Whether you’ve been watching AMC’s The Walking Dead from day one or only caught the most recent episode, it should be clear to everyone that Melissa McBride is a very talented actor. As Carol Peletier, one of the few remaining survivors of the original group camped outside Atlanta, McBride has gone through the most dynamic character arcs of the entire cast. She’s gone from a submissive housewife in season one, to a widow who’s lost a child and is looking for a way to become stronger, to a cold, calculating killer by season six. The latest episode, “The Same Boat”, allowed McBride to concentrate all of Carol’s experiences into one focused performance while also asking herself the question, “Is Carol on the right path?”
McBride is an absolute chameleon as Carol. What began as a subtle performance as the meek wife of an abusive husband and mother to a preteen daughter back in season one has morphed and shifted over the seasons. Carol has been depressed, angry, and weak, she’s been driven, determined, and pragmatic, and she’s been ruthless, efficient, and full of conviction; and it’s all been performed exceptionally well by McBride. Her most impressive work has come to the surface during the survivors’ time in Alexandria where Carol, a hardened killer and experienced survivalist, puts on a front as Suzy Homemaker in order to put the Alexandrians off their guard. It’s been a fantastic experience to watch McBride’s meta performance as Carol, who has turned into quite the fine actor herself.
And yet all of the psychological torment that has been inflicted on Carol over the seasons–domestic abuse, the death of Sophia, the loss of close friends, her exile from the group, her decision to execute threats to the group no matter if they’re children or those stricken with illness, etc.–has clearly begun to wear on her. In “The Same Boat”, we see Carol’s conscience pulled in a number of directions. She’d previously expressed concern over Maggie (who’s pregnant, remember) being too close to the front line. As a mother who’d lost both her own biological child and her surrogate children, and likely won’t be having any more in the future, Carol assumed a protective role over Maggie. When both Carol and Maggie were then captured by the Saviors, Carol’s internal conflicts rose to the surface: Should she kill to survive and to protect, or is all life precious?
What plays out in this episode between Carol and Maggie, and Carol and the group’s leader Paula, is a great display of McBride’s abilities. Continuing her act as a chameleon, McBride’s Carol pretends to be a terrified, hyperventilating, deeply religious woman who’s worried that the Saviors’ behavior is going to get them all killed. Another way she deflects attention and hopes to gain sympathy is by revealing Maggie’s pregnancy to the group of almost all female Saviors. While this tactic would be a clever ruse to keep the Saviors from considering her a threat, it becomes more interesting when we realize that Carol is actually beginning to suffer a moral crisis; not all of her pious posturing is for show. And that crisis of conscience is made flesh in Carol’s conflict with Paula.
Paula, a former secretary, wife, and mother who decided to put her job before her family with disastrous results during the outbreak, had taken a similar journey through the post-apocalypse when compared with Carol. They’re both well-respected members of their groups of survivors, they’re both clearly skilled in the art of survival in this harsh world, and they’re both willing to kill if it means staying alive and keeping their friends alive as well. So when Paula began to share her background with Carol, it wasn’t as an Alpha to a submissive, but as equals. This was when Carol’s moral quandary kicked in.
Previously, in Alexandria, Morgan had been attempting to spread his message of “All Life Is Precious” to the hardened survivors of Rick’s group. Carol seemed to be the most reluctant among them–except for Rick himself–especially as she executed the Wolves during their attack on Alexandria. But when she was faced with the choice between fleeing to safety or killing the remaining Saviors to prevent any retribution, Carol surprisingly chose the more peaceful option.
That’s not how it all worked out, of course, but it was actually at Maggie’s insistence that they finished the job and killed the remaining Saviors…in very violent fashion. Carol even had a moment of hesitation just before they exterminated the last of this group’s members, one that had her questioning her recent behavior. She knows she should have killed Donnie in the forest, which would have prevented their capture, but Morgan’s message seems to be taking on more meaning in her mind. And it’s causing her to hesitate, which is a very dangerous behavior in this new world.
Perhaps the most telling moment of Carol’s mental state came at the end of the episode. After killing Paula, executing ‘Chelle, and burning some nameless Saviors to death with the flick of her cigarette, Carol was met by Daryl who asked if she’s alright. Clearly she’s not, and she admitted as much; what’s less clear is how this will affect her character going forward.
So while Carol is in danger of suffering some sort of breakdown, McBride has shown that she’s stronger than ever. It’s a rare actor, indeed, whose performances are so well-crafted that I’d suggest going back to watch their character’s arc throughout multiple seasons. McBride is one such actor. Let’s hope Carol sticks around for many more seasons of The Walking Dead so we can find out just how talented she really is.