“Prey” may have restored the season’s suspense, but it also showed that the writers have squandered an opportunity with the Governor. Until now, most of the signs of his malevolence could be rationalized in ways that made him seem less morally bankrupt. Kills innocent soldiers? He needs to steal supplies to keep Woodbury afloat. Keeps a zombie daughter? He can’t let her go emotionally. Collects heads? He watches them to contain his madness.
But over the course of the season the Governor has joined with the likes of Skeletor and Sauron in the “pure evil” camp. He pointlessly risks Woodbury’s existence by attacking Rick. In “Prey” we find him setting up a rape room and stalking Andrea like he’s the monster in a slasher film.
Unlike movies, TV shows have the time to invest heavily in villains, to explore their villainy and give a more nuanced story of their bad behavior. The typical “good vs. evil” world view is, on TV if not everywhere, predictable and hackneyed now. Craft a diverse moral landscape—pair gentle slopes with jagged edges—and drama becomes more compelling.
Breaking Bad does this extremely well. The villain of the third and fourth season is a ruthless meth king. He’s also quite likable, and the show repeatedly suggests that he is actually less malevolent than Walter White himself. Meanwhile, the only actual “good guy,” the DEA agent who is on Walt’s trail, is another antagonist. The show turns the relationship between goodness and heroism completely on its head.
I do not expect The Walking Dead to do this. Rick Grimes is not going to start a meth empire. He lacks the ingenuity, the methylamine, and, most of all, the baseness. The Walking Dead’s attempts at imbuing Rick with a touch of psychopathy have always been halfhearted. That’s fine. There’s still a place for protagonists who are unambiguously good, and the “antihero” theme itself is a little overdone now anyway. Still, noble characters work best in a universe in which several shades of evil exist together and the audience’s perceptions of antagonists are constantly shifting, as in Game of Thrones. As Slate commenters have observed, a zombie apocalypse is the perfect setting for a battle royale of survival philosophies. Instead, The Walking Dead is looking more and more like just another boring battle between good and evil.