring this new group to the prison hoping for admittance could he?

-Tim Alan

Joel said...

Speaking of the "great prison war", Comics Governor attacks the prison multiple times so I've assumed the same thing could happen on the tv show. It certainly seemed more like an earlier skirmish than the all-out battle royale. Although killing all his soldiers and now wandering for 40 years in the desert may put a kink on that.

Since it's not clear how much time has passed, I wonder if we'll see any more of Clara, the woman who tried to feed Rick to her zombified husband's head in the S4 premiere. Her final statement, "You don't get to come back from things" was taken as a strugle for Rick. It could be the main question for the season and tie in to the Governor's turn as Brian. Can you come back?

Efthymia said...

For a while there, I thought the Governor would kill grandpa and the two women to keep Meghan for himself.
In a way that would have been better.
I know I'm always all "Dale was right, humanity, civilisation" etc., but I want the Governor as a bad guy. I can't trust him, I don't think the characters I love can trust him (considering my favourites are Glenn and Michonne... yeah...), and I don't want to watch a show where a lot of time is spent on good guys mistrusting another "good guy".

Anyway, next week: Enver Gjokaj :)

yourblindspot said...

Victor! That's awesome; I hadn't heard.

Yeah - as I said, I just don't trust the idea of The Governor as a reformed individual. Likewise, I think the odds of forgiveness from any members of the core group are astronomical, no matter how many women and children he has in tow. And almost everyone else at the prison is a former Woodbury resident. How are they gonna trust the guy? The writers are bound to take it in a different direction; there's just too much resistance to overcome in pushing an elephant that size toward a room that small.

[An aside on Nikki's mention of non-diegetic music: there was a lovely classical-style piano piece that played during the chess scene, but it wasn't one I recognized. I'd be willing to bet it was a Bear McCreary original, as it did share certain similarities to the more traditional piano work he composed for Battlestar Galactica, but I'm not sure. Readers, please sound off here in the comments if you have any insight.]

Colleen/redeem147 said...

This is my favourite episode. And hey, cut the Guv some slack. ;) I think he was once an ordinary guy. And then the world went mad, and he went mad too. And I think he was telling the truth when he said he was trying to help. He was really crap at it.

Is he still mad? Probably. Every single scene with the girls, I expected him to snap and do something terrible. The tension was delicious.

We've seen him at his worst. I think we've now had a glimpse of the man he used to be.

Full disclosure, I have a soft spot for redeemed bad boys (Spike, Crais...)

Is this going to last? Naw. But I'm enjoying the softer side of Mr. Morrisey for the moment.

Nikki Stafford said...

Colleen! Yay, someone who is helping me not sound like a Governor apologist. I agree that he's someone who snapped when his wife was killed, and then snapped again when his zombie daughter was done away with. He's had too much, and we saw what happened with Rick. Now we're seeing someone who's gone far overboard, and I love the idea of trying to redeem THAT guy. Someone who clamped Andrea to a chair in a room with a guy who was going to rip her throat out. I can't wait to see how Morrissey handles this transition.

Rebecca T. said...

I guess I'm the odd duck out in that I found this episode incredibly boring. It was so slowly paced that it was almost painful at times for me. But I think a big part of it goes to the fact that I do not, for one moment, think the Governor can ever be "David." I don't think you can come back, and especially not this quickly, from the horrific things that he did last season.

I might even have thought there was a tiny chance except for the fact that we saw him outside the prison last episode. If you really have changed, you don't come back to the one place where you tried to kill EVERYONE. You just don't.

I love having the Governor back, but I just can't buy into any kind of redemption story.

One thing I have been contemplating since last week, which I would hate because I don't want her character to go this way, but love because it would be fascinating to watch - would be to see Carol and the Governor team up and come after Rick. They both lost Walker daughters because of Rick/his people - they both then lost their surrogate families because of Rick/his people. I think it would horribly fascinating to see that.