American Hustle Review

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I love crime films. And not because i’m black ( that would be racist ). I love crime films because criminals are the guys most Americans deep down want to be, sans jail time. Or death. Criminals are more American than soldiers in a way: we are a nation of born of rebels. Of course, most of us also recognize the inherent dangers in crime, which almost always manages to be worked into crime fiction. American Hustle is a film that manages to touch upon both of these aspects, except instead of having a cast of murderous thugs, we have a team of quick-witted conmen.

The premise: Successful con-men Irving Rosenfeld ( Christian Bale ) and Sydney Prosser ( Amy Adams ) get busted by an FBI agent ( Bradley Cooper ) who uses them to entrap a Camden mayor ( Jeremy Renner ) who’s desperate for funds. Without regard to legality. See the trailer here.

The first thing you have to know about this film is that it is an unabashed period piece. Saying it has a 1970’s backdrop is an understatement; Director David O. Russell ( Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter ) inundates most of the film with the most iconic aspects of the 70’s. At one point, several characters comment on the then-arcane microwave as if it was a Star Trek device. The soundtrack follows the Back To The Future ( 1985 ) trope of having only the most famous songs from the decade, including iconic tracks such as Paul McCartney’s Live And Let Die and The Temptations Papa Was A Rolling Stone. All of this places us in the time frame, especially when exploring the greed and excess that many feel began to permeate popular culture during the decade. Speaking of excessive, i imagine many like myself will get an intial laugh at the universally hilarious hairstyles of the cast.

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Despite it’s surface ostentatiousness and humor, each character is played straight despite how unsavory they are.

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Christian Bale once again does his chameleon schtick by adding a spare tire gut and…going bald i guess ( he’s probably just wearing a bald cap ). Beyond that, he plays a schlub conman with deeply hidden morals. Weirdly enough, the character reminded me of Roy Munson in Kingpin ( 1996 ), another leisure suit Larry, except obviously played a lot straighter. What could have easily been a joke is handled with dignity by Bale as a guy who’s a crook, but one with pride and standards. It almost justifies why two hot women would fight over him. Almost.

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Jennifer Lawrence as Rosenfeld’s wife Rosalyn manages to be infuriating and hilarious at the same time. To reference another crime film set in the 70’s, the character is reminiscent of Ginger McKenna ( Sharon Stone ) in Casino ( 1995 ), a woman who’s emotional starvation causes her to be a monkey wrench in every carefully laid plan of her husband’s. Like Irving, she could have easily been immensely unlikable, but is instead a joy to watch. Honestly, who could hate Jennifer Lawrence? And that’s not just because she’s the source of “obviously-meant-for-a-trailer” fanservice ( as seen above ). Given the cred of Bale and Lawrence, i wouldn’t be surprised if there are quite a few nominations between them.

I could go into each and every character portrayal but honestly, it would take forever since everybody is solid, especially the few big name cameos.  Normally i’m apprehensive about films with several high profile actors, after a few minutes i honestly forgot about who these actors were and accepted them into their roles. It helps that this film’s 70’s aesthetic and affable characters makes it feel like it was already meant to be a film classic.

In terms of pacing, i admit i have mixed feelings , albeit much of it could be attributed to circumstance. I went into this expecting an Ocean’s 11 ( 1960 ) style “heist-style” film with all of the sex and flippancy associated with the sub-genre. And it’s definitely there throughout the film, but it’s mixed in with lots of easygoing character moments as well. For example, Irving’s budding romance with Sydney isn’t handles in an offhand scene as is common in Hollywood. There’s instead a few scenes in the first act that shows him courting her in a fairly realistically paced manner ( bonding over music, helping her pick out clothes ), without too much of an operatic build up. This is a good counterpoint to the rest of the film’s bombast, but i know some people will probably be bored of this when scenes seem to just end without a big climax or just go on longer than desired. And honestly, the length is the only thing i can say felt not as good as other aspects. Because there are a noticeable amount of scenes which only serve to give a bit of characterization ( without even necessarily contributing to an arc ), the film felt like it was overstaying it’s welcome at times. Once i was midway through the film and had an idea of where the protagonist was going, i felt anxious about seeing how it was going to pan out. This made me less interested in the characters and more about the final con. Mind you, i was watching this film from 10:45 to 1am ( with a head cold at that ), so while i was still entertained, i was impatient to see what kind of plan Irving was going to concoct.

