Why Melissa McBride is the best actor on television

By Alex Frail

( Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
(Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for the fifth season of “The Walking Dead.”

For the past five seasons of “The Walking Dead,” no actor has delivered a performance like Melissa McBride, who plays the chameleonic Carol Peletier.

At first an abused housewife who stands by her husband and a passable secondary character, Carol has become the best character on the show, which is no small praise. Despite its flaws, “The Walking Dead” has always portrayed fascinating characters throughout its run. Now none of them can compare to Carol. McBride’s stellar, emotional performance has surpassed all of her peers.

In the abbreviated first season, when the group was marooned at a campsite outside Atlanta, Georgia, Carol floated in and out of scenes but never seemed like she would become a central character. By season two, however, Carol adopted a much larger role on Hershel’s (Scott Greene) farm.

The disappearance of her daughter, Sophia, framed the season’s first half. As Carol struggled to maintain hope of finding her daughter alive, McBride laid the blueprint for her breakout role. The scene where she sprints hopelessly toward her zombie daughter but is intercepted by Daryl (Norman Reedus) remains one of “The Walking Dead’s” most heartbreaking moments.

Season three marked another expansion of Carol’s character and became McBride’s watershed moment. In the pivotal season of her transformation, Carol asserts herself in defense of the prison and plays a valuable role in deterring the Governor in the original war with Woodbury. McBride juggled both halves of Carol’s personality with aplomb. Traces of her timid past lingered as she attempted to become more a leader in the group.

Other characters on “The Walking Dead” have gone through enormous transformations like Carol. Most notably, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) has ranged from sheriff’s deputy to dictator to farmer, but those transitional steps were bumpy and obvious. Sometimes he would transform in the span of a monologue. To close out season two, his frustration boils over and he announces, “This isn’t a democracy anymore.” An effective scene – the inception of the “Ricktatorship” was still a jarring pivot for the post-apocalyptic leader.

Daryl, heretofore the show’s breakout role, also went through a wonderful character development. Played by the infinitely cool Norman Reedus, Daryl begins as a bigoted redneck under the wing of his racist older brother. He soon became an empathetic protector who searched in vain for Sophia. Thanks to Reedus, the breakout character matured into a thoughtful man who became Rick’s second-in-charge.
Despite the brilliant work of both Lincoln and Reedus, neither of them can match McBride’s work.

Over the course of her tenure in the zombie apocalypse, she has racked in the most powerful scenes and mastered a subtle performance that belied the degree to which her character was actually changing. As a result, some scenes sneak up on you. When she unfurls a collection of knives at a reading group in season four, you stop to wonder how she could be the same character as before.

By the same token, these sneaky changes never drop their plausibility, nor do they seem jarring. Instead, they suggest a gestated transformation that has only now been revealed. Carol could have broken after years of abuse and the loss of her daughter, but instead she recreates herself as an agent of survival and withholds empathy if it means defending her people. Such a progression could have been a descent into darkness. As we have seen with Rick, suppressing empathy can lead to savagery, like when he slaughters Gareth (Andrew J. West) and the survivors of Terminus. McBride, on the other hand, deftly flips that expectation on its head. Her transformation is one of hope, an attempt to pave over the scars of the past.

McBride stunned me in the season four episode, “The Grove.” The bottle episode plops her and Tyreese (Chad Coleman) with the three young girls, Lizzie, Mika and Judith, in a small cottage tucked away in a quiet grove. At once fragile and resolute, she struggles to salvage Lizzie’s corrupted mind. The moment she recognizes her failure, a solitary tear slides down her cheek as she resolves to kill the troubled young girl. It’s another moment from McBride that’ll floor you.

By season five, she has cemented her place as the best actor on the program, if not television. She steals the premiere with a lone wolf attack on Terminus, and then dominates one of the show’s creepiest, most engaging episodes in “Consumed.” It’s here that we finally get a reflection in Carol’s own words about her journey. McBride floods the speech with empathy, melancholy, hope and acceptance all at once.

Too often in the apocalypse, silver linings vanish in a puff of smoke. The farm was overrun, the prison invaded, the road littered with bandits and walkers. The one constant has been Carol, who, more so than any other character, has gotten stronger since the turn. Thanks to McBride and her wonderful performance, Carol has become an indispensable fixture of television.

Alexander Frail can be reached at [email protected]