I started watching Walking Dead on a whim because I needed background noise while sewing. You will be certain after this brick here that it is no longer background noise to me. And one of my favorite characters, hands down, is Carol Peletier.
What prompted this analysis on her character was this idea from the Walking Dead Amino from TyReeses Puffs with support from Crescent.
Let’s show Carol some love!
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Naturally, we start at the beginning.
Carol was mousy and quiet, but people liked her. They wanted to protect her from her husband, Ed. That kind of thinking around Carol does factor into her persona later in the series, but it’s a slow build, so just bench that memory: Carol started as someone timid and in need of protection.
And most people who end up in abusive romantic relationships either had abusive relatives or are the sort of passive personality that will sit in silence through abuse. I believe Carol falls into the second category, having grown up as a quiet girl that people felt the need to shield from the world.
Ed likely started off as a firm guardian, developing to the relationship they have in season one where he owns her and she’s “in debt” for all the protection he’s given her. He found a passive partner who would allow him to continue the cycle of abuse (as I think Ed himself was abused as a child— but this isn’t about him).
< Source for typical patterns of abuse >
Ed teaches her that she’s helpless and she has to do as he says for things to go well. Obedience and control are his goals and making him the center of her universe is how he does it. That’s why he’s able to hit her publicly in season one, episode three, and she’s upset that he’s hurt afterwards.
In the abusive structure he built, he protects her and she “deserved” to be hit for the failure of her friends to stay quiet. In her manipulated mindset, he protects her from everything. And when he’s killed by a walker, she loses the person she thought was responsible for her continued existence.
Her pain wasn’t at the loss of her spouse— as she explains in a later episode at the church while Sophia is missing, she knew Ed deserved to die— her pain was mainly at the loss of someone she’d been abused into being dependent on and now she was alone.
The first change.
This was actually Carol’s first introduction to the thought of doing and bearing the burden of horrible things for those you love. She was supposed to love her husband, and so she made sure he didn’t turn. She did love her daughter, so Carol made sure she would never have to see her father as one of the undead.
But there are hints at Carol’s deeper personality before this as well. She takes her husband’s abuse quietly, but she protects Sophia from him. When Ed basically tells Sophia to keep him company in tent, Carol coolly insists that she wants to go out, takes her daughter by the hand, and leaves.
And Ed doesn’t argue or fight her. Granted, he’d also just been beaten very recently at that time, but she stood firm and he didn’t even try to put her in her place. I think she’s always had that line drawn in the sand, especially since she also admits later in the church that he “looked at his own daughter” (heavily implying a sexual interest).
Her loyalty to her family and willingness to do anything for them goes as far back as that in canon. She wouldn’t protect herself from Ed, but she was unafraid to stand up to him for Sophia.
But then Sophia goes missing. That led to the other role for Carol, a mother, being threatened too. As much as Carol tried to defend her child from Ed, she still instilled in her the idea of living in fear (as many abused spouses do unintentionally by example). When Sophia was cornered under a car by walkers, she ran and as Carol later says, “running wasn’t enough”.
The discovery of Sofia’s fate is the breaking point for Carol. She was not a wife or a mother anymore, and all she had left were those who reached out to her while she still had been those things.
Daryl, who held her back when Sophia was first seen, and who brought her hope throughout the search, played a massive role during this time. His kindness as well as his wounded cruelty later on both impacted Carol.
Carol resumes control of herself
Take a moment to see Daryl through her eyes. He’s kind in times of need, but genuine when he’s upset. What he said about Sophia not being his problem, that was hurtful— but true. He also introduced the idea of starting over very uniquely: “Fuck the way I was.”
And this next part can be difficult to understand, so bear with me. Ed took control away from Carol. She was weak, helpless, and pathetic to him— she needed him to survive. Even the people who tried to protect her from Ed reinforced that concept (although with best intentions and you can’t fault them).
