Spoilers for The Walking Dead are below.
Let’s address something right away: I know everyone has been aware for ages just how badass Carol is, and that this story is an exercise in obviousness to them. This isn’t a point-by-point guide to the character's most impressive traits from previous episodes, though, but rather about showrunner Scott Gimple and his creative team using tonight’s “The Same Boat” to plainly lay out the red carpet for Carol’s ascent to the top of leadership mountain on The Walking Dead by having her successfully complete in one episode what it sometimes takes others (i.e. Rick) an entire season to get half-right. Poor Alicia Witt's cheek.
Before and during last week’s attack on The Saviors’ compound, we got a peek into Carol’s emotional side as she strove for communal happiness through cookies, shared a romantic moment with Tobin and brought out her motherly side through concern for Maggie facing danger while pregnant. This week, Carol got to show off her intellect and her physical prowess, which are all things that we’ve seen from her in the past, but rarely altogether in such a short amount of time. Moreover, it proved that Carol could (and possibly should) be at the center of her own “caper of the week” action-adventure spinoff in a way that Rick and others definitely couldn’t.
Right from the very moment the Saviors have Carol and Maggie outnumbered, Carol looks seriously worried, while Maggie appears to be the more calm and rational one. We all knew that didn’t quite fit right - although Maggie had her own righteous ascent in the episode - and Carol's feigned compassion is accompanied by the faux panic attack and forced hyperventilation, along with her Call to Religion that both distracted the Saviors and altered everyone’s perception of her. Remember when those those rosary beads were teased?
These were all the kinds of clever tactics that Rick’s anger-centered brain, for example, would only consider a week into a situation that his big angry mouth got him into. Once you throw the cigarette into it, coming a week after she picked the bad habit back up, you get another moment that few beyond Carol could have accomplished. Plus, the way she was holding onto that rosary at the end of the episode makes me wonder if she convinced herself that religion is a viable option for her, and it makes sense that only Carol will convince Carol to alter her life path.
Even after she intentionally avoided killing Donnie (not that it helped him in the end), Carol tried to let Paula go, too, offering up one more semblance of empathy, but even though all the Saviors liked to play the card that everyone else is "the bad guys," they're remarkably not okay with actually looking and behaving like good guys. So while Carol is going through her Morgan-based crisis of conscience in contemplating what her killer lifestyle means, she does what is needed, whether it means shooting someone in the head point blank, impaling someone on a pole to become walker meat, or locking people in a room and allowing them to burn.
And she looks the proper amount of worried and bothered while she does it, which means she is still a human being. We watched Rick go through the same kind of mental burnout, and even though he's still thinking with his gun before his brain, he came out of that breakdown a more centered person.
This is Carol. She knows that she has to be okay in order to make it through the situation, and she knows that she will do what she has to, regardless of what it means. Her plans and motivations are nuanced and carefully considered, and she's willing to put anything on the line in order to gain the upper hand. It’s too bad that she’s more comfortable fading into the background where her talents are cloaked, because she really should be telling everyone what to do on a more regular basis. You saw her standing there and judging Rick when he shot non-Negan, right? With more communities coming up in The Walking Dead universe, we will hopefully see Carol take a step up to become the head of her own group.
We are all Negan when The Walking Dead airs Sunday nights on AMC.