Becoming Carol: The Evolution of a ‘Walking Dead’ Heroine

Melissa McBride as Carol in AMC’s The Walking Dead. (Photo: Gene Page/AMC)

To celebrate the Oct. 22 Season 8 premiere of The Walking Dead — the series’ 100th episode — Yahoo TV will be posting a new TWD-related story every day through the season opener.

“Cardigan Carol.” “Commando Carol.” “The Cookie Lady.” That last one is a nickname Carol Peletier’s portrayer, Melissa McBride, came up with for her character herself, after the formerly meek mom and abused wife arrived in Alexandria with her transformation into the dessert-baking, sweater-wearing persona who belied the stealth badass living among the naive townsfolk.

Melissa McBride as Carol in AMC’s The Walking Dead. (Photo: Gene Page/AMC)

But both Carols are genuine, and both are far different from the character viewers were introduced to in The Walking Dead’s first season, when Carol and her daughter, Sophia, lived in fear of abusive bully husband Ed Peletier. Ed’s defining moments in Season 1: punching Carol in the face for laughing with her friends, threatening Andrea and the other women, getting beaten down by Shane, and finally being eaten alive by a walker. That brutal ending for Ed meant a new beginning for Carol, as the apocalypse, in all ways but one, left her with the chance for a better life.

The death of Sophia, confirmed when the MIA little girl emerged from Hershel Greene’s barn as a walker in Season 2, was of course tragic. But that loss continues to spark Carol’s actions, which have come to define the heroic survivor she has evolved into throughout the seasons.

“I think, since the beginning … back to Sophia coming out of the barn, Carol’s just had to very quickly adapt, to do what she has to do to survive and help the people in her band of survivors to live another day,” McBride told Yahoo TV during Season 6. “It’s strange, because she puts on those other faces in order to do that, and also, I think, to escape the pain and horror of what she’s having to do.”

Melissa McBride as Carol in AMC’s The Walking Dead. (Photo: Gene Page/AMC)

Among the highlights of Carol’s superwoman résumé, which began with teaching herself serious weaponry skills: disguising herself as a walker and shooting a gas tank to create a diversion that saved most of her group in the Season 5 premiere; saving the lives of many Alexandrians during an attack on the town by the Wolves in Season 6’s “JSS”; taking on a small pack of Saviors at an outpost later in Season 6’s “The Same Boat”; and helping to mobilize the Kingdom and Hilltop rescue mission that allowed Rick Grimes and company to survive a sneak attack by the Saviors in the Season 7 finale.

And then there are the emotional decisions Carol has voluntarily taken upon herself. In Season 4, she killed fellow prison dwellers Karen and David and burned their bodies, all in the name of trying to prevent the spread of an infection that could have wiped out the whole population of the compound. Most memorably, and in what remains one of the series’ best-ever episodes — Season 4’s “The Grove” — Carol made the heartbreaking call to kill mentally unstable and dangerous tween Lizzie after the young girl murdered her own little sister and revealed plans to kill baby Judith.

Melissa McBride as Carol in AMC’s The Walking Dead. (Photo: Gene Page/AMC)

“She’s doing the things that she’s good at, she’s been good at all along. It just manifests in different ways pre-apocalypse and now,” McBride said in Season 5. “I think she’s proud of herself. … I don’t think it’s something she ever would have imagined. It’s all these steps along the way for her to realize she had this in her all along. That’s one of the aspects that I just love … her own realization. She has become her own person now, because of this world. That person was there all along. She just didn’t take ownership. It’s very satisfying to me to see this play through.”

“She is the thinking person’s action hero now,” TWD showrunner Scott Gimple said after Carol’s save-the-day actions in “No Sanctuary.”

“It’s exciting to see the audience dig that,” Gimple said. ” I find Carol as a character to be an incredibly interesting person, and I did as a viewer. I watched the first season of this show as a viewer; I came on the second season. I was just so excited to be able to tell her story, and in my mind, it’s only gotten better and better. [Melissa McBride’s] performances always just blow me away.”