With Daryl, the control over her life was put back in her hands. She could start over, and she could be tough when she had to be. And that’s a heavy burden and it hurts to know that she could’ve saved her daughter if she’d done more to prepare Sofia better to protect herself before her life was on the line.
But for someone who had gone through years of abuse and feeling like she had no control, this was empowering in a weird way. She had more control over what happened than she thought. And while she couldn’t change the past, there was always the future. Her connection to Daryl and his honesty was the final catalyst for her growth.
There’s a large time skip between the fall of the farm and their discovery of the prison, and she goes through a lot of development in that time. She learns to rely on herself and displays loyalty through doing more than being someone to protect. She did the protecting then, and Carol was just starting to discover that she was good at it.
And one of the most powerful scenes for Carol’s transformation is at the prison. Talking to another survivor, she said that she’d like to think that if Ed walked in that door and told her to go with him, she’d tell him to go to hell.
But she knows she wouldn’t (or at least she fears she couldn’t).
The building blocks of her survival are supported by the fact that she was abused. She learned what inaction costs through abuse. She learned to seem harmless and get people’s guards down through abuse. And she learned to read people because she always had to anticipate the next attack from her husband. These symptoms of abuse are now her weapons for survival, so she can’t remove one from the other.
And abuse never goes away. As an abuse survivor myself, I can say that the emotional cuts turn into scars and stay with you. Trust becomes difficult and all that much more necessary. This insight from Carol explains quite a bit down the line, so hang onto this too.
The prison is where Carol really latches onto the idea of saving the future by learning from the past. She teaches the children how to fight under the guise of storytime – not because she fears repercussions, but because she knows Rick won’t approve of why she’s doing it.
He understands, and she knows he does, but he’s not accepted it yet like she has by then. Considering Rick family as she does, she trusts him but isn’t afraid to do things for everyone’s benefit (even if they don’t like it).
It escalated after that to the point where she’d confirmed that she’d killed Karen and David to protect the rest. In a later conversation with Rick before her exile, she tells him that he doesn’t have to like what she did, and she didn’t, but he had to accept it.
Action does not mean victory.
At this point, Carol is taking her life by the horns. She’s taking control where it had been denied for so long, and she felt she was doing the right thing. But then the disease spread anyway and the prison was lost. Even though she took action, the end still came. This was Carol’s first failure after taking control to prevent people she cared about from dying.
And then she was exiled by Rick, only to come back and end up with Tyrese, Lizzie, Mika, and Rick’s baby, Judith. Still on edge after losing the community she was with, Carol tries again to restore her sense of belonging with this smaller portion of her family.
And we know how this goes. This was the harsher reminder to Carol that you have to do terrible things for those you love and more recently, that even if you try, you can’t save everyone. Lizzie and Mika were substitutes for the daughter she couldn’t save. Only Lizzie couldn’t handle the world the way it was, and she ended up being a danger to Mika and anyone else she met.
When Rick asked her at the prison if there was anything she wouldn’t do for these people, and she said no. If killing Karen and David wasn’t evidence enough of that, this scene drives that home. Carol has lived a life of pain and she’s willing to be hurt time and again for the chance at a life of being safe and loved.
But she hits rock bottom at that point. Tyrese had sworn he was going to kill whoever killed Karen and David for several episodes by then, and I don’t think Carol told him for the sake of being honest. She was hoping he might kill her and put an end to the pain of repeated loss of who she loved.
But Tyrese really turned that around on her. After what he’d seen her do, angry as he was, he forgave her. Carol had unknowingly been a role model for him even just then. As much as it pained her, she killed Lizzie because it was the right thing to do.
And as much as it hurt him to lose Karen, he forgave Carol because that was also the right thing to do. She was surprised and touched by this— at last, a success in keeping someone she cares about through her protection by making tough calls.
Fast forward to her rescue!
