The biggest problem with “Live Bait” is its timeframe. It picks up right after The Governor slaughters his own soldiers in “Welcome To The Tombs,” and breezes through intervening time. That night he lets a walker approach him, trip and fall into his campfire, without so much as flinching. The next morning, his last two loyal subjects, Martinez and Shumpert, have vanished, so the Governor takes his truck back to Woodbury to burn the place to the ground, because he’s so selfish and sadistic that he can’t allow anyone outside of his leadership to have a safe, viable compound to reside in. But then “Live Bait” jumps ahead, showing the Governor as an emaciated wanderer—accompanied by Ben Nichols’ “The Last Pale Light In The West”—growing out his beard as the weeks turn into months and he soldiers on without anything to eat. The only thing that stops his endless, silent fealty to No Shave November is spotting a young blonde girl in the window of a building. And then replaying Michonne killing the Governor’s zombified daughter during the “previously on The Walking Dead” sequence makes sense: he’s going to get attached to a substitute.
But I’m not as interested in seeing the Governor ingratiate himself with new people, adopting a new lease on life, demure and helpful, humbled and starving. The most compelling part of this transformation is the lengthy middle part we don’t get to see: the thoughts racing through the Governor’s mind as he wanders, grows out his beard, and starves, avoiding death or capture alone. This is the main human villain of the series so far, walking the south alone, scavenging for scraps of food and avoiding zombies, any other humans, trapped in a maelstrom of his own guilt and regret until he’s left a nearly silent shell of a man—and The Walking Dead skips right over that process.
“Live Bait” is another example of The Walking Dead attempting to pull off a unique narrative structure, with last week’s final shot tease leading to an episode of flashback filling in what The Governor has been doing, entirely unrelated to anything going on with Rick’s group around the prison. There are not many shows that would choose to press pause on one plotline and make a clean break to go through another. Suits does this occasionally to spend most of an episode in a flashback. Lost did it multiple times when filling in backstory on new characters who interacted with the initial group of survivors. But every time it happens on The Walking Dead—going back to “Walk With Me”—I can’t help but question why it’s happening at this precise moment. Why is it necessary at this point, after the medicine run has been successful and hopefully the infected will recover at the prison, to show the Governor returned and backtrack to his renaissance?
To be truly daring, this episode would be a personal Heart Of Darkness for the Governor, examining how he’s stripped down by seven months alone to the point where he wants to change—or at least attempt to act better in a broken world—but the show fast-forwards to the moment when he’s taken in by an illusion of his daughter in the form of another girl, Megan, who has been frightened into silence by the world. She lives with her mother Lilly, aunt Tara, and elderly, cancer-stricken grandfather David. The Governor gives a fake name that he saw on a barn while wandering (Brian Heriot), and hides out here, his first human contact (presumably) since being abandoned.
The arrangement gives The Governor a tweaked version of what he’s been yearning for since the outbreak started—a family—with the responsibility of looking after people in need, protecting others in small but meaningful ways. At first he doesn’t trust anything, throwing out a plate of Spaghetti-O’s for fear of poison. But eventually his stoicism gives way to compassion, because of an on-the-nose but nicely outlined speech David gives after “Brian” helps carry him to bed. After that the Governor is more helpful. He goes to fetch a proper backgammon set, then to get extra oxygen tanks for David to sustain him as long as possible while slowly dying from cancer. In both sequences the action is reduced to a flashlight illuminating small spots in the tense darkness, but that’s not really the point of the episode. This is another small-scale character study, an attempt to examine whether the Governor can change or even wants to change. His daughter’s death signaled his leap off cliff into seething rage, and time coupled with loneliness has knocked him down a few pegs into making the best of a new situation with a young girl in need of a father figure who just happens to have a single, attractive mother. (Oh, how convenient.)
