‘Live Bait,’ the sixth episode of Season Four of The Walking Dead, was a bit of a curveball. We all knew that the Governor was going to come back into the lives of our protagonists, and at the end of last week’s episode, we caught our first glimpse of him. And like many others, I was less than thrilled — the Governor’s storyline in Season Three started out well, but ultimately fell into cartoonish mustache-twirling, reducing a potentially deep, interesting villain to a megalomaniacal psychotic. This season started out with great promise, and his appearance caused some trepidation, for fear that we were going to relapse into the inconsistent storytelling of last season.
As a result, there’s good news and bad news, and that’s why this episode was so curious. Instead of focusing on the prison, we had an entire episode dedicated to Philip, aka The Governor (aka Brian). Before we can find out his purpose at the prison, we must instead discover the road he took to find himself there. And the good news is that they appear to be — at least thus far — abandoning the villainous aspects of the character, and instead putting him on the path for a more redemptive arc. This is an excellent decision on the part of the show runners, for it allows for a much greater exploration of the character, rather than a vengeful lunatic determined on destruction.
The bad news for ‘Live Bait’, unfortunately, is that the episode itself was rather boring, derivative, and rife with cliché. I appreciate the story that they’re trying to tell, but they took too many lazy shortcuts to get there. One can absolutely buy into the possibility that a man like him could be redeemed, could see how his actions brought nothing but tragedy and folly. But the way they chose to depict it was weakly built on a foundation of the most basic of storytelling tropes that it veered into utterly, blandly predictable.
We find Phillip brought low, as low as possible. Unkempt, unclean, lost and dazed, wandering through the world as if he’s the last one on it. He has lost his thirst for slaughter, lost his friends, lost his sense of purpose. There was always the idea that the line between Phillip and Rick Grimes was a thin one, and but a simple push is all it took for each to go in their respective directions. And thus, it’s equally plausible that one could, in the aftermath of seeing everything he built, everything created out of his own madness and genius destroyed, stagger back to sanity. And that’s what happens — laboriously so, unfortunately.
When I said the episode was boring, I didn’t mean that because it was slow. I actually relish the slow-burning episodes, and David Morrissey is a compelling enough actor that to use him as the focus is a viable idea. And those opening moments, of him staggering lost, listless, almost lifeless through the ruins of society — those worked. This was in no small part due to the solid set design that conveyed that sense of hopelessness, as well as excellent use of Ben Nichols’s “Last Pale Light In The West”:(off of his solo album by the same name, based, interestingly, on Cormac McCarthy’s gruesome bloodbath of a novel, Blood Meridian). Instead, it was boring because while it was a new path for the Governor, there was nothing new about the story itself. A man with a dark past finds a new family, one that reminds him of the one he lost so long ago. There’s a wise old man, a precocious youngster who helps bring him out of his shell, a distrustful leader, and a woman who he yearns for. It’s color-by-numbers stuff, and I’d hoped for better from Scott Gimple and company.
Even when he strayed from their apartment, the episode felt like little more than watching a series of fetch quests from the world’s least interesting video game. Find the backgammon set to help bring the little girl out of her shell. Explore the abandoned retirement home to find oxygen for the old man. Listen to his words of wisdom. Watch them all slowly help repair his shattered heart. Make love to the beautiful woman who helped heal his wounds, both literal and figurative. Protect the little one from the things that bite.
This was an episode full of fine performances across the board and a distinctly interesting new arc for one once thought irredeemable. Yet it was brought to its knees by the drably clichéd writing and it’s almost surprising predictability. Yes, the final moment, where the Governor and the little girl are discovered by Martinez (Jose Pablo Cantillo) — one of the better additions to last season — brings with it some intrigue. And moving forward, the future becomes even more unpredictable, one of the best things about this show. Yet the way they chose to get us there, and the tools that they used to tiresomely construct this new arc, all made for a disappointing episode, even if it opens the door to more interesting ones to come.