Once again, an episode of this fourth season of The Walking Dead presents an unusual and somewhat complicatedly frustrating dichotomy. One the one hand, this story of Phillip and his post-Woodbury life, full of passion and violence and grim determination, presents a relatively compelling bit of character study. The problem, which is so glaringly difficult to avoid on the other hand, is that this all feels like too little, too late. It’s an origin story told after the fact, and what’s worse, it (at least from the current outward appearance) appears to have us simply headed back in the same directions.
‘Dead Weight’, the cleverly titled seventh episode of this season, felt like an episode that we should have seen 12 months ago. It wasn’t a bad episode — in fact, it was quite gripping. And I have to admit that the break from the prison for a second week was rather welcome. With Phillip’s family unit firmly established in the last episode, it was interesting to see how he would deal with the prospect of being faced with his old life. Of course, the answer to that question is: not well. From the chess metaphors and tales of family life in the opening minutes, we knew this was an episode that would build on that foundation, and where we would see whether the new kinder, gentler Phillip would be able to handle that potential conflict, or whether the Governor still lurked within.
The episode took its time bringing us to that answer, and did so with some solid, if albeit rushed storytelling. All along the way, it brought us horror after horror, from the prospect of a house full of heads and scarlet-lettered bodies, to a haunting and hypnotic mudpit full of undead, it was a spectacularly macabre demonstration. And on the other side, it also gave us a look at the strangely satisfying routines of their lives, and how precious things like laundry, and sitting around a picnic table, and a little casual flirting can be (though I am a little disappointed at how rushed the one gay relationship has been. It played out in a manner of seconds). It was with that juxtaposition as the backdrop that we saw how the craziness that was The Governor came to be, and how it begins to bleed back out.
As a result, there was nothing shocking about the turn of events, because we’ve seen it before — or rather, we’ve seen its conclusion. So when Phillip so savagely turned on Martinez, and then again on Pete, it was brutal and vicious, but hardly surprising. When he drafted Pete’s brother to his cause, we were not shocked. That darkness has always loomed high within him, and now, once again with something he loves at risk, that darkness finds its way out once again, though this time he may have a voice of reason pulling at him that’s more compelling than the misguided Andrea. The amazing thing was, other than his moment of remorse as he held Martinez above the pit, there was little regret and even less hesitation. But that’s how he got to be Governor, one supposes. That’s how he’s survived.
Therein lies the problem, of course. This storyline all feels like it’s designed to give us a sense of purpose for him, as if it’s the backstory we should have seen back in Season Three. My issue with that conceit is twofold — for starters, one of the things that made the character of The Governor so effective is that you knew so little about him. He was simply a dangerously brilliant and skilled character who built his own world out of the ashes of the old one. And this story, that we’re watching unfold, attempts to humanize that almost legendary character. The problem is that there’s little point to humanizing him when the endgame is simply to rebuild him as he was. And no, we haven’t seen the tale unfold in its entirety, but the hints are there. As such, the entire concept is puzzling — why give us the glimpse of the softer side in the prior episode if the objective is to simply bring back the beast that we know so well?
There is still a lot of time left in this season, and a lot of directions they could take it. But this episode was a frustrating one because it seemed like it was trying to make up for something, to give us a reason. Unfortunately, the time for that has passed. Instead, we’re left with a sense of imbalance, as if the show doesn’t quite know what it wants to do with Phillip — man or monster, damaged shell or charismatic despot. So while on a purely technical level, ‘Dead Weight’ was a solid episode, finely acted, full of vivid, startling, and terrible-yet-gorgeous imagery (the shot of Pete in the lake was remarkable), it also feels like we’re about to simply start playing the same tapes again. And given how refreshing the first half of this season was, for us to be headed down that road once more feels less like progress and more like a step back.