Recently reassured that she was on the right path of showing love through indomitable strength, Carol wrecks this joint singlehandedly. She covers herself in walker guts, explodes the barriers, and murders anyone fool enough to get in her way.
But it’s her conversation and fight with the mother, Mary, that leaves a mark on Carol. Mary tells her, “You could have been one of us.” Mind you, this is after Carol shot her in the leg. Carol is in the middle of reclaiming her family, showing the world she will stop at nothing for the life she wants— and then this cannibal who was going to kill and eat her family says she could be one of them.
It doesn’t phase Carol on the surface, at least, and she lets walkers into the room to eat Mary alive. Then, after finally getting back with her family, Rick and the others, Carol is rewarded for the devastating brutality she wrought by having her family back.
Go to Alexandria.
And then comes their arrival at Alexandria. Carol becomes her sweet, mild self from the beginning of the series minus the nervousness. But no one would suspect her of being a killing machine, and that’s what Carol wanted.
These people were not her family. She didn’t trust them and to better watch them, she was willing to assume the persona from the very beginning of this analysis: the quiet one in need of protection.
Her interview includes her saying, “I sort of became their den mother, and they were nice enough to protect me.” This was her plan from the moment she knew the interviews would be happening. Carol would do anything for this group and she acts on her own instinct (not teamwork).
But this is also the beginning of Carol’s realization that she still isn’t happy with this. To protect people, she feels she has to destroy anyone who threatens them— only remember that she knows that you can’t save everyone either. When the Wolves attack, her confrontations with Morgan and the sheer devastation finally hit home with Carol.
She had grown to care about the people of Alexandria, even from behind her guise as timid homemaker. And she couldn’t save them for all the fighting and killing she’d done. Pair that with Morgan telling her during the fight that she doesn’t like killing, and Carol had a lot to think about.
Even the budding romance she’d started with Tobin in Alexandria… he said after the fight that she could do things “that just terrify me”. She had become someone else after losing her first family, and now she had the chance to reflect on if that was someone who she wanted to be.
One of the lines that stuck with me most at this point was from a conversation she had with Morgan, where Carol said: “I don’t trust you, but I never thought you were lying.” Carol was capable of love and belief in others, but she couldn’t bring herself to trust anyone. They were potential threats, all of them. And that wasn’t what Carol wanted.
By season six, when Carol and Maggie are being held captive, Carol’s charade as the “nervous little bird”, as Paula from the Saviors called her, was part charade and part reluctance to be the other self she’d built up.
When Paula was the last one still alive there, she said to Carol:
“You’re good… Nervous little bird. You were her. But not now, right? … If you could do all this… What were you afraid of, Carol?”
To which Carol answers:
“I was afraid of this.”
She’s seen the fear that she instills in others, and it scares her now too. Carol doesn’t want to be a killer, but there’s another part to what Mary of Terminus said that speaks to her situation fairly well: “You could’ve listened to what the world is telling you!”
She finally decides to leave and strike out on her own, and the reason she gives in her letter is, “I love all of you here, I do, and I’d have to kill for you. And I can’t. I won’t.”
But then the world speaks to Carol again, to mimic Mary’s quote, and she encounters bandits who were after Alexandria. And when she realizes in a panic that they mean to kill people, she tries to follow in Morgan’s footsteps and stop them. But she doesn’t have the skills he does, and she can only follow what she usually does.
Get their guard down.
Kill them all.
Her bond with King Ezekiel and their personas for the apocalypse played a tremendous role in her recovery at the Kingdom. She had Morgan to help her connect to her brutal self (not much different from his own) and the King to help her realize that this persona had its uses— just as his did— and that it didn’t take away from her true self in any way.
Morgan’s descent into aggression is timed with her own coming to terms with the various aspects of who she is— victim, survivor, and den mother. And in season eight, I expect Carol will be able to fight with her full force but love with all her heart as well (platonically and romantically).
But I look forward to seeing the show air again and get the canon story at last!