Did Gabriel just steal Carol’s thunder as The Walking Dead’s most improved comic book character? Most survivors encountered in AMC’s The Walking Dead TV series first appeared in Robert Kirkman’s comic books. Most are also (more or less) faithful to their former selves, but very occasionally, The Walking Dead will take the basis of a comic creation and transform them into something… better. Over the past 11 seasons, Carol has been the poster-girl for Walking Dead character improvement. Whereas comic-Carol sort of fell in love with a zombie and got herself killed early on, Melissa McBride’s Carol became a veritable badass – the scourge of cannibals and flu sufferers across the zombie apocalypse.
Like McBride, Seth Gilliam joined The Walking Dead as a figure from the comics – a cowardly priest by the conveniently holy name of Gabriel. Also like McBride, Gabriel began his live-action story by mirroring the source material. Kirkman’s printed priest debuted in The Walking Dead as a man who condemned his congregation to grisly deaths by refusing shelter in his church. He then frequently proves to be a liability until reaching Alexandria and founding a brand new group of religious worshipers. Finally, Gabriel dies a semi-embarrassing death against the Whisperers.
Sometime during The Walking Dead season 9’s time skip, Seth Gilliam’s Gabriel deviated from this path. He entered a relationship with Rosita, joined Alexandria’s ruling council and, unlike the comic version, avoided getting himself killed by a ladder. Slowly but surely, The Walking Dead’s Gabriel has become more useful, more rounded, and more compelling, but in season 11’s “No Other Way,” Gabriel finally makes a play for Carol’s “most improved comic character” mantle. Still struggling to reconcile his faith with the zombie apocalypse, “No Other Way” sees Gabriel kill another holy man in cold blood, having previously spared another Reaper. He then rides to his friends’ rescue in epic fashion by sniping Reapers from his rooftop vantage point.
Compared to the Walking Dead comic books, AMC’s TV series creates a way more interesting discussion around post-apocalyptic faith. Gabriel has come to realize that ruthlessness and violence are sometimes necessary to protect his “flock,” but is fully aware these actions don’t neatly align with his Christian beliefs. Seth Gilliam perfectly captures how desperately Gabriel wants to feel “close to God,” but also conveys how that divine relationship has been eroded by a decade of undead resurrection and a constant string of dead friends. Gabriel’s inner conflict gives rise to a fascinating debate over who’s more worthy of holiness – the Gabriel who didn’t kill, but who willfully let his congregation perish, or the Gabriel who will defend the ones he loves with lethal force? That’s surprisingly fleshy subject matter for The Walking Dead, and refreshing in the sense that Gabriel doesn’t merely stop believing in God because undead are rising – he’s figuring out what God is in these strange, dark times.
Once upon a time, Gabriel wasn’t even the most intimidating person in his own church. Now he’s a hardened, cool-as-a-cucumber warrior who gets to do cool stuff like shooting an arrogant jerk in the leg, and quipping, “No Jensen here… Call me Gabriel.” Even Negan looked impressed by that one. Within the space of 6 seasons, Seth Gilliam’s Gabriel Stokes has transformed from the annoying do-gooder who told Deanna Monroe that Rick’s group was evil incarnate, into John Wick with a white collar. That alone is remarkable, but throw in the depth Gilliam’s performance brings to Gabriel’s inner turmoil, and the improvement between comic books and live-action goes beyond anything The Walking Dead has achieved thus far.
Is that enough to usurp Carol’s position as the MVP of comic-to-TV adaptation? Arguably, yes. While Carol has certainly enjoyed some stellar moments in The Walking Dead, her presence blows hot and cold, and since season 11 began, her character arc has been colder than the Commonwealth’s welcoming committee. Despite being The Walking Dead’s final season, we’ve watched Carol make some soup, bake some cookies, and ride some horses – none of which were how she earned her status as The Walking Dead’s most improved comic character. Gabriel, on the other hand, is only getting better as the end creeps closer.