Almost exactly a year ago TK wrote a magnificent piece on race and gender in AMC’s The Walking Dead. In it he expressed his frustrations with how the show has handled both the female and non-white members of the cast. But this season started out with such promise. The two most divisive female characters, Andrea and Lori, were gone. Yes, they died horribly and I’d much rather the show do the work to rehab problematic characters rather than just do away with them entirely but, one way or another, The Woman Problem was eliminated. The Interchangeable Token Black Guy Problem was solved too, right? I mean, there are still issues. If Tyreese doesn’t get development soon, he’s in danger of becoming much the same glowering archetype that Michonne was last year. But look at this Away Team. The former redneck’s the minority here, folks. And they all interacted with each other and no black male cast member was harmed to make room for Larry Gilliard Jr.’s alcoholic Bob Stookey.
So we started this season clean without a women to hate and a stronger, more diversified cast. Then what happened? Then they gave us someone new to hate. They gave us Carol.
Carol who we loved. Carol and Daryl who we shipped. Carol who has had such a fascinating arc the subtext of which is made text when Carol explains how she used to feel about her abusive husband and how that cowering woman bears no resemblance to the person who burned those two sick people alive. Carol has gone through hell like nearly all of the original cast members. (Except Glen who ::cough:: until now ::cough:: has been relatively* lucky.) She lost her daughter and her husband (ass though he was) and that kind of profound sorrow must change a woman. We saw her harden, we saw her find strength. But somewhere between last season and this season she lost something. As if, to make room for all that strength she carved away at her own humanity. Though we know a significant amount of time passed between the last season the fact that this transition happened off-screen makes the character development feel rough and inorganic.
But change, in general, isn’t the problem here. We like it when characters change. Heck, Carol’s adopted daughter Lizzie had an on-the-nose speech all about how people change: “I’m little now. If I don’t die, I’ll get big. I’ll be me, but I’ll be different. It’s how it is. We all change. We all don’t get to stay the same way we started.” Lizzie and her sister Mika certainly the key to unlocking Carol this season. Since they were entrusted to her and since she lost her own daughter, we can possibly rationalize Carol burning people alive in order to protect those girls. Possibly, but not easily. But there was a callousness from Carol in this episode, one Rick witnessed and used to make his judgment. “It was a nice watch” she said to Rick as they were preparing to leave the injured Sam behind. As if that had anything to do with Rick’s hesitation. She’s absolutely cold there, embodying the “indifference” that gives the episode its title. And so Rick, with a heavy heart, casts her out. Can we blame him? Are our sympathies still with her? Can a character whom we’ve loved for years fall from grace so quickly? And is it troubling that now that Andrea and Lori are gone the show felt the need to slot another controversial woman into their place?
And then we have Michonne. Oh yes, the one who was on both troublesome lists last year for being a glowering cipher who did nothing at all to ease our concerns about either sympathetic female or complicated black characters. But this season the Michonne arc is running parallel to and in the opposite direction of Carol’s.
We saw the difference in Michonne from the second she arrived this season. For one thing, Danai Gurira is absolutely dazzling when she smiles. While Carol has apparently withdrawn a bit from the group between the two seasons, Michonne made connections and built relationships. In fact, she’s slipped right into Carol’s old role as Daryl’s partner in ship. We also saw, when Michonne was asked to hold Judith, a terrifying glimpse into what Michonne has lost, what made her into the walking scowl we met last year. Another similarity to Carol.
I don’t have much to say about Maggie, she’s been somewhat sidelined so far this season. Next week promises to be Maggie-centric, though, so more as that develops. Gender roles are so interesting in this universe. What does it mean to be a man here? Aggressive traits are valued in both sexes. See: Daryl literally exhibiting alpha animal behavior this week. Then again, the most nurturing figure in this show is not a female. It’s Hershel.
But how troubling is it that the females are so easily shuffled in place to fill the holes left by others? We need a problematic woman, one who will confront our notions of what it means for a woman to care and protect her family in this world gone mad. Lori’s gone? Well Carol will do. But who will play Carol? Who will cozy up to Daryl? Here. Have a Michonne. Life changes. War changes us. But it shouldn’t make us interchangeable.
*a very loaded term in this universe