In lieu of our weekly recap of The Walking Dead, we find it more appropriate after “Indifference” to hone in on the thematic epicenter of the episode, and our favorite character on the AMC horror-drama: Carol Peletier. Played with expert temperance by Melissa McBride, Carol has ascended (far beyond the constraints of her comic book source material) from the platform of consistently silent background camper to one of the series’ most dynamic heroes… and, after these past two weeks, villains. Yes, we can’t sign off on Carol’s decision to murder Karen and David, although we can qualify her utilitarian intentions as “for the good of the people” — it’s that “needs of the individual vs. needs of the group” debate coursing so deliberately through this program that leads to Carol’s ultimate banishment from the prison this week, courtesy of a tearful, shattered Rick.
In case you’re reading this without having watched the episode, Carol doesn’t die. I know it might seem odd to pen a tribute to a character who is still very much alive, very likely indeed to maintain a presence on The Walking Dead. But Carol’s fate is somehow more tragic than death, at least for a character like hers. When we met Carol, she was unique among the group as no stranger to torture. Having endured the wrath of her violent, alcoholic husband Ed — who took his anger and sexual frustration out on their daughter Sophia as well — for so long, Carol was a moreover lifeless fixture of the RV troupe, amounting energy only to make sure her young daughter was fed and protected. After the zombie-induced death of Ed, Carol began (slowly) to reinvent herself. Her shackles were unlocked as her tormentor met his demise, allowing a new brand of self-efficacy to enter Carol’s bloodstream. But it wasn’t until the far more tragic death (also zombie-induced) of Sophia that we saw Carol achieve the sort of liberty for which she is now known.
Bound now by next to nothing, finding fleeting value in anything beyond abject survival, Carol can be seen as one of the “strongest,” or at least most self-possessed, human beings on The Walking Dead. While she can marshall compassion and affection for her fellow prison-mates — with Rick and Daryl topping the list — Carol’s one remaining love is her resistence to death. She’s not caught up in the power struggles that occupy so many of the characters holed up in the penitentiary. In contributing to the safety of the prison, in secretly teaching the children how to take out walkers, in killing Karen and David, Carol affirms her only goal to be practicality.
Never is that affirmation more bold than in “Indifference.” In a conversation with two wayward travelers, Carol denies ever having children. She locks herself off from them completely, allowing no pity to be taken in her and Rick’s decision to welcome them into the prison. But Carol, like all great characters, is full of s**t.
People matter to her. And she needs to matter to people. Owning up to that would be a fate worse than death, or banishment, as she associates this kind of deep empathy with what anchored her down to her state as a victim back in the days of Ed. It is fitting that Carol mentions Ed for the first time in entire seasons in this episode. She does so sharply, criticizing herself for staying with him for so long. Carol has taken such a firm stance against everything she once was, chastising pre-teen girls for being too weak to handle their fathers’ death. She doesn’t want to see her former self anywhere, least of all in her current self. But that delicate heart still beats beneath her hardened surface. And we see this in the back half of “Indifference.”
We see it when she practically pleads with Rick to acknowledge her murder of Karen and David, to “accept the truth,” mere minutes after she told a pair of strangers that she never had a daughter. We see it when she admits her own distaste for the deed but turns around to defend her character by pulling at her connection with Rick. “It’s me,” she says, desperate for that to have some meaning in the heart of the sheriff. For all the frigidity with which Carol has worked to shroud herself, she remains inside the same human being longing to be loved, approved of, cherished, needed… all the same feelings, we can presume, that kept her bound to Ed through it all.
And so, when Rick rejects that, denying her entry back into the jail or into his heart, we see Carol dealt the worst fate we can imagine for her. Once again, as she was with Ed, Carol led to believe she’s “not worth it.” And to anyone who is as invested in the character as we are, those tears building in Rick’s eyes after their final goodbye sure do ring true.