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The Walking Dead season 6, episode 13: an ultra-grim hour reaffirms Carol is the show's best character

Carol and Maggie fight their way past the Saviors holding them captive in a gripping installment.

Zombie town!
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.

Apropos of nothing, I was reading the Wikipedia character page for Sophia Peletier, Carol's daughter who died all the way back in The Walking Dead season two. It reminded me of something that was very much true of the show back toward the beginning: The Walking Dead used to be a series about male alpha dogs facing off, snarling and yipping at each other, while women cowered in the background.

Now, several seasons later, women account for most of the show's best characters. Rick is increasingly dangerous. Daryl seems disinterested. And yet characters like Carol, Michonne, and Maggie have complicated lives and hardened relationships with their own morality.

"The Same Boat" nicely illustrates this point. For most of its running time, the episode is entirely about The Walking Dead's women. It's centered on Carol and Maggie's ordeal after being captured by the Saviors, but it also checks in on a group of women affiliated with the Saviors — a group led by Paula, played by Alicia Witt as a raw nerve who's only gotten rawer with all the zombies around. Indeed, for much of "The Same Boat," only one man has a major speaking role.

The hour takes some narrative shortcuts I don't really like, but I do appreciate where it ends up. Plus, it's proof of something very important: The Walking Dead is always better when it gives Carol plenty of screentime.

Here are five thoughts about the ultra-grim "The Same Boat."

1) Carol now. Carol forever.

Carol on The Walking Dead
Carol pretends to be harmless in order to inflict maximum harm.

Carol has taken a bit of a back seat this season, as the show has focused on developing other characters and building up the wonders of Alexandria. It's only been fitfully successful at achieving either of those goals, but the inadvertent benefit is that all the Carol we've seen in the past two episodes has been that much more welcome.

Melissa McBride's performance in "The Same Boat" is sterling, as Carol begins hyperventilating, seemingly as a ruse to lure the Saviors into trusting her just enough to leave her all alone in a room — at which point she promptly breaks free of her restraints and destroys everyone who's been holding her captive. McBride is a terrifying performer when she wants to be, and that's very much true in this episode.

It's also fun to watch her more restrained performance bounce off Witt's showier one. Witt chews the scenery as Paula, calling Carol a little bird and clearly judging her for the Catholicism that Carol feigns as a way to stay sane. (She's really using the rosary to effect her escape.)

Carol and Paula are a study in contrasts, but as the episode title suggests, they're in the same boat — both of their lives have been unexpectedly improved by living through the zombie apocalypse, even if they had to go through a ton of horrible things to get there.

But McBride also reminds us of why Carol remains human, even in the face of her evolution into a death-dealing machine. She's deeply concerned about the health and well-being of Maggie's baby, for instance, and that makes her end-of-episode breakdown slightly more believable than it probably should be.

2) Alas, Carol's character journey doesn't make a lot of sense

Carol feels bad
Carol ends the episode feeling pretty bad about what she's done. It's a big leap.

Remember in the first half of season six when Carol all but sighed and rolled her eyes like a petulant teenager every time Morgan talked about never killing anyone? Well, somewhere during the time jump between episodes nine and 10, she started to lose her appetite for doling out destruction.

The tally she made in the previous episode of people she had killed up to that point in the series — 18, though that number increases substantially in "The Same Boat" — evidently weighs heavily on her now. She says she could have taken the shot to kill Savior Donny, but didn't, thus leading to her and Maggie's imprisonment. And after killing the group of Saviors holding them captive, both women seem as if they're done with violence.

That's an intriguing idea to build a character arc around. Carol getting another taste of civilization and losing her harder edges could work very well if The Walking Dead properly works up to it. Unfortunately, as with too many of the character developments on the show, we're just assured this is the case, rather than actually watching it play out. The show needs Carol to lose her stomach for the horrible business of killing, so she does. I didn't really buy it.

3) No matter what, "The Same Boat" is an incredibly grim episode

The Walking Dead
Carol and Maggie face off with the Saviors.

If the show were going to make the argument that Carol and Maggie decide they're done with all of this thanks entirely to the events of this episode, I would almost buy it. The two get involved in brutal fights, watch as Paula has her skin chewed off by a zombie, and burn a room full of men alive. It's not a great time to be either of these women, is all I'm saying.

Yes, it feels silly to say an episode of The Walking Dead is especially grim, but both "Not Tomorrow Yet" and "The Same Boat" have gone out of their way to underline the weight of Rick's decision to go to war with the Saviors preemptively. The surgical strike on the Saviors' main compound was filled with horrible moments, and Carol and Maggie's mission is carried out with the same level of awful exactitude.

The Walking Dead has sometimes struggled to make the killing of human beings feel sufficiently weighty, compared with the killing of zombies. If nothing else, this Saviors arc is doing a good job of showing why Rick's group is increasingly unnerved by the actions it has taken to make itself safe.

4) We have a much better sense of the Saviors than we ever have before

Paula of the Saviors
Paula (Alicia Witt) is the most interesting Savior we've met so far.

Just spending time with Paula and her compatriots has given us a better sense of the Saviors as something other than a monolithic force. "The Same Boat" reveals their heavily militaristic way of doing things, with backup plans on top of backup plans and a variety of installations and outposts throughout the immediate area.

In particular, when they discover that the slaughterhouse where most of the episode is set has become infested with zombies, they see this as a nuisance, sure, but also a tactical advantage. Those zombies will act as extra security for the handful of Saviors holding Carol and Maggie, should Rick's group make it to the slaughterhouse before Savior backup does.

We also learn that the group that accosted Daryl, Abraham, and Sasha back in the midseason premiere wasn't quite operating under anybody's authorization, something that colors that (not exactly great) scene in a new light. The members of that splinter group now seem less ridiculous; they simply wanted to take something that wasn't theirs.

As a larger group, the Saviors are also incredibly smart. Paula susses out that Rick is closing in on their location entirely via the growing lack of static on his radio communiqués. Yes, they're fooled by Carol, but who wouldn't be? Carol is the greatest.

The Saviors are still a little vague as a threat, but "The Same Boat" shades their internal dynamics and community in a way that makes them feel more important, just as what might be the last of their ranks are destroyed.

And now we're about to discuss some spoilers. Stop reading if you don't want to even speculate about what's coming.

5) I so wish I didn't read entertainment news

The Walking Dead
Rick wanders the world, asking people if they're Negan.

We've known for months that Jeffrey Dean Morgan is joining The Walking Dead's cast to play Negan. We've even known that he'll likely make his first appearance in the season six finale (which is airing April 3). And if you've read the Walking Dead comics — or even the Wikipedia entry for the comics — you'll know a lot about who Negan is and how he announces his presence.

Now, I expect the show to change things up a bit. It always does. But the point is that The Walking Dead has done a good job of suggesting that maybe "Negan" is just a name the various Saviors use to plant the idea of a terrifying, monstrous figure who does horrible things without receiving comeuppance. All of the Saviors shouting, "I'm Negan!" Spartacus-style, is a really intriguing misdirection.

But, alas, I've read the comics, and I've read Entertainment Weekly. I know Negan is coming, and I know who's playing him. It's too bad. It would've been fun to be surprised.