Last night's episode of "The Walking Dead" unfolded quietly and thoughtfully. The typical gore and shock mechanics were kept to an admirable minimum. The narrative focused on revealing character rather than unspooling plot. (The show runners are getting quite adept at the former, by the way.) Still, I could not simply sit back and let it develop at its own pace. It was impossible not to watch the Governor's solemn exile without furiously spitballing conjecture, trying to guess its outcome. Would the murderous dictator be redeemed? Would he revert back to his old self? Would he be punished for his crimes regardless? Would Michonne show up at the last moment, sword in hand, to administer said punishment? It's a testimony to the exquisite crafting of the episode that viewers -- myself, at least -- were driven mad by suspense instead of stunned by violence.
"Live Bait" follows the power-crazed Governor after his defeat at the hands of Rick and the contingent at the prison. The exact amount of time that passes is never clarified, but Gov's descent into desolation seems to happen fairly quickly. He lets himself go like Ron Burgundy after the break-up with Veronica Corningstone and spends the better part of the episode lurching, murmuring, and doing his best impression of Richard Harrow, the maimed veteran from "Boardwalk Empire."
Lured by a figure in a far-off window, the Governor hooks up with a family squirreled away in an apartment building. These folks -- two young women, a dying old man, and a mute little girl -- are saplings by "Walking Dead" survival standards. They don't even know how to finish a zombie off properly, much less understand how the virus has evolved. It's clear that were it not for the fact that the patriarch made off with a truck full of rations the day the plague hit, they'd all already be dead. What the members of this tiny sequestered clan do know, however, is how to hold on to a good thing when they've found it. They prevail upon the Governor to aid them in relatively minor tasks -- killing the tub biter was easy despite being appalling -- until finally persuading him to take them with him on his journey to nowhere.
Throughout his interaction with Lily, Tara, Megan, and Gramps, we see the Governor struggle with his grief. Admittedly, it's not very subtle. As if it was not abundantly obvious that little Megan was a surrogate for his own doomed daughter, the silent kid's mother actually tells him that she thought he was her dad when he came shambling down the street. (Her real pop disappeared after venturing out for a couple of beers and a Powerball ticket. Classic.)
The Governor, now "Brian,"" fiddles with a photo of his long-dead family, folding himself out as if to erase his own memory and the audience must ask: Who is being eradicated here, the Governor we know or the family man he once was? This is where the suspense comes in. It is possible that his wallowing and self-pity are only temporary, and that the Governor will see some advantage in betraying this new family that has cautiously adopted him. Again, the clues (misdirections?) are not particularly subtle, but they are effective. The little girl asks him -- ostensibly about his missing eye -- "Did something happen to you, or were you born like that?" In other words, is the Gov just an evil guy at heart?
Later, once the Governor is clean shaven and looking like himself again, he explains to little Megan one of the core strategies of chess: "You can lose a lot of soldiers, but still win the game." Okay, yes, it's outrageously foreboding. But when, in storytelling, has the game of chess not been expository? After "Brian" takes the family under his wing, saves their lives, and rips apart a cohort of walkers with his bare hands to save the little girl, it certainly seems he has been -- or can be -- redeemed. But that question still remains. Will he still try to win the game -- especially now that it turns out he has not lost all of his soldiers?