“Live Bait” isn’t a bad episode, but much like last week’s “Internment,” it can’t help but feel a little bit like filler. Everyone wants to know what the fallout of Rick’s decision to oust Carol is. Spending an episode exploring Hershel was nice. Spending an episode (and from the previews, stretching it out to two) looking at what happened after Woodbury for The Governor is nice. They’re interesting character studies that highlight something the show is very good at — tightening in focus on one person and really exploring what their lives are like at various points during the apocalypse. Usually that person is Rick, so seeing the scope broadened to Hershel and The Gov is a welcome change of pace. Last year we had a strong Merle-centered episode as well. (It does not escape my notice that many of the characters who could have used more audience sympathy, like Andrea or Lori, did not get a slavishly crafted 45 minutes of story time.)
But they’re nice and interesting at the expense of moving the story forward. After the cock-tease of having Rick and Daryl dodge the confrontation last week, it’s frustrating to know that we have at least two more episodes to go before we have any resolution. I stand by my assertion that season 4 is far and away the best entry since season 1, but this delay feels an awful lot like “the search for Sophia.” Part of my frustration is that Carol is one of the few well-developed female characters on the show, so her loss hurts, but I also know that there has to be some juicy conflict coming up. Daryl is gonna lose his shit. We’re also coming up on the mid-season break, so either this story is resolved in the next two episodes, or we have to wait until next year to see how it plays out.
The entirety of “Live Bait” revolves around the missing time between the Gov’s slaughter of the Woodbury crew and him ending up outside the prison at the end of “Internment.” The immediate aftermath is contained in a beautiful and breathtaking intro, showing the Gov, Martinez and Bowman leaving the slaughter site and ending back up at the place where they ambushed the army survivors. Martinez and Bowman rightfully leave Philip’s ass behind during the night — sometimes you just have to cut your losses. Philip’s cold-bloodedness was justifiable when they believed they were protecting the right to barbeques and small town America, but even his henchmen can’t back a dictator that kills all his own townspeople for not being murderous enough. From there, the Gov steals a flatbed and crashes through the gates of Woodbury, obviously arriving sometime after Rick brought the survivors to the prison, because the town is empty. We’re treated to a dramatic shot of the Governor standing in front of his burning town hall (a fire he obviously set), while Philip’s voiceover explains to someone how he got to where he is. We see him doing his Bruce Banner walk down an abandoned highway. There are stops to look at some graffiti left by people who are probably dead and turned. Soulful music plays in the background. He’s the loneliest dictator in the world. I jest, because, you know, the guy tortured a bunch of people, sexually assaulted Maggie, murdered Andrea and countless others, but there’s still tragedy to be had in the isolation of the end of everything. It’s a cruel fate, to be alone in a world of monsters. (Here’s where I can bring it back around to Carol.)
Eventually Philip ends up at an apartment complex where one of the last intact family units in the world has been holed up — two sisters, their elderly father, and a daughter, all living off of the contents of the canned food their father was delivering when the end of everything hit. Somehow they’ve managed to stay alive without learning anything about how to deal with the walkers. Philip – who eventually gives his name as Brian – stays long enough to be fed (he throws the food out, because he doesn’t deserve anyone’s kindness) and to run a few errands for the family as payment for shelter. The little girl is significantly the same age as his lost daughter — Lily observes that Meghan (the daughter) thought Philip was her deadbeat dad, finally returning. It’s not the most subtle of symbols the show has every played with. Meghan asks how Philip lost his eye and you can see him visibly starting to thaw — he’s a pirate, he tells her, and that’s the beginning of Brian’s third life.
Lily mentions that her father is dying of lung cancer, and someone should have rolled out the neon sign that reads “IMPENDING TRAGEDY.” I would have laid money on the father dying and then coming back to slaughter the women, not in the least because Brian never bothers to tell them that dad is going to become a zombie after he passes so they could be prepared for it. But the tragedy is a different one, as the father does die and does turn into a walker while everyone is in biting distance around him. But instead of a slaughter, Brian destroys the tentative trust Meghan’s placed in him by brutally bashing her grandfather’s head in with an oxygen tank, which isn’t the quickest way to go. It’s awful.
They’re on the road again after that, Brian and his woefully underprepared companions. He does helpfully tell them they need to shoot the walkers in the head, something Tara never figured out, but he doesn’t tell them not to pack everything they own into a truck that will inevitably run out of gas or break down, or to arm everyone with a good knife, or to beware convenient holes in the ground that will twist ankles at dramatic moments. Of course, Brian finally has an intimate encounter with Lily, who happens to have a daughter just like his, giving him a symbolic family to replace the one he lost. Of course, the truck breaks down and the group runs into a herd of walkers. Of course, Tara has an injured ankle that hobbles her and her sister during their escape. But Meghan decides that she trusts Brian enough to allow him to save her. He scoops her up and dashes through the woods, to fall into a walker trap that seems awfully familiar, and that rage of his surfaces again as he brutally dispatches the three walkers that are in the hole with them to keep Meghan safe. He rips one of their heads off at the jaw. It takes a lot of rage to dispatch someone like that – the kind of rage that doesn’t lead to white flags at prison gates.
And then, Martinez appears at the edge of the hole.