One of the best parts of Carol’s arc on The Walking Dead is that it’s largely been underplayed. Melissa McBride is such a talented actress that the show can dispense with its often lumpy dialogue and simply let her performance convey the meaning in the moment, whether it’s a sullen look after the events of “JSS” or a harsh tone in her voice when she tells Rick that Maggie shouldn’t be out on the raid in “Not Tomorrow Yet”. This season in particular, The Walking Dead has done well to let the idea that Carol is feeling the weight of her actions and gradually pivoting away from her more ruthless persona, bubble under the surface. That’s made the scenes where those ideas are brought to the fore or dramatized in a more prominent fashion, stand out as effective and earned.
But “The Same Boat” basically turns that subtlety on its ear. It’s a bleak bottle episode that spends most of its time keeping Carol locked in a single room while trotting out an odd version of This Is Your Life!
There’s Maggie, who stands as a symbol of uncorrupted innocence and incipient motherhood so that Carol can fight to protect something in another person that she herself has lost. There’s the colorful Molly, who offers Carol a view of her possible future — a dead woman walking who’s not afraid to do what needs doing. There’s Donnie, the textbook abusive boyfriend who’s mostly a prop to draw out another aspect Carol’s past. Finally, there’s Paula who is both a dark reflection of what Carol has become–a woman who’s lost her children, dealt with abuse, and resolved to kill when necessary without compunction or hesitation–and a living, breathing warning sign for what Carol is afraid Maggie might become.
These are all interesting parallels in principle, but given that all of these people have to be introduced and killed off in the same episode, the audience, by necessity, only gets thumbnail sketches of each of their personalities rather than meaningful character development. Accordingly, there’s little in the episode to make this band of Saviors seem like real people instead of convenient narrative devices meant to elucidate Carol’s internal conflict. The episode succeeds in giving the captors texture–Molly in particular is someone I’m sad to see go given how distinct and magnetic she was in just a few scenes–but their characterization is exceedingly thin, which inevitably leads to a sense that “The Same Boat” is more of a contrived allegory than a story with emotional truth.
That’s especially true for Paula, a well-acted, poorly-written character who seems to have little use beyond turning subtext into brutally on-the-nose text and quickly revealing herself as a loud wakeup call for Carol. When she blasts Carol for being weak, when she spits Carol’s philosophy back at her in a clumsy fashion, or when she says out loud that Carol sees Maggie as the way she used to be, it’s all unnecessary emotional exposition about themes the show had already communicated in much better, subtler ways.
I actually liked Paula as an antagonist, both because Alicia Witt’s performance was quite good, and also because there’s a harsh pragmatism to the character’s leadership that makes her as interesting a comparison point to Rick as she is to Carol. But when she launches into that monologue and waxes rhapsodic about strength, killing, and email forwards, it becomes clear that she’s only there to be a ponderous, poorly-sketched out doppelganger for Carol, with nothing under her skin but cheesy dialogue and didactic speeches.
Melissa McBride does what she can to save all of this. The different shades of her performance convey Carol’s simultaneous cunning and pain in an impressive fashion. Carol is obfuscating timidity to disarm her captors, in much the same way she used her homespun persona to keep the Alexandrians off their guard initially. But McBride does a great job of selling the moments where Carol’s real concerns, her genuine conflicted feelings about the choices she’s made and the grisly deeds she’s had to commit, bleed through. More than that, the episode shows her using those real feelings to further her lies, which communicates both the canniness and the pathos at the core of her character.
Thankfully the episode never comes right out and says it, but there’s a bit of Morgan’s philosophy that’s wormed its way into Carol’s thinking, whether she likes or not. She may, in fact, hate the way he’s influenced her, prompting her to shoot an intruder in the arm rather than in the chest, or hesitate when a single bullet could practically end the entire struggle.
Carol became this hardened warrior so that she could protect the innocent, so that what happened with Sofia wouldn’t happen to anyone else. (It’s why Paula’s swipe at Maggie’s stomach is what rouses her from her nascent pacifist streak.) But as bluntly as the concept is hammered home in “The Same Boat”, Carol has been wounded in that process, and when she looks at the deaths she’s been responsible for, at the harshness she’s perpetrated in the name of doing what must be done, she doesn’t necessarily like the person she sees reflected in Paula’s eyes, and begins to not only question that path, but to slowly feel more and more of the hurt that’s come with it.
(As an aside, I’m hardly a Carol-Daryl shipper, but theirs has always been a special friendship on the show, and one of the most pleasant moments in a very dark episode was Daryl immediately comforting Carol in the aftermath of her and Maggie having to kill the last pair of Savior stragglers. Maybe he can help her find some peace in all of this.)
But that brutality doesn’t stop at Carol. “The Same Boat” suggests that it’s also infected the whole group, or at least the ones who embarked on the raid of the Saviors’ compound. Again, it’s not subtle–Michelle, who seems intended as an alternate version of Maggie much as Paula is a dark mirror of Carol, says outright, “You’re not the good guys”–but despite the lack of nuance, I like the idea of the show broadening its scope and showing how others might view Rick and his cohort. We literally see the events of “Not Tomorrow Yet” from Paula’s perspective here, and it’s not necessarily a pretty picture.
The Walking Dead has been toying with this idea since the beginning of the Hilltop-Negan storyline, and it’s fruitful territory. Rick seems particularly cold and heartless when he takes out Primo, with his enemy barely getting a sentence out before there’s a bullet in his brain. In the same vein, the best scene in the episode is the first, which depicts a group no less capable than Rick’s looking on with horror but determination in the face of what our “heroes” had accomplished in the prior episode.
Suddenly, the actions of Rick and Michonne and the rest are thrown into stark relief, and the morality of the group’s deal with Gregory seems all the more suspect. But the salience of that moral gray area peters out pretty quickly when the Saviors we meet are too thinly-drawn to feel truly sympathetic.
But as I often say about The Walking Dead, there’s the germ of a good idea there. I appreciate the concept of Carol as an agent of change, as someone who’s lived by the philosophy that you should do whatever needs to be done, no matter the cost, to protect yourself and your own, and the show’s exploration of how she’s found herself not only disillusioned by where that philosophy has led her, but how it’s left her with serious qualms about the group as a whole adopting that view. This episode was a weak attempt to draw out her internal conflict in that regard, but hopefully the way “The Same Boat” tied that idea to the larger theme of whether our heroes are really worth rooting for or if, instead, they’ve become something different and more cruel out there in jungle, will lead to better and brighter things.