Somehow, wow doesn’t cut it. Amazing, fantastic, superlative . . . breaking out the dictionary and thesaurus to find more words is really needed here, but we’ll skip it and just talk for a little while.
The writing staff of The Walking Dead has hit back-to-back home runs. Monster home runs, the kind of towering shots that break windows on buildings blocks from the park. As good as last week’s episode was, this was that much better. And it’s all down to the fantastic story the writers have come up with for Carol, and a phenomenally impressive performance by Melissa McBride.
The thing about Carol . . . way back in Season two, I hated her. Despised her. Wanted her to be eaten, and the sooner the better. She was setup as a gimmie sympathy character, as a battered wife who we were supposed to feel sorry for. That’s not why I hated her, but it’s where she started from. At the beginning of season two, it’s her and her daughter Sophia. When the herd of walkers staggered through the highway roadblock, and everyone’s hiding under the cars, Sophia’s nerve breaks and she bolts. Carol did . . . nothing. She just stayed under the car, quivering. Frozen. Unable to move to save her child.
Then she spent the bulk of season two whining to everyone in earshot to please go find Sophia. Not help her find, go find. They were supposed to retrieve her daughter, who she’d done nothing — was still doing nothing — to save. And we know Sophia’s fate; she’d been bitten, turned, and closeted in Hershel’s barn. Carol in season two was a huge motivation for me to create Jessica and Candice in my novels; because I just couldn’t stand how inept and foolish Carol had been toward her own daughter. I hated Carol for what she did, and what she didn’t do, in season two.
In Season three, Carol has abruptly become a much more competent character. And that continued in season four; where she’s teaching others weapons, she’s considerably more confident, and she’s comfortable shooting with more than a novice’s level of skill. When the prison falls, Carol is the one who saves Rick’s infant daughter — Judith — along with Tyreese, Mika, and Lizzie; and who has to deal with the psychotic Lizzie when the girl’s mind snaps and she starts feeding people to zombies. By Season five, Carol is luring enormous herds of zombies into attacking enemies and hiding herself among them, using the undead as distraction and cover so she can gun down foes. Then she turns on the stealthy charm in Alexandria — from the very moment they arrive, and without discussing it with the others in her group — to hide in plain sight as Suzie Helpless Homemaker.
Which brings us to JSS, this episode. Carol is going about her Suzie day, when all hell breaks loose. Strange people are inside the fence, and some zombies too. They’re attacking the actual helpless; the naive residents of Alexandria who have been grumbling and resisting about Rick’s constant insistence that the world is dangerous and deadly. And Carol springs right into action.
The skills, the confidence, she’s learned and earned with such tremendous personal sacrifice comes right to the fore. She’s efficient, clever, and brutal; there’s nothing of the battered wife and paralyzed-with-fear woman of season two. Not even a shadow. Not even when she’s having to do, what she has done, hits her.
This episode had a lot of action, but what I love about it is how the action — just like all properly written stories — was used only to setup and frame and illustrate the actual story. I love action and great effects as much as the next viewer, but whether the ‘action’ is explosions or fights or gunfire or legal skirmishing in a courtroom or a romantic couple arguing or a detective searching desperately for the meaning in a handful of clues, its purpose and point is always to develop characters. It’s also to move plots, but it only really hits home when it’s used to frame and define characters too.
And JSS does that. For Carol, and also for Enid, and Jesse too. This was really an episode that showcased some excellent work by three great actresses. I’m pretty sure no one’s really noticed Katelyn Nacon — Enid — yet — but the only reason she’s overshadowed in this episode is how powerful McBride’s performance is. That shouldn’t take anything away from Nacon, but she’s going to have to share the spotlight. And Jesse — Alexandra Breckenridge — did everything else I would’ve wanted the season two version of Carol to have done. Jesse defended her children, at all costs. Even though she wasn’t sure how to do it, or ready to emotionally handle it; she did. She saved her kids.
