This first flashback episode, however, felt almost as though it could’ve been reduced to a musical montage. The storyline was familiar; the beats were predictable. It was a slow, crawl of an episode, almost entirely a character building exercise designed to build sympathy for what was once The Walking Dead’s most loathed villain.
Did it work?
Kind of. It’ll be necessary to see the second flashback episode to know if it will truly be successful, but despite the almost glacial pacing and a predictable, mundane storyline, by the end of “Live Bait,” we began to see The Governor in an entirely new way. He’s sympathetic. There’s part of us, even, that is rooting for him, unless you sit and think minute about all the people he killed so senselessly last season, and what he perpetrated upon Maggie, and the fish tanks full of walker trophies. Then the entire episode felt like a cheap and manipulative way to redeem a character that didn’t deserve to be redeemed. But, at least, we can see what kind of person Phillip/Brian was before Woodbury, and it’s not too hard to understand how the loss of his first family cost him his sanity.
The episode takes us back to the moment at the end of series three when The Governor drives off with Ceasar and Shumpert, after killing his Woodbury militia. The Governor falls into a deep, depressed funk, and it’s clear he doesn’t care whether he lives or dies. He leaves Caesar and Shumpert, goes back to Woodbury to see its destruction, and begins a months-long walking journey (in an actual musical montage, to Ben Nichols’ soulful “The Last Pale Light In The West”), in which he also grows a cliched depression beard, acknowledging that he just “lost it” as leader of Woodbury.
On his last legs, he eventually falls in with with a family hiding away in an apartment complex, living on the non-perishable goods from a truck driven by the family’s grandfather, who is dying of cancer. The family doesn’t know a lot about the biters; they don’t know, for instance, that you have to kill them in the brain, or that everyone transforms after their deaths (how that family survived as long as they did despite their ignorance is something of a convenient mystery).
The Governor, initially, remains mostly catatonic, still grieving the loss of both Woodbury, and his daughter. He adopts a new name, Brian Harriet (as opposed to his name in the comics, Brian Blake. FYI: Philip Blake, in the comics, was the name of The Governor’s brother, which The Governor, Brian Blake, adopted as his own). He trashes the butter beans the family offers him, opting instead to eat cat food, as a kind of self-flagellation.
And so begins the Governor’s slow (really slow) journey toward self-redemption. He ends up caring for this new family. He shaves his depression beard. He retrieves, at considerable risk, an oxygen tank for the ailing grandfather. Over backgammon and later chess, he draws the youngest daughter, Megan, out of her silence. When the grandfather dies, he saves the oldest daughter from a zombie bite after the grandfather turns. And he begins falling in love with the mom, Lily (The Unit’s Audrey Marie Anderson). He finally lets go of his old family (burning their picture to symbolize the transition), and adopts this new family as his own. “You had a family, I know that,” Lily says to The Governor. “We can’t be them, but for now, you’re stuck with us, and it’s just the way it’s going to be.” He even makes love to Lily in a bed he is sharing with her two daughters. It’s kind of creepy, to be honest. I get that space is limited, but at least roll over onto the floor before you start banging next to the kids.
The Governor takes his new family back out into the world. But after their truck — with all the non-perishables inside — breaks down, they’re forced to go on foot. When they’re confronted by walkers, The Governor and Megan — the youngest daughter who The Governor has begun to think of as his own — fall into an empty grave. The Governor saves her from four or five biters, killing them with his bare hands in some of the most brutal ways we’ve ever seen on the show. “I’ll never let anything happen to you,” The Governor tells Megan, who has essentially become his Penny now. “I promise,” he says, before espying Caesar standing above him.
Next: 6 Open Questions We Have About The Governor