The Walking Dead: …Can We Follow Carol Instead?

By Mark Abraham · Nov 27, 2013

The Walking Dead insists on being the show that it is, which is apparently a show that gets good for a while before suddenly not being much good anymore because: zombies and explosions. Now, I realize not that everybody will have felt that the beginning of this season was all that great, and that’s fine; it just means that the things that interest me most about the show were emphasized while the things that bore me were off in the margins (sorry you got sick, Glenn (Steven Yeun), but mostly sorry that you haven’t been a fun character in like forever). It wasn’t good, really, but it certainly wasn’t Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn). Or Andrea (Lorie Holden). Or Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies). Or Shane (Jon Bernthal). And so I was onboard with the show in a way that I haven’t been since…well, ever, really, but at least since the first couple of episodes of season 3. The pace was slow, which could have been a disastrous return to the boring superficiality of the morality discussions the characters had at the farm during season 2. Thankfully, it wasn’t. Carol (Melissa McBride), freaked out by a sudden illness that was killing people and turning them into zombies in the close confines of the secure community the main characters had built in the prison, killed two sick people. Even better, the discussions between her and Rick (Andrew Lincoln) about her choice mattered. For a brief moment it seemed like the show was about to embark on a really interesting new plot centered on the dilemma that Carol had created by trying to do the right thing.

So, of course, the resolution was Rick kicking Carol out. And then things sort of fell apart. That whole issue with the fence surrounding the prison buckling under the weight of amassing zombies, a plot that had sort of been set up in previous episodes, suddenly drew the show’s fast and loose approach to the numbers of people who were actually living at the prison (and the subset of that number who were infected with zombie flu) into stark relief. Like, they had at least 50 people living there, for a while now, and the most obvious improvements they’d made to the prison revolved around water, plumbing, and gardening? No attempts to up defense? Not even after they had just been invaded? Not even though there were zombies everywhere outside the fence? Was everybody who wasn’t Rick or Maggie (Lauren Cohan) or the kids in the zombie flu quarantine? Couldn’t the ones that weren’t have helped out with killing the zombies or the fence? The show makes such a big deal about how everybody needs to learn to fight in this new world order, but the moment zombies knock the fence down Carl (Chandler Riggs) is the only one who can help his dad? Which is a perfect example of how this show often becomes an annoying mess: the plausibility of the situation is thrown to the wind so that we can be smacked in the face with an anvil-sized character beat as Rick, who has been struggling all season with his son wielding a gun, has to teach his kid how to operate a machine gun. Boom.

Of course, it’s the last two Governorlicious episodes that are the real issues, though. The Governor (David Morrissey) was, by most accounts, an absolute failure as an antagonist for the main characters when we left them at the end of season 3. The idea for the character was solid enough—this leader of an idyllic zombie-free utopia that is somehow modeled on the 1950s is in fact maintaining that community by ruthlessly and brutally stealing supplies and weaponry from other human groups—but the execution was ludicrous. The main characters stopped the Governor’s attempted invasion, but failed to kill him. And for several episodes this season it seemed that he was just gone, and that was fine. Then: flashback episodes! The first one seemed like it was trying to make an honest attempt to transform the character into something different. He was sensitive now. He had realized the error of his ways. He found a new family. He was changed. Until last Sunday’s episode reversed all that, and now he’s a jerk again. Great.

I understand why. The show has always been invested in a particular idea emblemized first by the Rick/Shane duality and then by the Rick/Governor duality. This idea is simple: men must decide how to comport themselves in this world where the rules are fundamentally different. But I can’t help but think that the simple tomato plant-side debate between Rick and Carol a few episodes ago was a far more interesting version of this dichotomy. Carol made a choice to kill two innocent, sick people in the hopes that she could prevent the spread of disease and the endangerment of the rest of the prison community. Rick thinks that’s morally wrong, despite the fact that he has also struggled with these issues, which is why for a moment it’s unclear whether he’s upset at Carol for killing or whether he’s upset that she’s threatened the invisible morality line in the sand he’s drawn himself to cope. It’s not about wrong or right—Carol clearly made a mistake, since she didn’t stop the spread of disease; but…maybe she would have—so much as it’s about the stories these people are telling themselves to make them feel good about what they’ve done. Carol tells herself she did it for everybody; consequently, she doesn’t have to see herself as a murderer. Rick thinks what she’s done was reckless; consequently, he doesn’t have to accept that she did it for him and his son and all of their friends, because maybe that pulls him across that line he’s so fucking scared of. Just imagine that playing out, with Carol still around. Actual arguments about actual things these people have actually done, which is such an improvement on what this show so often is, which is arguments about things they haven’t done yet. And fucking Carol, who was barely a character in the first season of the show, is suddenly the most vital element of the show’s new take on morality.

I wonder, I guess, if the show can even conceive of that, though? Could the show operate with Carol in the “villain” role, given that Carol is not a man? Is that why Rick kicked her out, rather than fighting with her, or executing her, or letting Tyrese (Chad Coleman), the boyfriend of one of her victims, decide what to do? The show seems too-obsessed with this idea that the apocalypse is an opportunity for men who represent different kinds of masculinity to battle it out for supremacy. Which is boring, frankly, because the show isn’t going to kill Rick, so even if the Governor wins this time it’s only so that eventually Rick will defeat him later on. Far more interesting, to me, to have two characters who are functioning within the same group working these ideas against one another, regardless of their gender. The show spent so much time transforming Carol into a character who fundamentally believes, based on the loss of her daughter, that there’s no room for feelings in this new world order. She is, arguably, the show’s greatest success. She’s complex, super-interesting, and makes her a perfect foil for Rick’s waffling between law and family man. So of course they told her to hit the road and brought the Governor back. They’re kind of the same character, after all, and how could Carol compete with him? She’s not crazy and she doesn’t even have a tank.

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