As we’ve noted before on the blog, we’re interested in television shows that fall under the category of post-western: television shows that take the Western out of the 19th-century American West and locate it in different places and sometimes different time periods.
The AMC series The Walking Dead literally takes place in contemporary Georgia, but we are metaphorically in a frontier situation brought about by the zombie apocalypse, which has caused civilization to collapse and humanity to return to a state of nature. (See earlier posts, “Two Guys Walk into a Bar . . . .” and “Wrapping Up The Walking Dead.”)
The most recent episode of The Walking Dead, “Live Bait,” played around with several western motifs in a story that centered on a character known as the Governor (or Phillip, in a former life, and Brian, the name he adopts in his most recent self-invention).
One of the early scenes of the Governor, alone and wandering, plays out with the sound of “The Last Pale Light in the West” by Ben Nichols playing on the soundtrack. If the Governor is not literally walking West in this episode, the song suggests that at least metaphorically he is doing so, as the protagonist of the song is walking toward the “setting sun” that is “in his way.” Even if he (like the speaker of the song) is asking for “no redemption,” the song connects the Governor to those two classic western motifs–heading west (into the sunset), looking for, or accidentally finding, redemption along the way. And what better way to seek redemption than to help out a trio of stranded female homesteaders—I mean, post-apocalyptic survivors—after their father dies? The episode moves forward with the Governor moving on with a new family of sorts, including a young girl that reminds him of his own long-lost daughter.
Throughout the series, the Governor has struck me as being portrayed in a way that suggests or recalls John Wayne. Actor David Morrisey, who plays the Governor, does so somewhat subtly in his vocal delivery, but, I think more clearly in his body language, at various times striking poses that recall Wayne’s cowboy persona. And when he shows up onscreen in “Live Bait” with an eyepatch and an unruly beard, there’s more than a little resemblance to Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn (and a whole lot of resemblance to Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken in Escape from New York), or maybe it’s Jeff Bridge’s version of Rooster that is striking me when I look at the Governor.
As the episode progresses, he shaves his beard, keeps his eyepatch, and indeed looks like a new man. Is redemption possible for the Governor?