AMC’s The Walking Dead has largely been a non-starter in the Emmy conversation. Relegated to the well-deserved makeup and effects categories, the show is largely dismissed as “the zombie show,” evidently repelling the voting body of the Television Academy. And I’m not sure that anyone at AMC is losing sleep over that. Upwards of 18 million people tune in every week for its sometimes creative (sometimes repetitive) zombie gore.
With numbers like that, who needs Emmys?
The side effect of this branding is the more nuanced elements of the show are lost. Zombies, in fact, are merely window dressing to the larger themes explored in the show. Good versus evil. Grief. Nature versus nurture. Vengeance. Fate. And no one on the show, for my money, has embodied those themes more than Carol Peletier, brought to life in an Emmy-worthy performance by Melissa McBride. Emmy voters, pay attention!
When we first met Carol in Season One, she was a meek and abused wife and mother, struggling to protect her daughter and pacify her abusive husband. Season Four Carol represents the new pragmatism of the zombie apocalypse. She is brittle, ruthless, and the consummate survivalist, her transformation primarily spawned by the death of daughter Sophia. Credit McBride’s skill as an actress for making that transition believable.
Season Four highlights Carol’s brutal realism in their new world, starkly contrasting the reformed Rick who sought to soften his death-hardened son by focusing on normalcy and striving to return to a pre-zombie way of living. While Carol secretly taught the young girls in their camp how to defend themselves through guns and knives, Rick focused on farming, raising livestock, and rekindling the father/son bond. When a deadly virus infects the survivors, Carol makes the executive decision to kill early victims and burn their bodies. It was, after all, for the greater good.
Cast out of the group by Rick as punishment for her actions, Carol went missing for most of the season, and her absence was noticed. Gone was McBride’s unique mixture of battle-weary toughness warring with a natural mother’s instinct. No one could fill the role quite as well.
McBride comes roaring back later in The Grove, one of the most controversial and emotionally draining episodes in the show’s history. Here, Carol faces the blossoming homicidal tendencies of young Lizzie while struggling with the urge to confess to her traveling companion Tyreese, the boyfriend of the woman she killed to avoid spreading the plague.
McBride dominates this classic episode with a subtle, yet deeply resonate, performance. She wisely chooses to avoid the kind of histrionics in which a lesser actress would wallow. She keeps her face tight, emotions in check, yet uses her eyes and small, calculated movements to bring out the Carol’s inner turmoil. Here, McBride guides Carol on a journey from wary mother figure to reluctant killer to a woman prepared to die for her sins.
She has several great moments in the episode, but three scenes stand out on my second viewing of the episode (a feat I swore I’d never do again). First, Tyreese engages her in a conversation about his struggles with losing his girlfriend. McBride lives in the scene on the precipice of twitching with guilt, remaining stoic and reserved but raging inside with the desire to confess. She conveys an inner pain in her resolve to remain the vigilant protector – the woman who, unlike Rick, will make the hard choices. Yet, enough of the old Carol breaks through, allowing McBride to shed a few tears. It’s a quiet moment that foreshadows the tough choice she has to make later in the episode.
It is this tough choice that highlights McBride’s most memorable sequence to date. The discovery of Lizzie’s horrible acts and her subsequent death will remain a hallmark of the series, one that people will always mention whenever The Walking Dead is discussed. McBride helped evolve the character of Carol into the woman who makes the tough choices. For the greater good. Yet, she mourns the consequences of those tough choices here. She emotionally collapses after convincing Lizzie not to “change” baby Judith, and, when she asks Lizzie to “look at the flowers” (a phrase I will never hear the same way again), the shock and awe McBride registers after shooting Lizzie in the back of the head sears your brain. As many times as Carol has killed in the series, McBride makes the moment feel like her very first time.
Her final great scene is a quick one. Carol reveals to Tyreese that she killed his girlfriend, not Lizzie as he suspected. It would have been easy to continue the lie, but the episode’s story arc lead Carol to confess and prepare for her own punishment. When Tyreese ultimately forgives Carol, McBride quickly emits a near-silent, surprised gasp, unafraid to expose the relief she feels that Tyreese chooses not to kill her after all. Her eyes tell the story: she is grateful to be able to live with the burden.
I celebrate McBride’s success here and favorably compare her work to the other great supporting actresses of this television season such as Anna Gunn (“Breaking Bad”) and Michelle Monaghan (“True Detective”). I don’t expect the Television Academy to recognize McBride’s brilliant work in such a difficult episode of a challenging, unsparing, and gruesome series. But if there are TV gods, then she will be rewarded with a statue come August. Few actresses in TV or film are granted the opportunity to play such notes, and McBride plays them like a virtuoso.