And then come a big chess metaphor. Oh, chess metaphors—the most blatant statement of purpose since The Wire used the game to explain the drug trade in the Baltimore projects. Depending on whom you ask, that scene from “The Buys” is either the microcosm of what The Wire expresses in its first three seasons, or the most blatant and clumsy exposition dump in the entire series. And the scene here is more directly in conversation with that one since the man who spoke it (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) is now a cast member on The Walking Dead. It’s also worth noting that the Governor seems to favor chess over backgammon, Lost’s metaphorical, expository board game of choice, valuing it for its age.
D’Angelo Barksdale explains each of the pieces like members of the crew: Avon as the King(pin); Stringer as the Queen, a powerhouse moving all over the board; the Stash as the Castle, moving around with protection; and the low-level soldiers as pawns, the front lines moving slowly across the board trying to move up to become a Queen. Chess is a way to boil down a way of life to two pawns—and a...bishop, let’s say, recently demoted to pawn—who have to worry about staying alive instead of getting capped quick. Here, the Governor impresses upon Megan that losing many pawns doesn’t mean you can’t still win the game, which is technically true, but next to impossible. It shows that deep down, there’s still a fire in the Governor’s belly. Revenge, and ultimately clear victory, is still on his mind. This new family hasn’t changed his fundamental psyche, it’s simply recharged his batteries and made that latent rage accessible again for later.
Then, since this is the arc every character has to take a few times before it really sticks, he’s viciously reminded that just having a family isn’t going to cut it. He wants his family, and that’s just not possible. Nor is going back to the man he was before all of this started. The present is the present. Society’s descent into madness is happening. He can’t wash the blood off his hands and play house. David succumbs to his cancer, and before the girls can properly grieve he turns, and the Governor is forced to be his violent self in front of everyone. It terrifies Megan, but Tara and Lilly understand, the latter having since taken a liking to “Brian” despite knowing only that he carries a picture of his family and won’t speak. He tries to leave, but Lilly won’t let him, he’s stuck with them, already become part of a new family. The Governor burns his photo, the obvious symbolic decision to erase the past. But though that is a noble goal, since it would mean starting fresh with a new opportunity to keep a happy family safe in isolation, David’s death means they’re no longer tethered to one building, and venturing out into the world tempts the Governor with backsliding into his previous megalomania—and seeing where he ends up outside the prison foreshadows that relapse.
“Live Bait” ends on a tense note, leaving the fate of Tara and Lilly in the balance. The Governor assumes somewhat of a Ripley role from Aliens in defeating a few walkers with his bare hands while Megan cries in a corner after falling into a trap ditch. But then Martinez reappears, barely believing that the Governor is still alive. It’s not the happiest reunion, but it will continue into next week, which is an extraordinary commitment to a parallel storyline, and one that will have to meet the main plot by the midseason finale in two weeks.
So the Governor goes on his own unseen odyssey, finds a new family, realizes they couldn't replace the family he misses so ardently he killed swaths of innocent people just to allay the pain, but then accepts them anyway, hooking up with Lilly in the back of the food delivery truck and sliding into the patriarchal role. Basically, he learned nothing, demonstrated that his dark side still lies dormant but not extinguished, and gained a replacement family and daughter by doing so. He only cares about people until they become obstacles between him and what he wants. And from the look of the Governor outside the prison at the end of last week’s episode, it’s not a stretch to say that Lilly’s happiness at finding someone seemingly dependable in the sea of terrifying change won’t last long enough to savor.
• If adjusting the Governor’s endpoint was simply a way to keep David Morrissey around for more episodes, then he proved why he’s an asset in this hour. I didn’t like everything about the Governor’s story, but Morrissey can act the hell out of this part.
• Tara talks about her former girlfriend secretly having a boyfriend. Interesting to see that under that tough outer shell is a girl still caught up on romantic mishaps from before the outbreak. It’s the first depiction of an open lesbian on the show, and that hang up is a bit reductive, but it’s a tentative foray into developing her character.
• “Nobody mentioned just how boring the end of the world was going to be.” Now if that’s not The Walking Dead offering up its own ammunition to the show’s detractors, I don’t know what is.
• Something tells me that next week the Governor won’t take nicely to being told that someone else is in charge.