Films dealing with guile heroes like con-men tend to put a lot of weight on their climaxes, which are like the criminal versions of summations at the end of detective dramas. One of the most famous is the ending of Trading Places ( 1983 ) with Eddie Murphy and Dan Akyroyd where the two use an elaborate stock market gambit to gain the wealth of two elderly businessmen who screwed them in the first place.  This film, which obviously leans more towards interesting characters and atmosphere than outright sensationalism, instead has a fairly plausible ( yet still surprising ) climax. It’s a good twist, but given the length of the film, I personally felt a grander finale was in order. However, as a friend expressed to me and i agreed, this isn’t a movie about the “big score”, it’s a fun, human character piece with great actors. As such, don’t go in expecting an Ocean’s 11-type film like i did.

Final Verdict

American Hustle is a film that balances it’s bombast and humanity well, albeit with a bit of lag. See it if you like 70’s aesthetic, any of the lead actors, or lovable anti-heroes. Don’t see it if you want something in the vein of a heist film or want quick and digestible entertainment.

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A Gullible Breed: What Men In Black Says About Humanity

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Science fiction is grounded in real-life concerns. The genre allows for speculative thinking to be literalized (what if robots supplant humans, what if reproduction become a factory process, etc). Probably the most “speculative” concern is how would we react to intelligent alien life; since we haven’t encountered much to suggest they exist. As such, most fiction dealing with human-alien interaction tends to be less interested in scientific progress and moreso in affirmation. Particularly, the affirmation that humans kick ass! Aliens will either improve humanity or get trampled by us. Strangely, one of the few sci-fi franchises to challenge this is the comedy/action/sci-fi franchise Men In Black.

The premise: Very black cop J (played by Will Smith) is approached by very white kind-of-cop K (Tommy Lee Jones) to join an organization that polices aliens. Hilarity ensues.

With such a simple premise, you wouldn’t think that Men In Black (1997) couldn’t have much narrative weight. What stands out intellectually isn’t so much the actual plot, but the underlying themes.

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As part of his introduction to the MIB, K explains to J one of the core directives of the organization: the hiding of alien life; ” Humans don’t have a clue and they don’t need or want one. They’re happy. They think they have a good bead on things ” This is a pretty dark idea for a major motion picture: people (i.e. you) are too fucking dumb to accept aliens. The MIB works to protect Earth not only from alien attack, but also the very IDEA of aliens.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind ( 1977 )

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As mentioned before, a common thread with these kinds of films is the life affirming nature of extraterrestrial life. The best American example of this is Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which coincidentally was directed by Steven Spielberg, the producer of Men In Black), where the protagonist Roger Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) becomes obsessed with otherworldly visitors after an encounter with a UFO. He has a mental image of a hill stuck in his mind after his encounter which he later finds is a message from the visitors showing where they will make contact. His knowledge of this causes him to lose his family and job as he is unable to stop thinking about the hill. Being ostracized doesn’t quell his fascination with the hill and the aliens. When he does eventually reach the hill, he (and by proxy, we) get rewarded for his curiosity with a glorious vision of the aliens and their craft. They then accept him into their ship.

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Neary was right all along: it WAS worth it to believe when no else did. The final scene signals the dawn of an “Age of Enlightenment” which would supposedly lead to even more wondrous discoveries for Neary and humanity.

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Men In Black (whether intentional or not) is placed in the same thematic continuity through Agent K. He shows J that his introduction to extraterrestrial life (and subsequently, MIB) was through a farm sighting where he met face to face with an alien, along with other future agents. This parallels Close Encounters; an ordinary man makes contact with aliens in a mundane setting and it changes his entire world view. K’s character arc began in the “Age of Enlightenment” that Close Encounters ended on. Except, K’s enlightenment hasn’t “fulfilled” him. In fact, it’s done the opposite.

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Remember K’s first partner; the first recipient of “flashy thinging”? Before his memory is erased, he looks to the sky and muses ” look at the stars…we never just look at them anymore“. This signals to K that his partner is no longer capable of being an agent, hence why he neuralyzes him. The sky, a sight that is meant to be simply appreciated for the feeling it evokes, has been disenchanted by knowing what lies beyond it. Unlike in Close Encounters, realizing the complexities of the universe is diminishing rather than empowering. As K tells J, knowledge of aliens challenges everything we believe. K puts this in context for J:

A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow

K stresses here the inherent delusion of “common knowledge.” People are inclined to believe not only what is apparent, but what is comfortable. The existence of alien life requires a massive reconsideration of our understanding of the world. According to K, this is a bad thing. This is why throughout the film, the neuralyzer is by far the most important gadget the agents wield. It is the ultimate “defense” against aliens in that it protects humanity from the knowing they exist.

