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Why Melissa McBride is the best actor on television

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( 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]

12 Comments

12 Responses to “Why Melissa McBride is the best actor on television”

  1. vicki on November 20th, 2014 2:38 am

    MMB is an amazing actor. She has taken what could have been a “write off” character and made her something truly remarkable. I won’t lie, Carol is my favorite character on the show and it is all due to MMB’s work.

  2. krystal on November 20th, 2014 4:06 am

    Carol has been incredible since the begining, Melissa is so talented that she trasnforms herself in Carol and she is real, you can see her pain, her struggle or her happiness, Melissa is a joy to watch and definetly my favorite.

  3. Gile on November 20th, 2014 10:34 am

    Come on. The woman is a passable actress, but there are 100 better male and female actors on television.

  4. Carols pookie on November 20th, 2014 11:26 am

    amen to that!!

  5. Kimber on November 20th, 2014 12:26 pm

    Melissa McBride has subtly transformed Carol from a background character to the strongest on The Walking Dead and arguably all of television. The transformation has been believable and real. As an audience member, she is the one character I relate to the most.

  6. Suellen on November 20th, 2014 1:25 pm

    I fully agree and I hope that TWD keeps giving her the spot to shine as they are doing this season.

  7. Chuckawobbly on November 20th, 2014 6:21 pm

    Agreed. She’s the best. So glad they kept her in her role of Carol and have allowed her character to grow and come to the forefront of the team. I love watching her and want to see more of her in the coming season.

  8. Steve on November 21st, 2014 8:42 pm

    Man did she write this article herself? I mean come on best actress on tv? No and not on the walking dead…she’s a good actress but honestly I think her time on the show is coming to an end …if not the mid season finally then def. Sometime this season.

  9. Denise on November 21st, 2014 9:07 pm

    Melissa McBride is amazing. She doesn’t become Carol, but rather walks beside her in her journey. She respects the character and absolutely portrays her beautifully. The quiet moment of prayer in the church, while looking for Sophia still rips my heart out. The evolution of Carol has been the best on the series thanks to MMB’s stunning performance. So proud to be her fan. She is a privilege to watch.

  10. Suellen on December 2nd, 2014 8:18 am

    Melissa is absolutelly amazing. She gives a depth to this show that none of the other actors in TWD do (though I like most of them very much). Carol’s evolution has always felt organically and this is greatly due to her amazing performance. Can’t wait to see what the writers will giver her up next. I hope she stays in the show for a long time (I won’t complain if forever).

  11. Julia on December 5th, 2014 12:56 pm

    I’m not a fan of the zombie genre. And I have absolutely 0% in common with this character. Yet I tune in every Sunday eager to see my now favorite actress do her thing. And this is all due to Melissa McBride’s amazing portrayal of Carol. The Grove episode was enough to convert me – the unbelievable emotion showing on her face bumped Meryl from my top spot. This actress can rip your heart out with a single glance!

  12. Caryl Love on November 21st, 2016 11:43 pm

    Sorry, Gile and Steve, but you are outvoted. Journalists cannot write enough about her. They write article after article and all in praise of her. Critics sing her praises over and over. Heavyweights in the entertainment field lift her up. Few actors, including those on TWD, have this much attention and praise. Sorry, but most of the rest of the world disagrees with you. Her popularity is through the roof and shows no sign of slowing its momentum anytime soon.

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