Before Michonne katana-ed her way into our hearts on AMC’s The Walking Dead, the show had a serious dearth of strong, female characters. Andrea was a meddlesome wannabe, Beth was an annoying, mild-mannered babysitter with suicidal tendencies, and don’t even get me started on Lori, world’s worst mother and wife.

But in the background, Melissa McBride’s long-suffering Carol Peletier has been cultivating a quiet strength. Whether by accident or some sheer genius, the powers that be have let Carol come into her own in a captivating way.

Now you’re all sitting there thinking, “Yes… How did I not see this before?” The answer is, “Magic.”

Carol’s had really shit luck in her life. We see her in season one being abused by her oaf of a husband, who then dies in the most karmically satisfying way. In season two her daughter goes missing, ends up becoming a zombie, and finally is shot in the head by Rick, and then…dies. Carol could have been snuffed out in the grand tradition of the Peletier family–tidily wrapping up their bleak saga.

But she didn’t, and she came back from it in the most glorious way. It was slow, almost sneaky, but Carol, like the proverbial phoenix, rose from the flames.

First, like any grieving mother, she mourned. Then she tried to move on, turning her attention to Daryl, the man who made the most effort in looking for her daughter. This curious relationship betwixt Daryl and Carol (omg their names even rhyme I mean come on ok /ship), while weird at the start, seriously grew on me and had the added benefit of pulling Carol back into the fray.

After the disaster at the end of season two, Carol arms herself with basic medical skills by learning from Hershel–finding new purpose as the nurse of the group. Displaying an incredible amount of foresight that no one else in the group could even imagine, she takes it upon herself to learn about makeshift tools and medication in preparation for Lori’s impending birth.

I don’t know if it’s her relative maturity, being a mother who looks a lot older than Lori, but her efforts sure pay off better than Andrea’s. Sure, Andrea goes and tries to make herself an incredible markswoman, but in the process she almost kills someone. I’ll never forgive Andrea for her overzealous “Look-I’m-shooting-with-bullets-whee-defending-the-group-oops-was-that-Daryl-sorry-yall” moment. Yea. I’m not even being biased. If she had accidentally shot, say, Dale, I would have been equally pissed (no, not really).

Also, it’s the zombie apocalypse. Basically EVERYONE is trying to improve their shooting skills. Andrea’s fixation on being one of the boys ends up being more meddlesome than valuable.

At the same time, the other women of the group are distracted by other pretty things. Maggie’s pretty thing, in particular, is Glenn. Yes, she goes on runs, but sometimes I wonder if that is just so she could have fun sexy times with him away from the disapproving glare of Father Hershel.

Carol not only picks up semi-medical skills, she also learns to protect herself with simple weapons (knives, guns and such). But her most important tool is that beautiful brain, which helps solidify her position as one of the team’s integral players.

By the time we make it to the prison Carol has taken her place as one of the group’s elders, and boy is leadership a good look on her. She’s teaching kids to use weapons (ha, classic mother, amirite?), telling Daryl what to do (like keeping zombies away from the perimeter), and keeping secrets from Rick et al.

Also killing sick people.

Prison leader Carol gives no fucks. She offs whoever is a threat to the group’s overall safety. Only you can tell it’s causing her to crack. In her guilt-spurred breakdown, she bumps into a water tank in the compound, causing a loss of precious potable water. While the killing clearly gets to her, the audience is becoming more aware of the fact that this is a more assertive Carol.

A Carol willing to make tough sacrifices for the good of all.

In fact, she’s been doing that all her life. One could interpret her staying with her asshole husband as a personal sacrifice so Sophia could have a family–albeit a pretty shitty one. Martyrism, thy name is Carol Peletier.

All of her delicious development and self-sacrifice and murder leads to one of the most I-can’t-look-away moments on television.

Carol, the quintessential mother, consciously kills a child for the greater good.

carol-face-murder-3

There is so much awesome going on in this late fourth season episode that I cannot even begin to fathom how the TWD team came up with every element. McBride herself is all quivering lips and breaking voice, delivering the most delicate mix of reluctance and strength as the mother who is about to lose a child for the third time in a row. This time, by her doing.

