Forget the zombies. When it comes to The Walking Dead, no one has shown more guts this season than Carol Peletier.
In the course of four seasons, the character played by Melissa McBride has managed to avoid joining the ever-mounting body count amid a zombie apocalypse on one of television’s top dramas. Originally introduced as a meek, battered wife, her character has endured and grown tougher since losing her husband, Ed, and later, more tragically, daughter Sophia.
(Warning: spoiler alert — stop reading if you haven’t seen last Sunday’s episode.)
It’s all led to the Carol of this season — one who quickly transitions from storytime to secret-weapon-training for the kid survivors. And one who, in a bid to protect her band of survivors, kills two not-yet-zombied people — a deed for which in Sunday’s episode she was ultimately excommunicated from the group.
“She was someone who used to be afraid to even make a decision or voice an opinion and had so much self-doubt,” McBride said of her fictional alter ego. “To see her come this far — to be confident, to fight back, to find her voice — has been such a treat. I think a lot of that has always been there. It was just so diminished and so squashed by circumstances prior to the apocalypse.”
When the group’s reluctant leader, Rick, confronted Carol about the murder of the two newcomers who had contracted the flu-like illness at the center of this season, her reply was a matter-of-fact, unrepentant “yes.”
“That one word just hits you in the face,” said newly minted executive producer and show runner Scott Gimple. The three letters would also prove to be a critical moment for the long-suffering outlying character — with it all coming to a head in Sunday’s episode.
McBride’s rise to the fore as Carol comes at an opportune time in the show’s run. After already riding high last season as the top-rated scripted drama on cable and broadcast, The Walking Dead shattered expectations with its Season 4 premiere last month, pulling in a whopping 16.1 million total viewers, with 10.2 million of those in the advertiser-coveted demographic of ages 18 to 49.
“There’s no room to be shy,” McBride joked.
“She isn’t loud,” said Gimple, who says Carol is a writers’ room favorite. “Everything feels so real with Melissa’s acting, which can be tricky when zombies are involved. But whether she’s calling Daryl ‘pookie’ or admitting to murder, she makes it authentic. With everything that’s happened to Carol, it just felt like the right time to explore the theme of ‘Are we too far gone?’”
McBride appreciates the heftier story. But the biggest coup for the actress, who was promoted to series regular in the second season, was just having her name appear in the opening credits this go-round.
“My parents were so relieved,” she said, mentioning their vision problems. “My dad was like, ‘I was just about to go buy one of those 200,000-inch TVs just so I could see your name at the end if they hadn’t put it up front in bigger font type.’ It’s all very fancy to us.”
She’d bring short hair, a look she had been sporting for years, to the role — now an iconic feature of the character, whose hair is shoulder-length in the comic. McBride reasons that, for Carol, the short hair is a byproduct of her abusive husband: “Maybe he cut it to make her feel less pretty. Or maybe she did it so he couldn’t pull her hair? That’s my back story for it.”
For those who wonder how its upkeep has remained impeccable, Robert Kirkman, an executive producer and creator of the comic book series the AMC drama is based on, joked: “There are scissors in the prison.”
But McBride’s contributions to the character, who dies in the comic while her daughter lives, don’t end at hair, Kirkman added.
“Carol, in the comic, was an attempt at showing someone who just crumbles and is not able to deal with everything that is happening to her because of the zombie apocalypse,” he said. “For the show, we did a little bit of that, but from the get-go we were trying to do something different with ‘Television Carol.’ And Melissa was a huge part of that. She was too capable of an actress and had too much of a presence.”
Part of the dynamism has shown through an unlikely friendship. Amid Carol’s devastating ordeals, she developed a strong bond with bad-boy-with-a-big-heart Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus). A friendship that has long had hardcore fans rooting for some loving.
“I love all my scenes with Norman,” McBride said. “They bring out such vulnerable and playful sides of each other. When Daryl swoops in and rescues her in that jail cell last season, I loved it. That reunion with him is probably my favorite Carol moment because she finally got her knight-on-a-horse moment.”