Season three of Walking Dead has given us the series’ first real Big Bad,The Governor,who is the de facto leader of Woodbury. His actions so far this season includes slaughtering a military company, keeping his zombie daughter captive, and kind-of-almost raping Maggie. There’s no dispute that he’s quite harsh, but are his means justified considering his ends? He’s running the closest thing to civilization in an apocalyptic scenario, and a damned good one at that considering the contentment of his people. He has the same goals that most of the protagonists share, he’s just a lot more successful at achieving them (well,up until recently). The indictment of Gov Phil by the show and its audience exemplifies the thematic car crash of the whole series,both diegetically and meta-diegetically. Is Walking Dead a dichotomous morality play set in a zombie world or is it an ambiguous look at human decision-making during desperate times? I’m not sure if even the writing team is sure. The Team Rick vs Woodbury dynamic gives us one of the most legible examples of this conflict.
The Governor’s first appearance in the season establishes his fervor for border control. Upon finding a lone soldier, he quickly ascertains the position of his squad and then proceeds to kill them,along with the aforementioned soldier. The Governor’s reaction is extreme, yet the logical conclusion of the xenophobia shared by the series’ characters. Hershel didn’t even want Team Rick on his property in the second season, and their presence did lead to a death of a family member of his, making his concern justified. And in the current season, Rick was willing to send prisoners out into a hostile world just in case they bore him ill will (which they did). In a modern, non-apocalyptic scenario, it’s easy to believe that people should assume the best of outsiders. America is the nation that opens its arms to “weak, huddled masses”, after all. In reality, the only reason why you and I can afford such a pleasantry is because we have the backing of an organized government. Despite what border patrols nuts will tell you,the threat of a few nefarious immigrants is minimal compared to any moderately organized police force. In addition,dealing with dissidents is just a matter of how long do you want them to be locked up. Michael Scofields do not abound in the real world. When these systems collapse, neighborliness collapses with it. During Hurricane Katrina, it was tragically common for opportunists to ransack and rob their own neighbors during the confusion. Even outside of natural disasters, third world countries like the Philippines often have smaller insular communities with their own militias in case some shit goes down. Mind you, these examples are on a small scale, the world of Walking Dead has NO governing bodies whatsoever. A town like Woodbury has to be completely self-sufficient, so the room for error is nil. While yes, the soldier seemed innocuous enough, who could say the same for his squad? It wouldn’t be hard for a bunch of heavily armed and trained soldiers to run a train on a collective like Woodbury. Hell, if Team Rick’s dispute with the prisoners ended differently, the others would have had to make due with a one-legged old man, a child,that idiot T-Dog and those women (fuck feminism; you know they can’t do shit). With such potential threats, it just doesn’t make sense to take in many outsiders unless you can completely determine the situation, an attitude the Governor seems to subscribe to. This is explains why the Governor reacts the way he does to Michonne: while she is shown to be heroic, her enigmatic nature and quickness to violence makes her a dangerous variable to the tight-knit community. Variables are a no go in such a tenuous civilization.
The Governor’s extreme decisions are a logical consequence of what the series’ characters have been veering towards throughout the show. Multiple characters have proposed tenets that simultaneously subvert and promote the value of provincial values in the end game scenario that is a zombie apocalypse. Rick wants his preteen son to behave as a man, yet his wife believes that having a burdensome baby is perfectly rational. Dale believes that they shouldn’t take a human life if not necessary, and Rick later stabs his best friend. These problems only exist due to a lack of human resources. If Team Rick had more men,they wouldn’t have to have a child serve as a soldier. If they had a psychiatric facility, Rick could’ve put his buddy in a cell instead of giving him a hillibilly shanking. Without the human resources, there can be no convenient distribution of labor. This means that the same people who want to hold on to their ideas of civilization have to perform extremely uncivilized tasks. It’s a scenario destined for failure. What’s great about having the resources of a town, even a small one like Woodbury, is that only the Governor and his hit squad have to take on the emotional brunt of making hard choices. They create the necessary buffer between the zombie world and the innocent citizenry. Despite most human beings’ reluctance to take another life, all of our world governments have some kind of organized military, implying that there are always those needed to deal with less savory tasks. As stated earlier,the draconian nature of Woodbury’s militia is due to the fact that they still don’t have that many resources. Hard choices need to be made, and the Governor is levying them as best as he can.
Unfortunately, The Governor has the same sentiments as the other characters from the series as well. Most egregiously, he decided to keep his zombified daughter locked up in a room,seemingly in the hopes that she can be somehow rehabilitated. His delusion is nearly the same as Hershel’s; they both are unable to accept the realities of the virus and assume there will be some kind of rebirth for their loved ones. While many viewers view such a stance as silly, it’s important to remember that most funeral traditions endeavor to obfuscate the finality of death. Christian services often quote biblical verses referencing the rising of the dead to heaven (For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens;2 Corinthians 5:1). In addition,many animistic religions regarded certain animals with reverence because they believed they were reincarnated humans. Ironically, a zombie apocalypse is probably the closest thing to eternal life, as Hershel himself wryly points out. The inability to accept death is not just a religious convention; it’s not uncommon for even the secular to spout aphorisms like “Aunt Sally exists as long as we remember her”. Hell, many of the irreligious decide to join the God-team for the sake of a funeral anyway. The Governor’s struggle to give up hope on his daughter is a common one. How many people have kept brain-dead family members alive for years just to have them be present? Not to mention the parents of children who are so dangerously mentally ill that they pose a danger to themselves and others. At the very least,the Governor has enough reason to chain up the girl and remove her teeth. He ain’t that dumb. The Governor has his sentiment, but at least manages to keep it hidden away as to cause no harm.
For a series with as many narrative troubles as Walking Dead, the Governor gives us a useful way to judge the moral conflicts of the series. He shares many of the same sentiments as Team Rick, but is sociopathic enough to distance them for what practically needs to be done. Is it a perfect balance? Fuck no,based on what the outcome has been in the last few episodes. It’s the type of concession that would have to occur in such dire circumstances.
Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road (2006) explores the same conflict,as a father and son try to survive in a completely blighted landscape. (SPOILERS AHOY) Upon entering a dark silo, the father gives his son two choices of implement: a torch and a gun. The torch,obviously, is a tool to illuminate the dark, whereas the gun has a more bleak use. If the father is ever to die, he has instructed his son to kill himself immediately, so he won’t suffer. The torch and gun motif is carried on throughout the novel: the torch is the last glimmer of life in the dead world they inhabit; it allows them warmth and sight. The gun however, becomes a symbol of inevitability; a reminder that their journey is ultimately futile. When the father does begin to die, he asks the boy to disregard his previous order, which (as most readings suggest) leads to his death anyway due to his choice to stay near his dying father. The ending, where he is found by a family, is often thought to be the last pang of optimism that allows him a brief respite before the end. That’s some sad shit. (SPOILERS END) In life and death scenarios, optimistic conventions such as innocence has to come second to pragmatism in order to survive. At the same time,such pragmatism, as seen in The Road, can sometimes be equally as destructive to our more romantic beliefs. The question is,what constitutes survival for humanity: the continuation of biological processes or beliefs? The protagonists of Walking Dead have yet to arrive at that answer. Even the Governor hasn’t arrived at an answer.
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