Melissa McBride as Carol in AMC’s The Walking Dead. (Photo: Gene Page/AMC)

But while Carol’s fellow survivors, now her family, remain the beneficiaries of her selfless acts of dedication, she continues to pay a terrible price for her abilities and willingness to use them to protect her loved ones.

A mother who lost her own child in the apocalypse, Carol took on the incredible weight of ending the life of another child, in circumstances — as with Sophia’s death — brought on specifically because of the apocalypse. “That is the hardest thing she’s ever had to do, but it was necessary,” McBride said. “To know that you’re capable of doing something like that because it’s necessary in this world is … I don’t know if that’s a realization a lot of people would want to carry with them. On the other hand, it’s reassuring to know, and this is Carol thinking, ‘I don’t think anything could be worse.’ No matter what she has to do, it’s never going to be worse than that.”

Melissa McBride as Carol in AMC’s The Walking Dead. (Photo: Gene Page/AMC)

There was also her banishment, by Rick, from the prison after she told him she was the one who had killed Karen and David. He made up with her only after her astonishing act of bravery at Terminus (and his own experience with having to take previously unimaginable steps to save the lives of his loved ones — aka biting out Claimer Joe’s jugular).

And because she kept a running list of everyone she has killed,  the tally was among the reasons she decided, at the end of Season 6, that she needed to split from the group. She called timeout on all the killing she’d never be able to stop if she were surrounded by people she cares about, leaving Alexandria on a self-imposed exile that kept her separated from her people throughout most of Season 7.

“I will say there is a cost to being Carol, and she recognizes the cost, and it’s absolutely part of her story,” Gimple said. “In a lot of ways, she is absolutely willing to pay that cost.”

Melissa McBride as Carol in AMC’s The Walking Dead. (Photo: Gene Page/AMC)

McBride said, “What propels Carol in the first place is guilt over the loss of her child that she couldn’t protect; and guilt over the loss of Lori, who, had Carol not gotten caught up in the tombs [in Season 3], maybe she could have been there for Lori’s C-section. All of these losses and self-imposed guilt have really propelled Carol to fight harder and harder and harder to be self-reliant and efficient in this world. … I think we’re just running that risk of, yes, we change and we adapt, but don’t change so much that there’s no piece of you left. You’ve got to hold onto your humanity. It’s walking a fine line in that world.”

With her decision to rejoin her group and its fight to defeat the Saviors and move forward with plans to forge a new society in the apocalypse, Carol seems to have decided that being an active member of the community with Rick and Daryl and Maggie and Michonne and the rest of the gang outweighs the harsh necessity of killing in the new world; she seems to have decided she can accept that reality, and manage her feelings, her guilt, about it, though we’ll see how long that lasts as the war against the Saviors intensifies in Season 8.

Sarah Wayne Callies as Lori Grimes, Chandler Riggs as Carl Grimes, Madison Lintz as Sophia, and Melissa McBride as Carol in AMC’s The Walking Dead. (Photo: Gene Page/AMC)

Carol’s role in that war will almost certainly be significant, which makes this key fact in her evolution from Season 1 victim to enduring (lowercase) savior all the more surprising: The character was all set to become a Walking Dead casualty in Season 3.

Carol had lost her husband, her daughter, and her friend Lori, and the show’s writers didn’t see a future for her. They planned to kill her off at the prison when she got caught up in the tombs with a pack of walkers. Only a conversation between McBride and then-showrunner Glen Mazzara, and then another chat between the actress and the show’s writers, convinced everyone involved that Carol had a lot more to contribute to The Walking Dead TV universe.

“Melissa just [blows] me away,” TWD director, executive producer, and special effects whiz Greg Nicotero told Yahoo TV after “The Grove.”

“And I just think back to Season 3, where people felt they didn’t know what to do with Carol’s character. In [“Killer Within”], the episode where T-Dog dies, there was talk she was going to die, not T-Dog. And look at what her character has become. … It’s just amazing.”

The Walking Dead Season 8 premieres Oct. 22 on AMC.

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