When we last saw the Governor (David Morrissey) at the end of The Walking Dead’s last season, he had just slaughtered dozens of his own followers before silently riding off to destinations unknown. Since then, his specter has loomed in the minds of Andrew Lincoln’s Rick, Danai Gurira’s Michonne, and Norman Reedus’s Daryl. And yet, even as the prison community has encountered all new problems this season, the villainous character’s return was never in doubt. With The Walking Dead treading down new narrative and thematic paths, the question of how the Governor would eventually figure back into the series has grown more intriguing with each new episode. “Live Bait” answers the question of what he’s been up to, but it doesn’t address how the Governor will once again connect to the main plot. Instead of being a flaw, though, this element is precisely why “Live Bait” develops into one of The Walking Dead’s most quietly refreshing entries.
Apart from being the first episode of the series not to feature a major cast member, “Live Bait” is notable for its uniquely lived-in quality. Though the world is overrun with flesh-eating zombies, not every remaining human is simply a “survivor,” but is also someone with personal struggles. For two sisters who the Governor happens upon, Melody (Audrey Marie Anderson) and Tara (Alanna Masterson), walkers are just another obstacle in managing their father’s lung cancer and Melody’s daughter’s (Meyrick Murphy) difficulty coping without a father. Given the Governor’s past history as leader of a large community of survivors and his subsequent descent into madness, his encounter with this small family after months of solitude on the road yields some surprisingly intimate moments. Not only is he drawn to the daughter due to her resemblance to his own deceased daughter, but he also has a romantic connection with her headstrong but vulnerable mother.
“Live Bait” contains a few obligatory zombie encounters, but otherwise the understated aura of the proceedings lends a rare sense of benevolence to a series that seldom makes time for spontaneous moments and less weighty sensibilities. “Feels good to have something to do,” Melody tells the Governor as she cares for his wounds. “Nobody mentioned how boring the end of the world was going to be.” A simple observation though it is, her remark poignantly expresses a more fundamental human feeling that The Walking Dead rarely plumbs: that of the desire for some kind of purpose and connection—something to do. As the episode itself demonstrates, sometimes it’s nice to see how people in the midst of an apocalypse behave when they have nothing to do. This is just one example how some of the character portraits in “Live Bait” are more convincing than for some characters who have been on the show for much longer a single episode.
However, “Live Bait” isn’t devoid of the overly structured plotting that’s become characteristic of the series. For instance, the presence of the little girl is a too on-the-nose proxy for the Governor’s motivation to return to softer ways. Nevertheless, Morrissey quietly conveys the Governor’s capacity for empathy as the man performs small deeds for the family. That he meanwhile consistently lies to Melody (about where he came from and even his own name, for example) suggests that his inner torment has only intensified, which, in light of his ruthless history, is compelling enough on its own to make up for plotting mishaps.
There has always been a strong underpinning of controlled psychosis in the Governor. He’s the only character on the show to this point that has outright fashioned himself a new man in the ashes of society. A world in ruin may be a hard place to survive in, but it also offers opportunities for self-reinvention that might not otherwise have been possible, whatever the level of trauma in one’s past. Whereas other characters are wrestling with their demons and attempting to maintain some version of themselves from before the walker uprising, the Governor channeled his pain into a persona and rallied others to his illusory vision. Now he pushes on as a nomad, perhaps waiting to come across the right group of people that will allow him build yet another version of himself.
The Governor’s motives are ultimately as impossible to read as what his imminent reunion with the prison community will bring. Nevertheless, the episode’s honest portrayal of a dishonest man, beyond merely being compelling, questions the very nature of the stories we tell each other and ourselves about ourselves. For no matter how fabricated the Governor’s stories may be, the connection between him and the group that takes him in is very real, indeed. Perhaps what best sums up that connection is something he tells Melody late in the episode, when she asks what lies ahead for their small group. “No use making a plan,” he says. “We’ll go where they take us…the roads, the biters.”
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