The journey in the first half of season four in The Walking Dead has been an almost languid experience. The midseason finale ended that laid back almost somnambulistic pace of the prior two Governor focussed episodes and ended with a bang, or two, as the creators gave a metaphorical “tanks for the memories” moment in the middle of the season.
It took two episodes to show The Governor; aka Phillip Blake, aka Brian Heriot; on his long journey of what appeared to be a personal road of redemption. As “Brian” went through the motions to ingratiate himself to the little family unit of Meghan, Lilly, and Tara – along with their dying father – it was easy to confuse The Governor’s actions and intentions. While he has been a constant villain in the world of The Walking Dead, he changed from just an evil presence to card carrying sociopath, although the truth is that he was that all along.
It was easy to forget that The Governor had layers. The two episodes that built up the “backstory” of the character showed that Brian was a skilled sociopath, one who did not recognise right or wrong – or at least everyone else’s version of it – and he was skilled at manipulating, even charming, those he wanted to sway. While he was good at it, he was not perfect. Even Lilly suspects that he is not all he seems.
In the beginning of The Walking Dead midseason finale, The Governor deftly plays the small band of his new “family” like a finely tuned piano. Tickling their emotions like keys of ivory, Brian talks the group into taking over the prison. He now has the biggest gun and he wants to use it despite what his evangelical, and sincere, speech says about not killing anyone. With his memories of his hatred for Rick and his group, especially Michonne, tanks may not have been in his overall game plan, but he will use the one he found.
Why else would he allow tank driving Mitch to live? Pete had no useful purpose apart from wanting to “do the right thing” and after his disdainful story about his brother wanting to be a hero, it is clear that The Governor doesn’t need heroes because they won’t agree with his plans. While it seems that The Governor has changed, he has not. Hershel believes that he has evolved, like Rick, Michonne knows that once a sociopath always a sociopath.
This first half of season four has been all about secrets, revelations, hopes, and fear; all of these things have been trotted out, but, at a slow pace. Like a kettle that has been allowed to simmer until the heat builds up enough to make that screaming whistle this episode is moving toward the final confrontation between “Brian” and Rick.
Key moments have been subtly placed throughout the last few episodes. Brian’s internal dialogue while trudging down the road alone; his memories of his daughter’s death, via Michonne; his “adoption of Meghan” coupled with his revealing statement to Hershel about not caring for daughter’s who weren’t his own. The Governor’s interaction with his adopted daughter are a sociopath’s version of “play-acting.” The mud-pie scene seems like a heartwarming moment until the memory of his conversation with Hershel causes us to doubt his “warmth.”
Brian is reacting like a father is “supposed to;” appearing kind, loving and accepting to Meghan. Yet later in the episode, he unhesitantly shoots the little girl in the head after she’s been bitten by the buried walker that she inadvertently uncovers by the water. His reaction to Meghan is based on his own memories of his own family and the daughter he kept around after she turned. The question is whether or not his previous dealings with his family were real or the sociopathic imitation that he does so well.
Memories also play a part back in the camp with Rick and his fellow survivors. Daryl’s recollection of the banished Carol go against the truth of what she really was, but, he still goes with Rick to tell Tyreese what she had done. Before they can tell him who killed Karen, Tyreese shows the two men a flayed rabbit nailed to a board. He believes that whoever killed Karen, and David, was responsible for the rabbit. Just as Rick is about to say why this had not connection to the murders, a tank round hits the prison.
When the men rush outside they are greeted with the sight of Brian’s group and their vehicles that are flanking the centerpiece of the tank. It almost seems like a bad joke; one where the punchline is “guess who brought a tank to a gunfight.” It is not a joke though and The Governor is dead serious in his obsessive plan to retake the prison and defeat Rick. Despite The Governor’s promise to let everyone leave “unharmed” and his assurances that the past is over, it really is doubtful that he would have let Rick’s fellow survivors just leave the prison.
In keeping with his usual response to anything that he does not like, when Brian realises that Rick is not going to just turn the prison over to him, he reacts violently. Using Michonne’s samurai sword, he slices through Hershel’s neck and tells his group to “kill them all.”
Like most sociopaths, Brian can only hold the facade for so long. The moment he realises that he cannot defeat the other group with words and the implied threat of the tank, he resorts to deadly action as usual. Whether clubbing Martinez and feeding him to the walkers or killing Pete and dumping his reanimated walker self in the lake, The Governor has no problem with killing to make his point or to survive.
While the stand-off between the two groups builds to its inevitable climax of death and destruction, Lilly discovers that Brian was telling the truth about walkers and water. Meghan digs up more than a sign and when one of the walking dead take a hunk out of her, Lilly rushes up too late to save her child.
Another key moment that appears is Hershel’s obvious pride at Rick’s growth as a man and a leader. When the former head of the survivors makes a passionate plea to The Governor to reconsider sharing the camp, Hershel’s small half-smile shows his approval of just how much Rick has taken in after their talks. Sadly, and shockingly, the old man’s pride is cut short with Michonne’s own blade.
After chopping off Hershel’s head and instructing his followers to kill everyone, Brian leads the attack only to be jumped by Rick. An epic battle between the two takes place with Rick almost dying. Michonne makes good on her promise to kill The Governor as she runs him through with her sword. She leaves him choking on his own blood; a fate of a slow lingering death cheated by Lilly who dispatches the dying man at point-blank range.
People watching the midseason finale have offered several reasons as to why Lilly shoots Brian in the end. None of them mention the fact that she knew that The Governor was a bad man, she says as much at the beginning of the program. She questions his decision of taking over the prison just as she questions his real nature. Lilly says that she does not know who he is, but, it seems that she at least knew what he was not. The bullet pumped into Brian seems more for the betrayal of her trust rather than the emotionless killing of Meghan by her adoptive father.
During the battle that ensues between the two groups, Daryl Dixon proves yet again; in another of those small key moments that he really is the toughest and most capable alpha male in the prison. Only Dixon could use a walker as a shield and get close enough to destroy a tank with a well placed grenade. Chaos reigns as the battle commences and it becomes a race to see who will actually win, The Governor’s group, Rick’s survivor’s or the walkers who have been attracted by the noise.
By The Walking Dead midseason finale’s final frames both groups have been decimated by the gunfire and walkers. The Governor could not retake the prison and probably could not have if he’d had tanks instead of just the one. Rick and Carl are limping out of the shambolic remains of their old “home” and both are convinced that baby Judith is dead. This episode has seen a wholesale “cleansing” of survivors. Hershel is gone as is The Governor. Memories of Carol reappear in one more key moment when two of the children that she trained to kill walkers save Tyreese from certain death. A fitting tribute to the woman who couldn’t be there, but, whose legacy helped save at least one of her former friends.
By Michael Smith