Teaching the Dead: Musings on Carol – Protector or Psycho?

In my classroom, I always direct my students to analyze for character development, especially as it grows over the course of a longer piece of work. I recognize that many people feel that The Walking Dead is lacking in the character development department, or should devote more time to less prominent characters (like Tara) and less time to the characters in the forefront (like Daryl). However, I have always been of the mind that TWD does develop its characters, albeit it may be more slowly than we would like, or the character might go in a direction we do not agree with (See example: Andrea and Tyreese) but we do see evolutions of character.

I’m also the first to admit that some of the development has been stagnant over the reign of certain showrunners. The Mazzara era showed characters like Andrea go in a strange direction, characters like Milton and Martinez be wasted, and characters like Beth to have no development of all. However, season 3 was also the start of the transformation of the house wife mousey battered woman Carol into serial killer Pelliter.

To be honest, I hated the Carol of seasons 1, 2 and 3a. I get she was abused and was suffering from PTSD  even before the ZA hit, and I get that she was so used to being under her husband’s thumb that she couldn’t move. But still, she was just annoying. I called her the damsel in distress who was always being saved by someone, be it Daryl, Andrea, or T-Dog (RIP poor underused character, the Tyreese that should have been!), and she was nothing more than a plot device to help develop Daryl. But the season 2 Sophia arc helped give rise to the phenomenon known as Caryl, a fan base hoping for a romantic connection between the two. Admittingly, they have great chemistry on screen when allowed to work their magic, but Daryl is so charismatic that no matter whom he shares a scene with turns into a romance, with it’s with Beth (Bethyls), Michonne, or even Rick or Aaron. So I don’t put much stock in her season 2 rise.

The producers didn’t put much stock in her either, as word has it that she was scheduled to die in “Killer Within” in season 3. Melissa McBride was able to convince producers of the value of Carol and offer her “vision” of the character, causing them to reconsider and resurrect her. Then, at the end of the season, we began to see a tougher but more “Wise Woman” Carol, someone who could offer Andrea advice on killing The Governor after sex with him, and tell Merle to “get with us” or get out. I began to like this Carol, the voice of reason and experience. Nonflinting, but humane. Protective but maternal. This was a character I could learn to like.

Then season 4 hit and I was perplexed once again. There’s character growth, then there’s character change so dramatic it’s difficult to accept. Six months earlier she could barely shoot a gun, now she was murdering and burning the bodies of two people and teaching kids self defense without anyone’s knowledge. I hoped she was lying to protect someone else when she confessed to the crime and I wasn’t sure how I felt about her, her character’s turn, or her actions. One thing was certain, however: the writers and producers were invested her, giving her one of the most controversial story arcs in the run of the show. They also gave her an iconic comic arc, the murder of the twins, taking the action away from Carl and changing the gender and age of the victims. To be certain, Carol was given one of the best episodes of season 4 to herself with The Grove (some would argue one of the best of the series) and one of the most debatable story arcs with the killing of Karen and David. Not bad for a character who was slated to be killed off herself just the year before. If nothing else, she was now a major character in the series and someone people were talking about.

McBride’s fabulous acting made it difficult to call for Carol’s demise after season 4 closed, and her prominence in the show illustrated that the producers had big plans for her. But I still wasn’t sure if I LIKED the character. Or if I bought her transformation.

My feelings for her season 5 continues to be mixed. It seems as if she is being thrust into the spotlight, becoming the mega hero of the season premiere and single handedly taking down Terminus. She is welcomed with open arms and forgiven her sins. It was only in “Consumed” that I began to understand her again. In that episode she struggled with her actions and tried to justify her reasons behind them to herself. It’s a Daryl-Carol episode, but one that focuses more on Carol’s guilt than Daryl’s conflicts. I felt like even if I didn’t agree with her, I understood her. A character suffering from a combination of PTSD and Battered Wife Syndrome, added with the loss of her own child and two children in her care. Perhaps that could make someone hypersensitive and trigger happy?

I am once again who the heck is Carol, and what is she doing? A co conspirator to take over a community that opened their doors to them? Stealing guns and chocolate (why does she need all that chocolate?)? Threatening little boys with disembowelment? The only reaction she has that does make sense is her reaction to Pete’s domestic abuse of his family (heck, I want to kill him, too). If Rick is going “full Shane” then she is going “full Governor,” a manipulative chameleon scheming to take control. It may be hyperbole, but the parallels are interesting.

I am hoping Deanna or someone of power in Alexandria comes to prove that they deserve the mutiny being planned by Carol and Rick. I’m still having trouble figuring her out, and I only hope it turns out that Carol is correct to plot as she is doing. It would go a long way in helping me sympathize with her.

Is she the wise experienced now nonsense woman, or someone with so much blood on her hands that she is immune? Is she a protector, or a serial killer? A psycho? Someone just suffering trauma? Hopefully, we’ll figure it out by the end of the month.

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