Submitted by Corodon Fuller
The Walking Dead Season 4 is where the tension that’s been growing through the whole series really starts to ripen. With the walls and fences of the prison between them and the zombies, the survivors actually have time to think about the people they’ve become. They have a chance to build a stable society, but are they the kind of people who can live in a stable society anymore? They were once. The question the show asks is, “Can you go back?”
Rick is trying hard to go back from what he’s become. Last season he was a gunslinger who had killed his best friend, a warlord who led armed raids against Woodbury—now he’s refusing to wear even a gun. He was the autocrat who brought the survivors to the prison and then cracked under the pressure—now he’s put power in the hands of a council. He’s even trying to turn from a nomad and a scavenger into a farmer, bringing crops and pigs into the prison yard.
Yet that question—“Can you go back?”—hits Rick in the face right away in the form of the most pathetic survivor the show has invented. Rick finds Clara in the woods, covered in dirt, scavenging to feed the reanimated head of her dead husband. Rick is willing to take her back to the prison, but she would rather kill him. Failing that, she kills herself. When Rick asks why, she answers, “Because you don’t get to go back from the things you do.”
Hershel, the prison’s nobly-bearded moral center, reassures Rick that “some people are too far gone. You’re not.” But keeping it together isn’t just a question of individual stability either. The trappings of civilization bring their own dangers: the prison’s livestock is a vector for disease, and a deadly flu tears through the now close-packed population. The plague almost ends the experiment of the prison by itself.
Meanwhile, we get to follow the Governor as he deals with the same questions from the opposite direction. Here’s a man with more blood on his hands and no one to fall back on. The new adoptive family he latches onto should offer a chance at redemption, but instead it wakes up the same need for control that destroyed Woodbury. The Governor is a tragic figure by the end. Even he recognizes the danger, and he tries three times to turn back from his path back to power—his responsibility to his new family keeps him on-course. As he murders his way to control of a new group he screams, “I don’t want it, damn it! I don’t want it!”
Interestingly, the events of the two Governor-centric episodes are adapted from the Walking Dead tie-in novel Rise of the Governor, which is an origin story. By placing these events after the fall of Woodbury, it instead becomes a complex story of reinvention and recidivism.
It’s clear that the Governor doesn’t fully understand what drives him. It may even be his guilt—the same death-impulse that gripped Clara writ large. Unable to let go, he hurtles toward a replay of the battle that should have killed him the first time.
In retrospect that final face-off between Rick and the reborn Governor, before everything goes to hell, may be the saddest moment in the series. Rick appeals to the Governor’s new henchmen: “We’ve all done the worst kinds of things just to stay alive. But we can still come back. We’re not too far gone. We get to come back. I know we all can change.”
In that moment, we see how agonizingly close Rick and the others came to breaking the cycle of desperation. But the Governor can’t accept redemption. Now, a season and a half after the Governor turned the survivors’ hope to rubble; they’ve never been further from that high point.
You can go back, but you can’t necessarily stay there.