Carol is The Walking Dead’s best character. Michonne is a wonder, Morgan continues to fascinate; Daryl’s laconic uber-competence has deservedly made him a fan favorite; Dr. Denise is a great new addition, Glenn and Maggie are compelling if only because of the time we’ve invested in them, and Rick has his moments. There are very few bad eggs on the series now, and that’s something to be thankful for.

But Carol is someone special. Apart from Rick, Carl, and Glenn, she’s been on the series the longest (sure, Morgan was there in the pilot, but he was gone for so long that he’s almost a stranger), and her arc, from abused housewife to absolute badass, is the most coherent long-running storyline The Walking Dead has managed to produce. Sure, Rick has turned from idealistic lawman to ruthless killer, but the transition was dictated more by his position as nominal protagonist—he swung back and forth simply because the writers needed to give him something to do when he wasn’t barking orders or whispering intensely. And Glenn? Glenn has gone from a nice guy to a grim, but still basically nice, guy.

The thing about Carol is, nothing that happened to her felt like it was planned from the start. She’s suffered, she’s endured, she’s lost people, and her gradual transformation seems more like a happy accident than an intentional philosophy. It’s one of the few reasons I can think of to rewatch the series; even with the mess of the second season, even with the stalling and the failure of the Governor to provide a convincing threat, even with the writers’ struggle to create engaging longform narrative in a serialized context that really only ever provided a handful of convincing individual moments, Carol more or less makes sense.

That’s a testament to Melissa McBride as much as anything, and her work in “Not Tomorrow Yet” is a reminder of just how good she is at making arguably implausible impulses seem natural. Carol doesn’t have a lot to do with the episode’s main storyline; she’s along for the ride, supporting Rick’s decision (more or less) to assault Negan’s men in order to get the jump on them and keep Hilltop as a food supplier, but she doesn’t get involved with the actual decision-making. She’s still a focal point of the hour, though, for a variety of reasons.

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For a while now, Carol’s defining trait has been a ruthless pragmatism. Daryl is a good hunter, but gets a bit befuddled around people; Rick wants to be tough, but often falls under the weight of his own angst. Carol, though, is able to make cold, clear decisions without any apparent psychological fall-out. She’s one of the few people on the show who doesn’t waste time getting bogged down in the emotional toll of existence. After all she’s suffered, she’s made a decision to do what she thinks needs to be done and not fret about it.

Which has made her time in Alexandria all the more interesting because it shows that, decision or not, pragmatism isn’t a completely effective shield against grief and loss. Her “housewife” persona, while initially intended to let her catch the Alexandrians off-guard, is not entirely a ruse, as the cold open shows. She makes cookies for everyone (with beets!), and while this is partly a way to raise spirits, it’s telling that, when left to her own devices, this is how Carol would choose to spend her time. She’s not just a killing machine, although she can be that—the part of her that seemingly burned away in the show’s early seasons is still there.

McBride is so damn good at selling all of this, at showing the pleasure Carol takes in her efforts and the wry sarcasm she deploys as a (not entirely effective) defense against sincerity. The actress is so talented that the revelation that she’s been keeping track of her kills doesn’t seem entirely unexpected, and the fact that her apparent guilt over the deaths has led her to keep Morgan’s actions a secret almost works. The show cheats by skipping over the actual decision and jumping to the aftermath, and it’s hard to reconcile the Carol we see now with the one we saw a few weeks back, furious over what she saw as Morgan’s betrayal. (The one conversation the two have is near Sam Anderson’s grave, which suggests at least one possible motivation for Carol’s change of heart.) But it’s a potentially interesting direction to go in, and McBride is more than up for the task. Carol’s decision to hook up with that random guy who liked her cookie, her borderline desperate need to protect Maggie, her continued silence about Morgan—these are all revelations which aren’t really organic, but McBride makes them work. Or at least, she makes it possible to briefly forget authorial contrivance.

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Of course, the real draw in “Not Tomorrow Yet” is the assault on the Saviors compound, a brutal massacre that shows our heroes operating at peak murder efficiency. Some sort of line is being crossed here, albeit one that will inevitably become less important once we get first hand proof of just how vile Negan actually is. (I’m guessing.) But it’s chilling to watch Rick and Glenn murder dudes in their sleep, even as we’re offered ample proof that those dudes weren’t very nice at all. It’s also entertaining purely as a set-piece. For a few minutes, the show turns into a brutal action movie, and it’s noisy, chaotic fun.

But then everything goes to shit in the final moments, as Rick learns that Carol and Maggie somehow got themselves taken hostage. We’ll have to wait till next week to see the fallout from that, but I suppose all that time showing Carol having doubts and being vulnerable was laying the groundwork for her falling into enemy hands. That’s the thing about second thoughts—they’re distractions. And distractions slow you down. It would be a sad turn if Carole’s rediscovery of her humanity makes her just another victim again.

Stray observations

  • “Just put it in your mouth, jerk.” Okay, Carol hooking up with Some Guy (his name is Tobin, but c’mon) doesn’t quite work. It’s sweet enough, but incredibly sudden. I can only believe it as Carole trying to find some way of distracting herself; McBride plays it as a “what the hell, let’s do this,” which sort of works, but only if you ignore the fact that Carol has very good reasons for avoiding romantic entanglements.
  • Morgan wants to give the Saviors a warning. It’s doubtful that would’ve worked out for anyone; given what we’ve seen of Negan’s people, they aren’t ones for negotiating. But I still love that he wants to try.
  • “We kill them all.” -Rick.
  • Maggie going along on the raid is super dumb. There’s “continuing to pull your weight and not giving up your life to your pregnancy” and then there’s “actively putting yourself in a situation with guns and people shooting and so much death.”
  • Abraham left Rosita, so I guess we know what his epiphany of last week was about.
  • Tara told Dr. Denise “I love you” as a way to cover up her feelings about going on the raid, and her past.
  • Getting “Gregory’s” head was fun. Who thought zombies could have alternative uses?

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