Friend Shipper

Daryl and CarolI’ve been listening to Slate’s podcast recapping the latest season of The Walking Dead (available to Slate Plus members only, sorry guys), and an exchange that took place on the first episode between host Mike Vuolo and Chris Wade caught my attention:

Vuolo: I think that [Carol’s] relationship with Daryl is fantastic because it’s not quite a sexual relationship, it doesn’t feel romantic, it doesn’t feel even sister-brother; it just feels like a pure friendship.

Wade: “Companionate”? Is that a word?

Vuolo: Sure, why not?

Wade: They see something in each other that makes things about this world better. Yeah I think it is great; and it is one of the few moments of subtlety, which I always appreciate in The Walking Dead. Of not having to spell out, like, Oh, they are together. And they don’t seem to need to have any kind of definitions because both of them are realistic enough about what’s going on right now in their world to know that just caring for each other and, like, caring about each other’s well-being more, perhaps, than anyone else is enough to be important and help them live this terrible life they’re in.

(I think my attributions are correct, but both of those dudes’ voices sound similar.)

This is something I think about a lot: the state of friendship between male and female characters on television. As much as movies and television shows get dinged for not passing the Bechdel Test, they can be just as guilty of what I’ll call the Harry Burns Fallacy, after the assertion made by Billy Crystal’s character in When Harry Met Sally—that “men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.”

On T.V., the Harry Burns Fallacy rings true. It’s rare to see an unrelated single man and single woman have a relationship that’s anything other than romantic. Even if they start out as just friends, somewhere down the line they’re sure to end up in bed together, dating, and/or married. It’s telling that on a show called Friends, four out of six of the titular friends ended up in romantic relationships together.

I’m not anti-romance. Trust me, I’m as big a shipper as the next gal. I will tell you now: No one on the face of this planet wanted Parks and Recreation’s Ben and Leslie to get together more than I did. I was actually sorta into Spuffy, and I pulled hard for Cophine. I would see a Science Bros movie in a hot second. And I do not give shit one about Dean-or-Jess: I was a Logan girl all the way (go ahead and hate; I’m standing firm).

But I’m also a die-hard friend shipper. While the romance and companionship of dating and marriage are an essential part of life and have provided compelling storylines on a billion T.V. shows, there’s something to be said for friendship between a man and a woman. Like all great friendships, close lady-dude friendships are about what Chris Wade eloquently described as “see[ing] something in each other that makes things about this world better.” But when you’re friends with someone of the opposite sex, you get the added bonus of radically shifting your perspective: You learn things about the opposite sex you wouldn’t otherwise gain access to, but without the pressure or possibility of something sexual happening.

So many male-female television friendships culminate in romance, though—as if the only value in different-sex friendships is the possibility of “something more.” Sex and marriage, particularly on television, are portrayed as the ultimate connection between two people. As a person in the world, though, I know that there are connections that go just as deep between friends, whether they’re two gals, two dudes, or two people of the opposite sex. What’s deeper, I ask you, than caring about another person’s well-being more than anyone else’s, or helping another person live this life?

That’s why I hope Carol and Daryl remain friends. I won’t lie; I once shipped them. And there have been clues that something romantic may have passed between them. But as they’re portrayed at the moment, they represent a rare animal on television: the man-woman friendship that’s “just” a friendship. There’s mutual respect between them. They’ve both watched the other change and grow. They’ve developed an ease with each other that isn’t charged with sexual tension. In this season’s second episode, when Daryl hops in a car to chase down the men who abducted another friend, Carol jumps in, too, and the tone of this partnership is less I can’t bear to be separated from my lover and more I got your back, bro. “Just friends”? There’s no “just” about a relationship for which you’d risk your life, romantic or platonic. And the only “something more” I need is more friendships like this one on T.V.