Welcome to the fourth of what I’m now officially calling “Raw Story’s don’t-call-it-a-recap of popular television shows.” Recaps you can find anywhere, but only here will you be able to find the proprietor of the AV Club’s Internet Film School breaking down your favorite television shows on a weekly basis. A complete collection of this guy’s visual rhetoric pieces can be found here.
Last night’s episode of The Walking Dead, “Live Bait,” marks the return of the Governor, the former leader of Woodbury, who led a failed attack against the prison after one of Rick’s people, Michonne, killed the zombie that had once been his daughter. The Governor was last seen skulking outside the prison gates at the end of “Internment,” the previous episode, which is significant because we know he ends up clean-shaven and, ostensibly, alone. That means the opening sequence in “Live Bait” must be a bluff, since he’s camped out with the two soldiers from Woodbury he didn’t murder after the botched assault on the prison.
“Internment,” as I demonstrated last week, was about being alone in a crowd, but “Live Bait” is a little more literal with its isolation: the Governor was abandoned by his two remaining men three minutes into the episode, and director Michael Uppendahl is at pains to remind you of just how lonely being alone is, first with an off-balance long shot of the Governor’s solitary tent:
We expect an unbalanced shot of the Governor, because he’s an unbalanced man. He murdered his soldiers for failing him, instead of upbraiding them and regrouping for another attack. The use of the long shot makes him look smaller — diminished — as if he can control nothing. He’s “the governor” of his own tent, an overturned barrel, and some tire tracks. When he returns to Woodbury, the now-abandoned town he once ruled, the camera seems to be telling us that he’s more in control:
Unlike the previous shot, this one is centered, and although we don’t see him setting the fire behind him, the composition strongly suggests that he’s the one who set that fire. He dominates the frame in a manner that communicates a sense of control, suggesting that the fire is his way of dealing with unpleasant memories, especially of his own failure — and confirmation of this dynamic occurs later in the episode, when he burns the photograph of the wife and child he couldn’t save. This shot suggests that the Governor’s got his shit together, that he’s more in control than he was in the first. However:
He’s not. We’re back to the off-kilter composition and utter isolation of that first shot. That he’s bearded and shambling means we know that this isn’t the version of the Governor who we’ll see outside the prison gates at the end of “Internment.” Something will happen in the interim, and that something is the Chalmers family, who he meets in an abandoned apartment.
As he slowly becomes a member of their family, Uppendahl’s direction takes an interesting turn. For example, when Lilly Chalmer cleans the wound he acquired securing oxygen tanks for her dying father, the level of framing — the height at which the camera stands above the floor — shifts down about three feet:
That the Governor is seated partially explains why Lilly must bend over to remain in frame, but the key here is Megan, with whom the camera is now, essentially, at eye-level. For much of the rest of this episode, this is where the level of framing will remain, at child-height:
That Megan’s head occupies part of the frame should make this obvious: we, the viewers, are being infantilized. Uppendahl tries to rehabilitate the Governor in the eyes of the audience by, in part, forcing the audience to see him through the eyes of a child in need of protection. That she’s colored an eye-patch on the king from the Lewis chess set only hammers home the point: she needs protection, and he can provide it. Even when she fears him most — after she’s seen him bludgeon in the head of her beloved grandfather after he turned — the camera insists on reminding us that he’s a protector, and that we need protecting:
In order for the adults to be in frame, they must bend down to the child’s level:
A single shot at this level would be an accident, but this is no accident: Uppendahl’s consistently shooting from this level in order to make the audience feel vulnerable, so that it might understand why it should sympathize with a character as vile as the Governor. This may, in fact, be the first episode in a sequence that leads to his redemption.
Perhaps he’s not alone outside the prison in “Internment,” but has the Chalmers in tow, and is trying to figure out a way to ask for entry into the one place he thinks is safe.
Or perhaps they’re dead and he’s come to burn the place down, like he did Woodbury.
[All images are copyright AMC Film Holding LLC]