One of the things we’ve learned about the Governor (David Morrissey) is that he excels at manipulating his surroundings and forcing those around him to accept his pretenses. In “Too Far Gone,” the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead’s fourth season, he believes he’s drawn up the perfect scenario that will either result in a bloodless takeover of the prison or a righteous slaughter of Rick’s (Andrew Lincoln) group. He uses Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Hershel (Scott Wilson) as hostages, presuming Rick will take the bait. Rejecting the proposition altogether, however, Rick offers an impassioned plea for peace to the Governor’s followers, and in doing so makes a powerful case that it’s possible to “come back again”—that is, to survive without malice despite the inhuman conditions of living.
As I noted last week, “coming back” is a thematic thread that’s run through the whole fourth season. The series is no longer singularly focused on the visceral experience of surviving (as it was in its beginnings), nor is it fixated on the philosophical debates about morality and mortality (as it was for much of its second and third seasons). Instead, new showrunner Scott Gimple’s ostensible directive this season has been to probe the limits of the human psyche as the conditions for survival grow more emotionally and physically demanding. Thus, while the fourth season has essentially reproduced the conflict from the previous season between Rick and the Governor, it’s taken a very different route to their eventual showdown, vibrantly exploring the effects and implications of each of their actions and inclinations toward leadership.
It would be easy to interpret the Governor’s murderous ways as more of the same one-dimensional psychosis that last season’s portrait of the character showed. However, during roughly the first half of “Too Far Gone,” his motivations genuinely seem to have shifted. His reasoning for assaulting the prison, as he explains to the captured Hershel and Michonne, is based more on a twisted sense of surviving than a vendetta against Rick. His mental state, though, is no less poisoned than before. His instincts for power and protection are fed only by his intense jealousy for how others have achieved it without compromising themselves in the process. Beyond the posturing and violence is a self-loathing man who only finds purpose by removing himself from his own callous actions. This comes through clearly in Morrissey’s performance. When Rick rejects the Governor’s proposition to either leave the prison or face down the threat of force, the Governor seems to experience a fleeting revelation of self-awareness just before sliding back into his default mode of disengaged violence. Even when Lily (Audrey Marie Anderson) presents her lifeless daughter to the Governor, his only response is to bury the pain and move with greater fierceness.
Once the action gets underway in “Too Far Gone,” each death that occurs further magnifies the Governor’s depravity. And after much bloodshed, he finally meets his own end. While Michonne strikes the first blow, it’s more fitting that Lily delivers the bullet that ends the Governor’s life. Last season, Andrea (Laurie Holden) realized too late the extent of the Governor’s madness. And though it’s also too late for her own daughter, Lily finally sees the Governor as a man who abuses everyone around him—including her daughter—for his own satisfaction and gain.
Although “Too Far Gone” brings closure to the Governor’s storyline and delivers a release to this season’s steady thematic buildup, it ends on a dourer note than any other previous episode or season. The prison is overrun, Rick’s daughter is missing, and still many questions remain about Carol’s fate as well as who’s been feeding walkers with rats in an attempt to bring down the fences. Moreover, with everyone separated without a place to go or much knowledge as to anyone else’s whereabouts, Gimple has introduced a number opportunities and potential directions story-wise for the series going forward. In terms of underlying sensibilities, while the situation for the survivors is ever grimmer, their purpose for survival appears to be growing, particularly among the younger generation. Lily’s daughter met a cruel demise due to the twisted priorities of the Governor, but the episode’s overarching focus on the strength of children will likely raise new questions about the meaning of survival in the post-apocalyptic world.
The Walking Dead may not be subtle about how it traverses these subjects, but if it continues with the same strong focus on the compounding dilemmas of survival and emotional burdens of living, it can continue producing engaging material in spite of its at times shaky plotting and characterization. Additionally, with the Governor plot complete, it stands to reason that Gimple will now give additional focus to characters such as Michonne, Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman), Maggie (Lauren Cohan), and Carl (Chandler Riggs).
In the past, The Walking Dead has crested in moments of unexpected violence and loss, sometimes even to a fault. But the main reason “Too Far Gone” gives hope for the future of the series and these characters is that its emotional payoff materializes before the shower of gunfire and explosions that pervade the final act of the episode. It occurs during Rick’s speech, wherein he accepts responsibility for the past and asserts, “We can all come back.” His remarks earn an admiring smile from his longtime friend and spiritual guide Hershel, in what amounts to one of the show’s most indelible images—one that resounds more strongly than any of the violence that ensues. Hershel knows he’s about to die, but his final expression conveys only hope in Rick’s own journey back. Alas, for a series that features so much death and inhumanity, The Walking Dead is ultimately a humanist tale with a simple, affecting message: Survival isn’t worth anything without compassion.
For more recaps of The Walking Dead, click here.