Carol as a protector – the “mama bear” syndrome
Can Carol find a way to be both a strong, independent person, while not rejecting her wish to have a family again or simply let people get close to her again?
In the same exchange with Rick from episode 404 mentioned previously, Carol told Rick: “You can be a farmer, Rick. You can’t just be a farmer.” Was she thinking of her own trajectory, and her discovery that, although she used to think of herself as only a wife and mother, she could be those things, but not only those things? This could be an interesting take on Ezekiel’s advice to “embrace the contradiction”.
Though it may seem cruel to put it this way, losing her identity as a wife and mother seems to have allowed Carol to discover who she really was. In a 2016 interview for TV Insider, Melissa McBride had this to say:
"Looking back at Carol’s evolution over the last six seasons, what are you most proud of? I’m most proud of her coming to the forefront as herself, to do what she’s capable of doing and no longer shushing her own self. She’s utilizing her capabilities, stepping forward and stepping up. Her evolution has been a surprise every step of the way, but at the same time, it’s been a very natural progression for a character like her. It doesn’t seem extraordinary or out of the realm of possibilities that this particular woman would be doing the things she’s doing. She’s adapting well."
Indeed, Carol did mourn the loss of Sophia, as she obviously loved her daughter, but showed surprising resilience after her death: she did not even want to attend the funeral, arguing that her little girl had been long gone and that her walker body was no longer Sophia anyway. When faced with looks of pity or embarrassment from the others, Carol insisted: “I lost my daughter. I didn’t lose my mind!” This is a very significant line, as it clearly states that Carol does not see herself only as a mother, who, had the story followed the usual cliché, should have been utterly destroyed by the loss of her child. She asserts her own separate existence, as a person who is also something else than a mother and can move past this traumatizing event.
In a way, Carol’s attitude to all the children she encounters throughout the various seasons of The Walking Dead only reproduces her wider attitude towards her extended “family”: she may remain quite cold and distant to them, but all she really wants is to keep them safe. Tobin is probably the one who articulates it best when he insists that she still is a “mom”, not because of her cookies and (mostly fake) smiles, but because of her instinct to protect people and take the hard decisions – and interesting description which would actually fit Carol’s real self.
Tobin’s definition is reminiscent of one trope in particular – the so-called “mama bear” trope (in which a mother is actually capable of anything to protect her “family”, real or metaphorical – note that Carol is actuallly listed on TV Tropes as a “mama bear”). This may be the key to understanding Carol’s relationship to children, and to her extended family in general: she is not so much a “nurturing” character, as a protector. Back at the prison, for instance, she used the façade of her “motherly” persona to create a fake book club for the children at the prison, when she actually taught them how to use weapons. This role is much closer to that of an instructor, a teacher or even a coach, than to that of a mother.
In that role, Carol can be extremely harsh and can seem to lack empathy. It is hard not to feel bad for Lizzie when Carol berates her and calls her “weak” for not being able to put down her own father! This is also visible in her drastic choice to put down Karen and David, and later, in her ability to enter ‘berserk’ mode to save the group from the cannibals in Terminus and from the Wolves in Alexandria. It is this element of her personality that makes Carol suddenly feel like a monster, and pushes her to run away from the very people she might want to protect.
However, no matter how hard she tries to make sure harm does not come to people in general, and children in particular, the story always ends badly. After Sophia, Mika, Lizzie and Sam, Benjamin in season 7 was another example of this, as he tried to bond with Carol and faced a rebuttal, only to die anyway in the same episode. We do not know yet what will happen to Benjamin’s younger brother, Henry, whom Carol encountered in episode 806. After ordering him to stop following her, she eventually relented and gave him a gun to defend himself. Since there would be little point in repeating the same story again, maybe we can assume that this kid may finally break through Carol’s emotional armor? We can only hope so, and one fun fact could support this hypothesis: as was pointed out on Talking Dead for episode 806, the boy playing Henry (Macsen Lintz) is actually Madison Lintz (Sophia)’s younger brother…