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Carol is now The Walking Dead’s best character

Vote Carol (Melissa McBride) and Tyreese (Chad Coleman) for your new Walking Dead lead characters.
Vote Carol (Melissa McBride) and Tyreese (Chad Coleman) for your new Walking Dead lead characters.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The Walking Dead returned last night with "No Sanctuary," a largely enjoyable premiere that was thick with what the show does best: zombie mayhem.

The last episode of season four trapped our heroes in the cannibal village of Terminus. "No Sanctuary" very quickly set about burning Terminus to the ground and returning the ragtag band of survivors to the road. In doing, it prove that Rick Grimes is no longer fit to lead this group. He's fine, but he's no visionary. His solution to problems mostly involves stabbing dudes in the neck.

No, what The Walking Dead needs is someone of true vision and purpose, someone who can take out an entire burg of cannibals with only ingenuity, bottle rockets, and a herd of zombies at her side.

Yes, it's time for the reign of Carol.

The unbearable burdens of Rick

There are any number of things that keep The Walking Dead from true greatness, but the unbearable blandness of Rick is at or near the top of the list. At times, it feels like he's the default protagonist because he's the white guy who had a position of authority (sheriff) before the world ended. He's never done all that much to prove he deserves the job, and he usually seems sort of frustrated by having to hold it.

There are ways around this. Lost struggled similarly with its default protagonist, Jack, but by the time the show was over, it had dug nicely into that character's Messiah complex and made his need for control seem almost pitiful. The Walking Dead has tried to do this from time to time, but Andrew Lincoln hasn't proved as capable an actor as Matthew Fox was on that earlier show. When Lost gave Fox something irritating to play, he really gave it his all; when Walking Dead asks the same of Lincoln, he makes anguished faces.

If Walking Dead were better at navigating this sort of thing, it could maybe work as a riff on white male privilege. But this has never been a show that's been all that great at writing bold, original characters. Instead, it sort of sits and waits for one of the actors to pop, then writes toward whatever they're doing.

And for the most part, the actors who have popped are those who don't often get to play parts like this. Norman Reedus is perhaps the foremost example, turning afterthought hillbilly Daryl into something like the show's soul, but you can also see it in Danai Gurira's quiet fury as Michonne, or Chad Coleman's Tyreese, whose desperate attempts to remain a good man as everything crumbles around him have only gotten more poignant as the show has gone on.

But most of all, this has been true of Melissa McBride's work as Carol Peletier. When the show began, she was just another random character around the show's fringes, the mother to a daughter who had to stick around because her kid seemed more important to the show's long-term planning than she did. When she survived the first season finale, it was almost a surprise, since she seemed such a minor character.

But since then, Carol has grown and grown, and now, she's legitimately the show's best character.

Reunions and rejuvenations

Say what you will about The Walking Dead's slapdash approach to character development, but McBride's ferocious, frequently Emmy-nomination-worthy performance has made sense of a woman whom the show seemed to actively be avoiding understanding for a good long while. It began in the first half of season two, when Carol's daughter, Sophia, disappeared and was eventually revealed to have become a zombie. In the wake of that loss, Carol began to harden herself, and McBride started giving a flinty, unapproachable performance that gained strength from moments when the old, vulnerable Carol peeked through.

In "No Sanctuary," Carol strides around in a poncho that makes one wonder if Hollywood shouldn't remake Clint Eastwood's "Man with No Name" trilogy of Westerns starring McBride instead. She discerns that her friends are in danger thanks to some gunshots and quickly reads the situation in a remote cabin. She decides to turn a herd of zombies toward Terminus, then blows up a propane tank with a couple of well-placed shots and some fireworks. She is completely and totally dominant — not just over her enemies (and the undead monsters who surround her) but over every other character as well. It's impossible to watch her and not think, "Hey, let's have some more of that."

What's also exciting about this is the way that Carol almost singlehandedly averts the show getting trapped by the latest story where the characters tarry for a while in a place that means them harm, only to escape via improbable means. She takes hold of the tale and simply turns it in the direction she wants it to go, so by episode's end, the little group that spent the back half of season four splintered into tiny pieces is reunited and perhaps stronger than ever. (Well, they haven't found Beth yet, but one assumes she'll be along soon, because the series needs somebody to sing.)

Key to that reunion was the moment when Carol and Daryl finally laid eyes on each other again after spending most of season four apart. Daryl plays like a hardened hunter who could kill any beast with his bare hands, but he's actually a bit of a wounded puppy. That makes him the perfect match for Carol, who fronts like a soccer mom but is actually a steely killer of both zombies and men, someone who gets done what needs doing. Together, the two of them form one of TV's least likely love stories, and season five is already on surer footing for having them together and vaguely seeking each other's approval (though they'd never admit to doing so) again.

Carol/Tyreese 2014

The back half of season four — which turned from the show's usual serialized storytelling to something more like a series of character-based short stories set amid the zombie apocalypse — was a deeply hit-and-miss affair that mostly proved why the show was right to largely eschew character development in the past.

But these episodes left a legacy: they built up character pairings the show continues to pay off in interesting ways. And one of the best of those is between Carol and Tyreese, who have both been through hell and have arrived at very different destinations after that trip. Carol has hardened herself considerably, while Tyreese has become strangely more open and empathetic, constantly struggling to become a better man, even as the apocalypse is going on all around him.

But in "No Sanctuary," even Tyreese has enough, and he goes full Carol. Granted, that involves launching himself through a door and killing a man who's about to kill little baby Judith (one of those things that seems clearly a killable offense in this lawless wasteland), but it's still something he seems genuinely regretful about later on. He didn't want to do it. But he had to. He had to.

And, indeed, that's where the show seems to be pitching itself this season. The Walking Dead has always had an element of morality play to it, but this season deliberately pushes the idea of how you hang onto your humanity in the face of a world that seemingly wants to destroy it at every turn. The idea comes up over and over in this episode, whether it's the framing structure with the people of Terminus realizing they can be butchers or cattle, or Glenn insisting our heroes save others trapped in train cars so the citizens of Terminus (or the zombies) don't eat them.

That makes for the final, most important argument for why it's just time for Carol and Tyreese to take over the show already. Whatever struggles and conflicts Rick has been through, they largely hit repeat ages ago, as the show moved past its early attempts to figure out what a society built atop the ashes of apocalypse might look like. Now, the show is dealing with something more elemental. How do you stay human when everything that reminds you you're more than a mere animal is dead and buried? And, sure, there are ways to make that theme work with Rick, but, man, it sticks much better with Carol and Tyreese, two characters who have lost (nearly) everything, doesn't it? It's their time. Step aside, Rick. For the good of your show.

Vote Carol Peletier in 2014. She's our only hope.