Those that aren’t protected from the truth are irrevocably changed, as exemplified by K himself. As the senior MIB agent, he’s more of a jaded cynic than a romantic top officer. Nothing excites him. Nothing entertains him. Since he’s basically a ghost, his interactions with people are brusque and often disdainful. After the first use of the neuralyzer on some rangers, he quips to himself wryly ” damn, what a gullible breed “.

When K is neuralyzed by the end of the first film, it’s confirmed that he reunites with his childhood sweetheart and gets married. This is important because it’s implied that seeing the alien visitor is what derailed their relationship initially. The flowers he gave the alien were supposed to be for her, thus showing K’s first step towards losing touch with humanity.

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A scene where K “checks in on her” (read: stalks her) shows he never got over the woman. Thankfully, the film ends with K getting neuralyzed and then reuniting with his sweetheart…which was then flushed down the toilet in the sequel (2002) where it turns out K’s marriage fell apart rather quickly. Jay attributes this to “the way he views the stars”, a call-back to the first film. In Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces, the archetypal hero’s journey is circular: once one gains knowledge, he can return home to integrate said knowledge into his old life (which Campbell dubbed “The Crossing of the Return Threshold”) :

The returning hero, to complete his adventure, must survive the impact of the world. Many failures attest to the difficulties of this life-affirmative threshold. The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real…the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life.

Stargazing is one of the many “passing joys” of humanity. Stars aren’t “luminous spheres of super-heated plasma” to the layman, they’re something to be enjoyed superficially. They’re just…beautiful. MIB agents know so much about the stars and beyond that they can’t ever see them as “just beautiful” again. That lack of naive whimsy is what separates normal people from the MIB. K’s experiences has changed him so much that he’s practically an alien himself, unable to connect with society.

Even J is shown to have lost much his vigor by Men In Black 2 (probably because he was in  Men In Black 2). J’s burgeoning relationship in the film mirrors K’s relationship with another alien in the past. Both end with the loss of their love interest and…that’s it. There’s nothing to be gained from it. Their lives are just that terrible They even have the nerve to give K yet ANOTHER love interest that doesn’t come to fruition in Men In Black 3 (2012). Fuck Steven Spielberg.

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Despite how cynical the films are about the pursuit of knowledge, it doesn’t seem to have much reverence for the ignorant masses of humanity either. Besides the MIB, every human being with speaking lines is either an asshole (Edgar the farmer, J’s police partner) or an idiot (Edgar’s wife, the Rangers). The film has this degraded view from the start: the opening credits of the film doesn’t have us viewing anything awe-inspiring or exciting, they have us following a dragonfly moving across the desert sky.

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This seems awfully familiar…

Son of a bitch!

Son of a bitch!

We accompany the dragonfly until it hits a truck, dead on impact. This introduction puts us as an audience in the lowest cosmic rung; compared to the vast universe, we are insects.

Furthering the insect/humanity parallel is the film’s antagonist: the Bug. The Bug seems to have either an inferiority or superiority complex (I studied english, not psychology). His kinship with smaller insects makes him severely conscious of their “abuse” by earthlings. He, in turn, compensates by diminishing humanity. In a bit of dramatic irony, he describes humanity to an exterminator who thinks he’s describing roaches: “(they are) undeveloped, unevolved barely conscious pond scum totally convinced of their own superiority as they scurry about with short, pointless lives “. The only motivation even given to the Bug is his hatred for humanity, with the much larger plot being an implied conflict between his race and another. In fact, the other race (who are the “good guys”) nominate to blow up Earth should the Bug abscond with the “galaxy marble” that serves as the film’s plot token. MIB’s leader Zed accepts this idea without much judgement, knowing that it would be best for the universe even if it means the death of humanity. And I guess this is the closest thing we get to a “positive” point in this fairly bleak film: Zed, K, and eventually J, accept their roles in the universe.

At the end of the film, J to gets the upper hand on the bug by playing to his fragile ego. He purposely kills several roaches to distract him from leaving Earth with the galaxy marble thing. Despite the jeopardy of his mission, the Bug goes out of his way to confront him, which leads to his failure. He stepped outside of his role for revenge. Contrast this with the cool detached nature of the MIB agents; K didn’t hesitate to allow himself to be eaten alive if it meant he could get his job done. Even when he lost his memory and became a postman, he carries on a clockwork routine in his life. K epitomizes a samurai-like professionalism which allows him to be the perfect agent. This zen outlook extends beyond just killing aliens and mind-wiping cops. The moment after K regains his memory in Men in Black 2 parallels a scene from the first film after J realizes aliens exist.

Men In Black

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Men In Black 2

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And no: i haven’t a clue what’s up with the weird bikers

At one point he was about to step on a cockroach, but knowingly doesn’t (which was a good thing because it turned out to be an alien).