Nacon and Breckenridge are going to have to take a side stage to McBride though. I’ve heard, repeatedly over the years we’ve been enjoying this show, how McBride is always talking to the writers and showrunners. She’s always interested in what they’ve got in store for Carol, and always has suggestions, or wants to work with them to tweak and tune what they’ve come up with. And I mean repeatedly; I’ve been hearing comments like that about McBride’s approach to the show for the last four years. A lot of the time, this would be a reason to kill a character off, to write them out. A lot of great actors don’t have the first clue about how to write a great character, much less a great story. There’s nothing wrong with that — acting is a different skill set from writing, from story development — but McBride seems to have more of a touch for it than the bulk of her fellows. And apparently she’s not annoying the showrunners with self-serving — and bad — suggestions.
The work Melissa McBride has been doing on The Walking Dead is well past amazing. She’s the single most transformative character, with the arc that’s moved the furthest and both dipped the deepest and rose the highest, out of everyone. Even moreso than Andrew Lincoln’s Rick, or Norman Reedus’ Daryl. McBride has brought Carol to life with such amazing skill that it’s . . . we’re back to the thesaurus again. I’ll just say it’s breathtaking, and has been a serious privilege to enjoy over the course of the show. This is the kind of thing actors mean when they talk about what a series allows them to do with a character, rather than a movie, or even a movie franchise. McBride has had five seasons, something like seventy episodes now, to really get into Carol. And hasn’t wasted a minute of it, hasn’t phoned in any of her performance.
This whole episode is a real ladies show. We get six minutes at the beginning detailing Enid’s backstory, we got Jesse stepping up to save her kids, and of course Carol. And none of it was pandering to the audience; all of this was great storytelling, was story that we wanted and enjoyed. I always keep an eye out online, especially after the show airs, and even this early the fan reaction has been very positive.
Carol I’ve discussed, and Jesse too. What I haven’t yet is the opening, Enid. Last season she was just sort of there, very quiet, a little strange; but not a “ooookay, she’s fucking weird and everyone should stay away” strange, but more in a “she’s got demons” way. You know, the sort of demons most people who weren’t native Alexandrians carry. The kind of demons survivors of an apocalypse carry. In Enid’s case . . . well, watching your parents not only die to — but be eaten by — zombies is a hell of a heavy demon. Eating raw turtle is more or less nothing next to that, though I bet a lot of people in the audience probably reacted more strongly to that than the shot of Enid staring in horror as the zombie scooped her father’s entrails into its mouth.
JSS. Just Survive Somehow. Those three words are at the heart of why a lot of people like apocalyptic stories, why we entertain tales of zombies bringing the world down around us, or a nuclear or bio-chemical war, or a non-zombie disease outbreak, or an alien invasion, or a mysterious force that shatters civilization by turning off all modern technology. Most people, whatever story they’re reading or watching, usually envision themselves in it. Maybe not literally, maybe not constantly, but whether it’s a romance or a mystery or an intrigue thriller or a political plot or an end-of-the-world yarn, if you’re enjoying it you probably find yourself wondering internally what you’d be doing, how you’d be reacting, if your decisions and actions would match or differ from the characters’.
Strong characters, those that keep going no matter how tough things are, are always fan favorites in apocalyptic fiction. Enid’s backstory has just put her into that category. What the actress did with her screen time this week was pretty good; she didn’t just walk through the part. She really put on a great performance. And now that the audience knows what she’s been through, hopefully the writers and Nacon, won’t waste the opportunity.
Because she played it well, and there’s plenty of space to stand solidly as the story moves on from here. It seems obvious we could be getting some form of a ‘love arc’ between her and Carl, but at this point I have faith that the writers won’t forget what show they’re working on. That’s not to say I don’t want that arc; because I think it could be great fun, and develop both Enid and Carl in good ways for us to enjoy. What I mean is, I don’t think we should (hopefully) worry too much about the show falling into a standard CW style teenager drama when it comes to the two of them. At this point, they’ve got shared ground, shared shellshock, and are both survivors. There’s room for their characters to grow and get together for further growth without the writing devolving into sterotypical — and boring — will they wont they.
I don’t usually pay a lot of attention to awards, because . . . well that’s another article. But at this point, it’s past time McBride gets to doll herself up in a designer gown and accept a few. She’s earned it.
And the best part is we get all the benefits. Keep up the fantastic work Melissa. We love you for it!
Until next time, eat more brains!