March 8 was International Women’s Day, a fact The Walking Dead seemed to take note of in this week’s episode, “The Same Boat”. AMC has a strong history of highlighting women’s viewpoints, and offering series that feature strong female performances. Mad Men‘s the obvious example, a show whose emphasis on the plight of women in male-dominated workplace environments of the ’60s always seemed to offer a kind of double commentary: isn’t it wonderful things are so much better today; only maybe things haven’t changed as much as all that? And though Breaking Bad focuses primarily on Walter (Bryan Cranston), Jesse (Aaron Paul), and Hank (Dean Norris), it was often Skylar (Anna Gunn) and Marie (Betsy Brandt) who offered the most interesting perspective on the show’s events.
The Walking Dead is yet another series that offers strong performances from a talented group of female actors. Sarah Wayne Callies’s Lori brought an important balance to Andrew Lincoln’s Rick in the early seasons, reminding him, and us, that this post-apocalyptic world was more than a chance to play army. Laurie Holden’s Andrea provided a different example of fierce, furious at Rick for saving her from suicide-by-explosion at the CDC, ever afterward determined to take chances, even when her choices sometimes backfired. Michonne (Danai Gurira) has proven the equal of Daryl (Norman Reedus), with real-life superhero fighting skills matched with moments of genuine tenderness.
“The Same Boat” features Carol (Melissa McBride), one of only four characters to have been with us from the very beginning, and Maggie (Lauren Cohan), who has risen from her early days when she was simply one of Herschel’s (Scott Wilson) daughters, to become a central member of this wandering tribe. She’s important for her relationship to Glenn (Steven Yeun) and her impending pregnancy, but even more so for her role as the group’s most balanced member, capable of defending herself against any threat, but also of understanding the need for compromise and, more recently, diplomacy.
The episode’s plot finds Carol and Maggie in the hands of a small Saviors faction – Molly (Jill Jane Clements), Donnie (Rus Blackwell), Michelle (Jeananne Goossen), and Paula (Alicia Witt). Like many of The Walking Dead‘s most interesting episodes — “Here’s Not Here”, from earlier this season, for instance — “The Same Boat” works more like a short story than an ordinary episode, with the events taking place in a single isolated location and involving only a handful of characters (and only two regular cast members).
Dialogue is key here, and the violence, such as it is, works to emphasize relationships rather than serving as an end in itself. In addition, like other “short story” episodes, “The Same Boat” features an Emmy-worthy performance from a talented guest star; in this case, the always riveting Alicia Witt as Paula, the faction’s leader.
Much of the episode involves Maggie and Carol finding a way to escape from this group, not just to demonstrate they can do so on their own, but to save the men from walking into an ambush. From the first moments of their captivity, it’s clear these two can fend for themselves, thank you very much. Maggie seizes the first opportunity to begin sawing through her bonds, while Carol adopts a sly motherly persona to set her captors at ease. The allusion to damsels in distress is clear enough, but these damsels have mad skills.
The real intrigue of the episode, though, has more to do with the chess match being played out between our two leads and Paula. Although it’s clear from the beginning that, as Michelle points out, only one side can ultimately survive, there’s a real feeling of tragedy in the fact that Carol and Maggie recognize immediately a kindred spirit in Paula. It’s not merely that killing Paula and the others will mean killing humans who might, under other circumstances, be brought into the Alexandria fold. It’s the particular sadness of having to kill a woman like Paula who, for all intents and purposes, is Maggie and Carol. As the dialogue unfolds, we learn that, like Carol, before the world ended Paula spent her time in service to a useless man before seizing the opportunities afforded by the crisis to re-fashion herself into someone better, someone stronger: a leader.
Meanwhile, in an adjoining room, Michelle interrogates Maggie, trying to gain information about Alexandria. In the course of this interrogation, she reveals that, like Maggie, she was recently pregnant. If we were horrified in previous episodes that our band of survivors had stooped to killing humans, and killing them when they were absolutely defenseless, this episode brings home the fact that the Saviors are also — in many ways — just like our survivors, with the same needs, the same desires, and the same experiences.
As the episode plays out, we discover the tragedy is far more particular than this. This is a tragedy for the women of these two groups, a moment when we see through the tough exteriors they typically present, into the very deep pain they suffer, the fear they feel for themselves but also for the children in their lives: Carol’s lost daughter, the lost girls from the prison, and more recently Sam (Major Dodson); Maggie’s sister and now her unborn child.
As women, their lives in this new landscape require them to think not merely about their own survival, but about the survival of the human race, tied as they are to the propagation and protection of that race. We can see at moments that Paula and Michelle feel the same kinds of fears, the same kinds of responsibilities. While the men in this world may not recognize the fact, these women are the ones that hold the world together; as in Mad Men, we’re encouraged to recognize that this isn’t merely the case in this post-apocalyptic world; in truth, they always have been.
In the end, Carol in particular resists killing Paula, only doing it when she’s finally forced to. When the men finally burst in to “save” the captives, they discover there was never any need. Yet, Maggie and Carol are clearly shaken by this experience; as Maggie says to Glenn, “Something has to change”, and when Daryl asks Carol if she’s ok, her answer is a flat, “no”. Things have been changing in these past few episodes; in many ways, these characters have found relative safety from the walkers. Now, though, they must find a way to save themselves from humanity, and in many cases that means saving themselves from themselves.