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For what little good it does them, J and K know their and everything else’s role in the universe. Their roles might not be lofty, but at least they have “a bead on things“. Knowledge isn’t always uplifting, but that’s not a bad thing. In a way, Men In Black still manages to affirm the role of humanity, if not it’s perceived grandeur. The ffilm ends with a dramatic zoom-out showing our entire solar system to be as small to a gargantuan alien creature as the galaxy inside the marble was to us. In such a recursive reality, everything plays some kind of part, no matter how hard it is to see.

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For more thoughts on sci-fi franchises:

The Matrix: Reflections on Neo and Morpheus

The Walking Dead: Thoughts on Mid-Season 4 Finale and The Governor

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Scenario: you’re in a bar when the sexiest woman you’ve ever seen approaches you. Your eyes follow her every curve from top to bottom. She sees your gaze and returns the favor. She smiles. She walks over. A bead of sweat descends from your forehead. She sits. She leans in with a question: “my place or yours?” A response is sputtered out and your body whisks you away to the inevitable bedroom. Clothes lift off. Bodies touch. Repeatedly. And when it seems like you’ll reach ” le petit mort “, she stops abruptly, picks up her clothes, and leaves without a word. You go back to that bar hoping to see her again, but months go by with nary a hint. Eventually, you move on. Then one day, she shows up at the bar again. Your heart skips a beat. She walks over. She sits. She leans in with a question: “wanna finish what we started?”. A response is sputtered out and your body whisks you away to the inevitable bedroom. She then grabs your penis, pumps until you finish, and then wipes it on the sheets. You sit there confused: “was that it?” Her response: “pretty much, but at least there was a climax”

Did that sound satisfying? If it didn’t, now you know how i felt at first about this episode of The Walking Dead. Now i want to start by saying that i’m a big fan of the show and, for the most  part, the creators got their shit together. I especially like the current season and am looking forward to the rest of it. But, i honestly have mixed feelings about this episode.

Obviously, spoilers ahead.

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The last two episodes painted The Governor/Philip Blake/Brian Geraghty/Nick Fury  as a tragic hero who had fundamentally positive goals but carried them out using monstrous means. He recognizes his sins, hence why he relinquishes his title and name in Live Bait. He finds a new family who want him around, which hints towards a chance of redemption. He begins to fall off the slippery slope in Dead Weight when he realizes the threat of an unknown group of survivors and the unwillingness of his new leader to fight dirty. He kills him out of ( what he tells himself is ) pragmatism and then takes reigns as the new leader. Realizing they’re not safe, he concludes that they should take the prison.

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The Governor’s ascension to a Jim Jones figure is hard to believe in the limited timeframe we’ve been given. He’s accepted into the group immediately, gets to be on the zombie task force, and then very unsuspciously requests to take over after the previous two leaders bite it ( or bitten, in Martinez’s case ). This wouldn’t be that ridiculous within the frame of the two previous episodes, considering that Gov is clearly tactically skilled and charismatic. But in the frame of attacking a bunch of people who they’ve NEVER MET BEFORE and could kill them, it gets somewhat silly.The only people to challenge him is Lilly and Tara, when ironically,  they should be the most accepting of his plan given that he takes care of their family ( especially Lilly *nudge*nudge* ). Personally, i thought this scenario could have worked better if Rick and co reacted more aggressively to Gov and Co. Then at least it would make sense contextually why the Gov’s camp could believe that they are “monsters”. Without that, we’re forced to assume that all of these people are desperate and bloodthirsty, which seems hard to believe given their portrayal in the previous two episodes.

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In addition, this mini-arc builds up the Gov to be more sympathetic than he amounts to in the finale. When he captures Michonne and Hershel, he’s unnecessarily accommodating, what with giving them food and all. He even implies he forgives Michonne for killing his daughter, which was one of his driving motives in the third season. So by the end of this episode, i wanted to see a Governor who wasn’t just the same asshole from the third season. When he cuts off Hershel’s head and shoots his surrogate daughter without a thought, I realized that he probably is the same guy after all.

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What bugs me about this ending is that it could have ALREADY HAPPENED. If you literally took this episode and just placed it in the third season, it would make little difference. The evil Gov of this episode fits in fine with his characterization already. Now to be fair, the old showrunner, Frank Darabont, might have had different plans for the governor for this season and Scott Gimple decided to go back and create the past due climax. But here, it just feels underwhelming given how divorced it is from the narrative that built up to it. Everyone wanted Gov to die in the third season, but we didn’t get that satisfaction. This season had barely acknowledged him until five episodes in. You would think that Rick or Daryl might at least have a few offhand worries about the guy in order to remind us of his threat, but he doesn’t even seem to be on the mind of the protagonists besides Michonne. So when he does show up, we get two quick episodes of a narrative arc that really just reiterates the third season, and then we get a fairly rushed attempt to create the conclusion that we never got previously.

