Cooking as the symbol of Carol’s identity crisis on The Walking Dead

Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride), AMC, The Walking Dead
Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride), AMC, The Walking Dead /

From meek housewife, to (undercover) ruthless killer, we explore how The Walking Dead has used the theme of cooking in Carol’s complex character evolution.

As a symbol of homemaking, cooking is an important part in Carol’s initial characterization as a “mother” on The Walking Dead. As Carol moves on from this characterization to become a far more multi-faceted character, cooking remains associated with her, but in a far more ambiguous, even occasionally sinister, fashion.

Carol was first introduced to viewers of The Walking Dead as a wife and mother. In seasons 1 and 2, we often see her doing stereotypical “housewife” work with the other women: taking care of the children, doing laundry and cooking. As the series goes on, she loses both her husband and her daughter and becomes one of the most bad-ass characters on the show – the “apocalypse queen” as the fans like to call her. Still, there is one activity that Carol keeps being associated with, even after she has moved past this characterization as a wife and mother: cooking.

Carol’s happiest moments: Cooking for the group at the prison

After losing her daughter in season 2, instead of collapsing completely, Carol becomes a stronger, well-rounded character. In seasons 3, and even more in season 4, she seems to have found a balance between her “nurturing” habits and her tougher personality. Her close relationship with Daryl during that time seems to help her in this, and interestingly, we often see them chatting while sharing food.

Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride) brings food to Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) in season 3, episode 1, The Walking Dead, AMC
Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride) brings food to Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) in season 3, episode 1, The Walking Dead, AMC /

For example, in “Seed” (episode 1 of season 3) Carol plays an active part in the taking of the prison and then shares one of her best moments with Daryl: she brings him some food, then chats and flirts jokingly with him, as he is standing watch from the top of a truck. In “30 Days Without an Accident” (the first episode of season 4), as the group is happily settled inside the prison, we also see Daryl and Carol chatting and joking while eating the meat that Daryl has brought back from the hunt and that Carol has cooked.

These are good times for Carol, when she seems comfortable with herself and with her position in the group. Unfortunately, all this is broken – or “burnt away”, as Carol says in “Consumed” (season 5) – when Rick banishes Carol from the group for killing Karen and David. The banishment triggers an identity crisis in Carol, which she never really solves until the end of season 7. From then on, Carol’s cooking is almost always linked with tragedy or with an illusion of happiness.

Cooking announces tragedy: Lizzie and Mika

The most heartbreaking moment in Carol’s story, maybe even worse than the loss of Sophia, is the tragic ending of the Lizzie and Mika storyline. Narratively, the final act of this tragedy is framed by cooking. One symbol of homemaking, the kettle, is used in an ominous manner: the whistling of the kettle feels like an alarm going off, warning us that something terrible is about to happen. The kettle should be reassuring, but feels more like a ticking time-bomb.

The empty tray of pecans from season 4, episode 14, The Walking Dead, AMC, via
The empty tray of pecans from season 4, episode 14, The Walking Dead, AMC, via /

As Carol, Tyreese and the girls settle in an abandoned house and start having dreams of a “normal” life together, Carol acts the part of the mum by helping the girls roast pecans in the oven. After the tragedy reaches its climax and the two girls end up dead, the camera lingers on the empty tray of pecans – as a symbol for shattered illusions and the life Carol and the girls will never have together.

Alexandria: cooking as the symbol of Carol’s “fake” identity

Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride), AMC, The Walking Dead
Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride), AMC, The Walking Dead /

After she arrives in Alexandria, Carol’s cooking becomes the ultimate symbol of her double identity: the meek, happy homemaker (or, as I like to call her, the “Cookie mom”) and the cold, ruthless fighter. Cooking is an essential part of this new, “fake” identity, as she is in charge of bringing people casseroles, and becomes famous among the residents for her cookies. Food and cooking is pretty much all Carol talks about with the other women from Alexandria – by the way, aspiring chefs can now buy the official cookbook with the recipe of Carol’s cookies.

A very important confession is the one Carol makes to Sam, as he is pestering her with questions about how she got so good at cooking. Carol tells him:  “I was good at it. It distracted me. It made me forget when I was sad.” With this line, Carol basically reveals that cooking for one of the main coping mechanisms, an escape from her everyday life as an abused wife. It is therefore inextricably linked to her former self, and crucially, to her habit of pretending: pretending that she was a happy housewife, and trying to forget how bad her situation really was.

Cooking as the symbol of the dichotomy between Carol the homemaker and Carol the killer

Cooking is also what brings Sam closer to Carol, even though she does everything she can to push him away. Sam is very fond of her cookies, but this time, Carol is not eager to bond with any more children. This leads to the hilariously creepy scene (episode 3, season 5) when Carol scares Sam out of his mind, while simultaneously promising him “lots of cookies” if he shuts up about her stealing guns from the armory. As we know, Sam’s story also ends in tragedy – and even though he had many reasons to be traumatized, the script explicitly links his death to Carol’s terrifying prediction of “monsters” eating him alive.

The Walking Dead - AMC, Melissa McBride as Carol Peletier
The Walking Dead - AMC, Melissa McBride as Carol Peletier /

At this point, Carol’s cooking has become inextricably linked to her moral dilemma about showing the world a fake identity: she has become a dark parody of her “nurturing mother” character. She is now using her delicious cookies to blackmail a child into keeping her dark secrets. She is using her casseroles to pretend that she is a happy member of a community she doesn’t trust, while plotting to hide guns in case she has to kill them all.

Given Carol’s attitude to Alexandria, the casserole she sends Deanna with the message “we are sorry for your loss” after she loses her son seems to be a political exercise, more than a heartfelt gesture. And of course, it is also while bringing him a casserole that she threatens to kill Pete, pointing out that no one would ever imagine that she attacked him first.

Carol at the Kingdom: A reversal of the roles

Even after Carol leaves Alexandria and shuns her role as the “caretaker” of the group, the cooking theme does not disappear. Interestingly, during her time at the Kingdom, the dynamic is reversed: Carol is no longer bringing food to people, people are bringing food to her. She doesn’t particularly want it or need it: as she shows Morgan, she already has plenty of fresh fruit and can provide for herself just fine. Jerry’s cobbler is used as a comical device to highlight the unwanted attention she keeps getting from Ezekiel.  The only moment when we see her cooking for someone else in season 7 is when Daryl shows up at her house – an echo of their earlier, happier moments from seasons 3 and 4.

Next: 10 predictions for TWD season 8

Now that she has embraced her role as a fighter again on The Walking Dead, how will Carol evolve? Can she find the balance between her two personalities again? What do you think will happen in season 8?