We can all agree that since debuting on October 31, 2010, The Walking Dead has always had a zombie apocalypse as its main premise. But for those who immediately dismissed it as being another mere horror series about the ravenous undead, they missed the bigger picture. The show’s main characters have found themselves wandering in a quest to survive while grappling with moral life-and-death dilemmas at every turn. While there is certainly a share of gore generally featuring some hapless person getting ripped apart, the real story is the limits to which people are pushed to survive and how they come to terms with others and themselves following the consequences of their actions. Melissa McBride, who plays Carol Peletier, a domestic abuse survivor who went from a meek and battered victim to an uncompromising survivor, sees the relatable thread that those who stick with the show invariably pick up.
“I think that whole, ‘What would I do if I were in that position?’ is a big part of the program’s appeal,” McBride says. “It’s sort of living vicariously in a world we hope we never have to face. Then the characters wind up [being the kind that] we resonate with or have people fall in love with and care so much about. It’s intriguing and every time you turn around, there’s another threat. Now there’s this new evil threat by the name of Negan shaking things up.”
With the main cast (save for McBride and Lennie James’ Morgan Jones) last left on their knees waiting to see who gets picked to be executed by uber villain Negan, this season’s opening episode is one of the most highly anticipated of the fall season. While McBride, of course, cannot reveal what is going to happen, she is pretty clear about how the characters got to this point.
“Everything is just crashing. There is no illusion for safety. It’s really just seeing it for what it is and it’s getting worse by the day as the resources continue to dry up. It’s just ugly and mean,” she says. “As a viewer, I do love getting to see the bits and pieces of humanity of these characters and the new ones that come along and is there any hope for them. We want to believe so bad, hope against hope.”
The adoration and devoted following The Walking Dead has amassed goes far beyond the sky-high ratings it pulls on home network AMC. There is a vibrant social media community that not only makes its voice heard on Facebook and Twitter, but on Talking Dead, the live television after-show hosted by Chris Hardwick that airs following each Walking Dead episode. Not only does Hardwick host cast and crew members along with famous devotees of the show, but fans vigorously tweet in and take part in polls. That’s on top of the panels TWD actors attend at Comic-Con, various horror film conventions and stand-alone events for the show held at places like The Paley Center and the 92nd Street Y. It’s also at these affairs where fans get to interact with their favorite characters as well as one another in a way that doesn’t go unnoticed by McBride and her castmates.
“This [fan support] is truly awesome and something I would never have imagined for myself—ever. It’s amazing going to the conventions and meeting the fans face to face. They’re all so passionate and their expression on social media—they’re die-hard. They bring a lot to our lives as actors on a show,” McBride says. “In turn, the show has obviously brought joy to their lives in a roundabout way. When I say joy, I see fans online meeting in real life and forming wonderful bonds with each other through the show. It’s bringing families together for Walking Dead night and I get comments about people saying they haven’t spent so much time with their son since they started watching the show together.”
It’s during this time where the role The Walking Dead plays in someone’s life goes beyond an inconsequential television series, as McBride was quick to share while recounting one anecdote that still gets her emotional long after it happened.
“A few years ago, I was at one of the conventions and I had just done a panel and I was….I’m sorry, it still chokes me up a little bit to think about it,” she said with a sniffle. “Anyway, I was back at the table signing and a gentleman walked up and said, ‘I just want to thank you for what you said about domestic abuse and that it can happen to anyone. It’s not a stereotype.’ He said, ‘Men are victims as well.’”
While horror was not a film genre McBride keenly followed growing up, she was a fan of psychological thrillers. And with so many moral quandaries faced by Walking Dead characters episode in and episode out, it’s a good fit for the Kentucky native, both as an actor and a viewer. The evolution of her role as Carol has been a welcome challenge for McBride. Losing a child, learning how to eliminate threats and even dealing with temporary banishment have all given her an appreciation for her fictional alter-ego.
“Even the events of Carol’s pre-apocalyptic life have shaped her, and there’s still so much mystery in that for me as far as she’s concerned. Losing her daughter, having these other children in her care and always trying to do the right thing, like the weapons training, where she’s trying to get them where none of them end up like her daughter did, is a lot for her to deal with,” McBride says. “It’s so horrible when you’re trying to do the right thing and if that means killing other people, I can’t think of a worse thing to have to step into. So many things have shaped her and what she’s become and the way that she’s approaching the world now.”
Season 7 of The Walking Dead is premiering on AMC on October 23.