While there are legitimate problems with this episode and its predecessors, I would also say that a part of the reason why it might garner a different reaction than previous episodes is due to it’s fairly downbeat conclusion. Before Gov turns Hersh into a Pez dispenser, Rick imparts a speech which ends with “we’ve all done terrible things, but we get to come back. We can all change”. He then drops the title of the episode “we are not too far gone“. This is accompanied by an obvious zoom on Hershel who ( being the show’s Santa Clause ) smiles at the notion. The Gov is also moved by this speech, but not necessarily for the better. A shaky POV shot shows him looking at the sword and then at Rick.

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After a pause, he calls Rick a liar, then beheads the poor guy.

Why this reaction? Point of view shots imply perspective. Seeing through a character’s eyes allows us to see as they do. At this point, The Gov realizes the position he’s in. He’s back to where he didn’t want to be and he knows it. As established, he’s remorseful over his actions in Woodbury and tries to put it behind him. His taking of a fake name reflects the advice of Rick to Carol to “create a new life for yourself…nobody has to know what you’ve done”. He tried so hard to be cordial to his captives because he legitimately wanted to believe he had changed. He constantly asserts that he’s taking care of his family ( who he really does care about ), but why does that have include war with Rick’s group. We know of the threat of the others who killed the neighboring camp, but we never get a clear progression of reasoning that goes from “protect the camp” to “take over the prison”. Upon reflection his actions are undeniable; he’s not helping his camp, he’s destroying someone else’s. Just as a recovering alcoholic has a harmless drink that leads to relapse ( looking at you, Bob Stookey ), his feelings of responsibility has made him relapse into his lust for power. As he chants to himself in Dead Weight, he didn’t even want it in the first place.

As i mentioned in a previous post, the Gov reflects a lot of different characters on the series. Like Hershel, he was in denial about the state of walkers. Like Rick, he tried to be a dictator. He even has shades of this season’s Carol, who resorted to outright murder to protect the group. Seeing some of the Gov’s characterization in the last three episodes reminds us that he’s still a human being, just like those guys. This makes his return to villainy shows just how inescapable the degradation of humanity is for these characters , particularly Rick. Rick begins the season adamantly avoiding leadership and combat by being a farmer, only to be forced back into both. A scene in this season’s second episode Infected shows Rick clearly broken up when forced to sacrifice the pigs he raised in order to distract the zombies.

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Besides his healthy love of bacon, what makes this such a hard moment for Rick is that he realizes that this is a death for both the pigs and him, in a metaphorical sense. Being in charge means doing things others can’t and won’t do. It means making hard choices. And in this world, we all know what that means. The Governor knows this all too well, and avoids it until he’s compelled first by the actual need of the women, and then by the perceived need ( on his part ) of the camp. As is often said “the road to hell is paved in good intentions”. No matter how noble one begins, the world of The Walking Dead will wear them down till they ain’t no more.

This season succeeded in reframing the Governor as a tragic hero. The third season started off with this characterization but arguably turned him into a super-villain at the end. Once the Governor was reduced down to his essence,we see that he turned out to be just like anyone else. He wants a family. And with that, security. This series often asks us to recast the mundane drives we have into a world that refuses to accommodate them. You can’t just have a family in The Walking Dead. You have to fight for it. And eventually, kill for it. How much is too much is a matter of degrees. Rick acknowledges this in his speech, and tries to reason that he, the Governor, no matter what they’ve done haven’t yet reached the point of no return. Beheading Hershel was an act of spite towards the old man and Rick by the Governor. To him, their belief in spiritual rejuvenation is a spit-in-the-face for men who have succumbed to desperation. He too believed that he can be reborn, but realizes that’s not possible. By the end, we are left to wonder if Rick’s right or if they are all “too far gone”.

So what now? Does this put us in a new position? Have we gained anything? I’m not sure, to be honest. Serialized fiction isn’t always the best at producing satisfactory conclusions, whether it be mid or end-season. What we did get was from this episode and the one preceding it was a beautiful character study that was well-acted and directed. The Governor’s second and final fall was expected, but still compelling. It would have been much better if this kind of character could have been around by the end of last season, but at least we got it at some point. So in closing: so long Governor. Hopefully Michonne keeps your eyepatch as a trophy.

vlcsnap-2013-12-03-13h48m02s4For more posts on Walking Dead:

The Walking Dead: The Governor-Well-Intentioned Extremist