The Walking Dead has, ostensibly, been the story of an Atlanta cop who woke up in a hospital one day to find the world in walker-infested chaos. But if Sunday’s Season 5 premiere proved one thing, it’s that Rick Grimes, while still our main protagonist, isn’t really the hero of the zombie apocalypse.
Carol Peletier, as played by Melissa McBride, not only has more balls than any member of Rick’s adopted family (and definitely more than several Governors combined), she’s also their best hope for survival. The woman will shoot, stab, or blow up all threats while her friends are busy monologuing for the 89th time about "what makes us human?" Without Carol, last night’s episode “No Sanctuary” could have served as an abrupt series finale as Rick, Daryl, Glenn, and Bob got their throats cut open and limbs hacked off by bloodthirsty Terminans.
But then, this isn’t news. Carol’s bravery has long outpaced that of her companions, though until now most of them, especially Rick, weren’t exactly on board with it. She spent weeks going behind Rick’s back to teach children at the prison how to kill, back when she was the only adult not in denial about the fact that, hello, we’re in the freaking apocalypse, people must know how to kill to survive. When a deadly virus overtook the prison, Carol was also the only person facing facts: With no doctors or hospitals, there was no way the infected were going to make it—but the longer they stayed alive, the higher the chance the virus would spread. They had to die, even if it meant killing off two friends. (And we all remember what happened to Lizzie, the unhinged kid who murdered her sister and would have killed baby Judith had Carol not, ahem, intervened.)
In fact, most of “No Sanctuary” grappled with a question that Carol figured out for herself a long time ago: Are you the butcher or the cattle? By the time Carol is finished blowing Terminus apart, leaving dozens to die in order to save her friends, the answer is pretty clear. Carol is a butcher and now the show’s most fascinating—and formidable—character.
Which is both remarkable and unlikely. Carol is a woman and middle-aged, yet nobody’s sidekick. Women in action films and TV are frequently relegated to a handful of established tropes: the damsel in distress, the romantic interest, or, most frustratingly, the “Strong Female Character” who is just as smart, capable, and complex as her male counterparts (sometimes more so!) but nonetheless ends up useless to the plot, like Wyldstyle in The Lego Movie, or Trinity in The Matrix. (The Dissolve’s Tasha Robinson expertly unpacks more Strong Female Characters here.) The Walking Dead itself nearly established another useless trope with its handling of Andrea and Lori, the “Woman Constantly Making Out-of-Character, Terrible Decisions.”
But Carol is different. Though she has generally followed Rick’s herd from location to location, her personal story has unfolded almost independently of his. Her evolution from a meek and battered housewife, barely speaking a few lines per episode, to a complicated and efficient killer had more to do with her daughter Sophia’s death than the influence of any particular character. She’s also thus far avoided sexualization or being put into the “romantic interest” box—though she’s bonded with Daryl and even flirted with him a little, getting laid is obviously last on the lady’s priority list. And while Rick has spent season after season hemming and hawing about how to be a leader (or whether to be one at all), Carol has committed herself to ensuring survival for herself and those around her no matter the cost. An admirable priority this season would be to have Carol continue to evolve into—dare I even dream?—a leader of the group.
For now though, Rick is in charge of a huge, newly reunited crew—including, for the first time since the prison’s destruction, Tyreese, Carol, and baby Judith (yes, the look on Daryl’s face when he saw Carol again was very sweet). The group’s numbers are now well over a dozen, which is a whole lot of people to hide, feed, and you know, eventually kill off. The episode was fast-paced, thanks to a host of action sequences and a minimum on conversations about “staying human” in this post-apocalyptic world (seriously, enough of those).
As for what the hell is going on at Terminus, one theory of mine is that a mysterious group of thugs once took over from Gareth, Mary, and the others. They were forced to kill the invaders, completely lost their marbles, and now systematically murder the strangers they lure in, dismembering their bodies and tossing their limbs into bins marked “burn,” “feed,” or “waste”…for some reason. The names of their dead are written in chalk in a weird room with lots of candles and they’ve apparently vowed never to trust strangers again. I have no idea what any of this means, but last season’s popular cannibal theory can probably be ruled out now, if only because show runner Scott Gimple caught wind of it well before production for Season 5 began and this is not a show that is okay with fans prematurely guessing the answers to big mysteries. Also, Mary is dead now and her grill has probably been blown to smithereens.
But I get the feeling we won’t linger on the mysteries of Terminus for long. At some point this season, the group will return to Atlanta (set photos leaked back in July) and there’s still that whole get-Eugene-to-Washington plotline to resolve as well. Walking Dead actors have teased a variety of location changes or this new season, which is generally great news. Just pray that none of those locations is a farm.