It is in “The Grove” that we get a real chance to see Carol as a mother, a caregiver, a decision maker and best of all, a repentful sinner. When she confesses, after killing Lizzie, to Tyreese about murdering Karen back in the prison, I can’t look away. Is Tyreese going to kill her? Is she going to be ejected from the group again?

With Tyreese coming to terms with what he’d just witnessed and then learned, and Carol waiting for his reaction but at the same time not really caring, the weight of emotions in this scene has me pinned to my couch in anticipation.

At the very core of her character, Carol is a mother. Sure, she kills Lizzie, but she does that to protect little baby Judith, proving that maternal instincts know no loyalty. And she is much more than just a mother. She is a fighter, a team player and a quiet leader. She isn’t fearless, but she bravely tackles her challenges.

Michonne, with her now departed zombie pets and her katana, is awesome, but her awesomeness is sudden and in-your-face, lacking the delicate subtlety of Carol’s character development. Michonne’s the most recognized strong female in The Walking Dead predominantly because of her zombie kill count, which puts her in the leagues of the boys (something that Andrea tried, and failed, to be).

But should we judge women by how they compare to men? Carol’s had to make more tough decisions than the samurai appears to have had. Her strength comes from meeting (post apocalyptic) life’s challenges and growing from them, as well as excelling at a traditionally feminine role (Mother). Unfortunately, Michonne seems designed to prove women can kick as much zombie ass as the men.

Perhaps it’s because Carol was portrayed as a victim all through the first and second seasons, that she seems forgettable. But it’s time to turn the spotlight on my favorite fictional mother (hi Mom! oh and Godma and Grandma too) as we watch the fifth season premiere. Maybe she and Tyreese will save the group’s behinds as they approach Terminus. There is so much good that could come from any storyline involving her character. I just hope my writing this story doesn’t make the show’s cruel but amazing writers kill her off.

  • A

    If we wanna talk about being able to make tough decisions, Michonne would have never killed THREE people behind their backs, nor would she had lied about it afterwards. Michonne would be able to make tough decisions and not lose her humanity in the process. She’s not a COWARD, she’s a protector at her core. But go ahead and keep telling yourself that Carol’s better than her because of some bullshit about her being designed to prove women are as strong as men, even while Carol became G.I. Jane/superhero character overnight.

    • Kelly Elizabeth

      Wow? Who peed in your cornflakes?? I think you forgot to add the rest of your name, A -sshole. Never been a name more fitting for someone like you. Your comment is riddled with self loathing. It’s riddled with hate. And it seeps ignorance. You clearly don’t understand yourself, never mind a FICTIONAL TV CHARACTER. Women ARE just as strong as men and Carol’s story ISN’T about that at all! It’s about finding her worth, it’s about becoming the person she KNEW she always was but was held back by an abusive man. An intelligent woman who could and finally can. An inspiration for women out there that suffered just like Carol did. Because even though it’s a show, those issues are REAL.

    • Heather

      I had a reply for you but I think what Kelly Elizabeth said covers it all! And three innocent people? What show are you watching? Seriously. And some advice, if you don’t like Carol, you might want to stop watching the show altogether because like Andrew Lincoln said, she IS the epitome of what this show is about! She is the heart!

    • Deana Folsom

      I think michonne is incredible, but we don’t know how she would react. She was away from the main group for a lot of the sickness. carol didn’t hesitate to say yes when rick asked. it would’ve caused a lot more blood shed if she had marched up to tyreese in full rage and announced she killed k/d so shes not a coward-she didn’t lie. neither carol or michonne have lost the ability to love and keep the humanity alive. I would love to see a friendship between these two strong women

  • Heather

    Carol IS TWD’s best kept secret. I agree with you completely. Her ability to overcome all that she has had to overcome and step up to be someone that can not only protect herself but others now, is the most beautiful transformation for a female character on television. TWD has never made a better decision than developing her character and allowing us to see her become what she is today. She always had that strength within her and finding it now and being the person she was always meant to be is an amazing sight to behold.

  • Kelly Elizabeth

    Another great article Cherylnn!