To be clear, few of us have likely watched six seasons The Walking Dead for its compelling, literary teleplays. We watch it to imagine how we might survive the apocalypse and, above all, we watch it to see zombies kill and be killed, preferably in gnarly, grisly fashion, with lots of sinewy muscle and gore that resembles blood pudding and the realistic sound effects of brittle dead skulls being crushed by stakes. In that sense, it has never failed us.
The coherency of its scripts, though, have ebbed and flowed since its inception. At times, it’s surprisingly good, even when one is approaching it with admittedly low expectations; at others, it’s confusing and muddled, full of random references and unlikely twists. Right now, after Sunday night’s airing of this season’s penultimate episode “East,” it’s the latter—probably no more incoherent than other times it’s been incoherent, but frustrating nonetheless.
It’s not just because we are asked to remember a procession of randos from back in like, 2015—the main identifiable problem with all television shows chopping their seasons in half is that it seriously disrupts the story arc, and also there’s no guarantee that we’re going to even care about any of this after the holidays. (Solution: Christmas-themed Walking Dead episodes.) Last week, I had to Google that guy (sorry about it) who murked out Denise the doctor—his name was Dwight, he was a member of the Saviors, he stole Daryl’s bike, and I barely remembered any of this. But that’s fine—the endless stream of barely identifiable mid-level characters may not be great for memory’s sake, but they’re primarily there to be picked off, one by one, preferably with loads of gore.
But the main players have been veering off into unforeseen directions that are not indications of growth so much as completely out of character. The recklessness of “East” was one thing; maybe Daryl would head off alone into the woods on his bike for vengeance, as he’s always been the lone shark James Dean’ing this shit, but Rick going off to look for Carol with only Morgan at his side—Morgan, a great fighter who refuses to kill anyone, as opposed to Rick’s inclination to kill basically everyone—that seems unlikely.
It’s Carol’s trajectory, though, that’s the most frustrating of all. For several seasons, Carol’s been the ruthless badass who would take on the most unpalatable jobs if it meant protecting the group: she burned those bodies at the prison, and she even killed that psycho 11-year-old before she had the chance to further terrorize this scorched earth. Since the series’s debut, we’ve been meant to understand that her cold bravery comes from having begun the apocalypse as a battered, meek domestic violence survivor who becomes hardened to the world after seeing her abusive husband mutilated by walkers, and then discovering that her tween daughter has become one, in what remains probably the show’s most evocative, gnarly cliffhanger.
Carol is a boss muhfucka. If a job needs to be done, which is to say if a body needs to get bodied, she will do it without thinking twice. In another life, she could be a hitman.
Which is why it’s bullshit that, after one sniveling little kid gets got by walkers or whatever, we are to believe in just a few episodes that she’s had some sort of nervous breakdown, a crisis of faith, and a total revulsion to survival killing. (Freakin’ Carl got shot in the eye and he’s like 16 and he’s fine! Also, Sam’s mom died and then Rick shacked up with Michonne with the quickness!)
Carol’s never been an egregious killer—she does what she has to do—but part of her appeal has been her ability to shapeshift in the face of danger, to present a faux Tupperware lady, soccer mom persona in the service of fooling her captors/whoever so that they would never suspect that she’s one of the most aggressive fighters in Rick’s group. This tactic has served her for a few seasons, and after Negan’s group took her and Maggie as hostages, it’s what I assumed she was doing yet again: acting like some kind of meek, terrified church lady clutching a rosary so that when she shanked herself from the duct tape they bound her with, she could deploy the element of surprise with fierce revenge.
What had once been a beautiful feminist dichotomy about a woman rising up against her abuser—a hamfisted one, sure, but in both her and Michonne we could find a heroine—has apparently now become some weird cliché about the human spirit and how much it can take. In “East,” when Carol met a random group of marauders on the road who offered to take her hostage in order to gain access to Alexandria, she hyperventilated for a second time, began crying uncontrollably, then blasted all those fuckers with a tommy gun (THAT WAS A TOMMY GUN, RIGHT?) she’d been hiding in the sleeve of her Carhartt. The implication was that she’s too screwed up in the head to kill, but will if she has to, but doesn’t want to, which is, again, fine—it’s just frustrating that the writers have to portray her as fragile to do so. Unless something remarkable happens on next week’s season finale, it feels like an undoing of all the strength Carol gathered through this whole series, and a betrayal to fans who were intrigued by the parable of a woman who flipped a devastating situation into fuel for survival. And that’s what she is, all around—a survivor.
Shit, but then Morgan then went to look for her alone. Maybe later they’ll form an Eastern religion self-help book power duo, preaching nonviolence to a world that is predicated on killing. They could do infomercials over ham radio.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Dwight was a member of the Wolves, when he is in fact a member of the Saviors, which is absolutely my error since the Wolves are dirtier than crustpunks and have Ws on their foreheads while the Saviors have virtually no defining characteristics other than... scythes? Jesus, this show. Jezebel regrets the error.
Image via screenshot/AMC