After seeing Carol what felt like centuries after everyone else had seen it, including my own mother, there were so many things I couldn’t get out of my mind: Therese (Rooney Mara)’s head turning at the feeling of Carol (Cate Blanchett)’s hand on her shoulder like she can taste it; the color red; the way Carol’s breath catches with emotion when she says, “And we’re not ugly people, Harge.” The fact of seeing this story brought to life, which I first encountered as a book while I was living in New York and working retail during Christmas and falling in love with an unavailable woman, hit me with such sheer magnitude that I could hardly move when the credits finally rolled.
But the thing I keep returning to most of all is the relationship between Carol and Abby (Sarah Paulson). It struck me, this portrayal of a deep, lifelong friendship between two gay women navigating all the treacheries of life in the 1950s, side-by-side. It spoke directly to the very special chamber of my heart that holds the gratitude and abiding love I have for the queer friendships in my own life.
Before we know that Carol and Abby were once lovers, we see their familiarity, the easy intimacy of two people who have been friends for decades, who have secrets from the world but not from one another. It seems like nothing out of the ordinary, the cozy scene they spend tucked into a booth at a smoky bar, sipping martinis, Abby saying, “I’ve got my eye on this redhead,” and Carol teasing back, “Can you handle a redhead?” But there’s actually something radical going on here. It’s no small thing that they have each other, two women who like women, can talk openly about redheads or Therese or any number of topics without fear. There is a special kind of trust there, an implicit safety.
It’s mutual recognition, too. Abby can call out Carol, the coolest of customers, can challenge her with, “I know you don’t like driving alone” because she intuits Carol’s intentions perhaps before Carol herself is ready to admit them. And she can because she has to do it as well, play the game of keeping anything flirtatious or suggestive understated, let it thrum only beneath the surface like a quickening pulse below the skin.
In each other, they see reflected back what they’re both attempting to perform, and perhaps hide, in their own lives as gay women. Despite what they’ve gained by refusing to conform to the sexual expectations of the time, they both know what stands to be lost. When Abby says to Carol, “She’s young. Tell me you know what you’re doing,” she’s cautioning against something very present that she has reckoned with, the particular pain of a heartbreak that will have to remain largely unnamed and unacknowledged. And when Carol responds, “Did I ever?” she too is confronting it, staring down the barrel of that same gun.
Abby is established not only as a friend and confidante, then, but as a fellow queer woman who deeply understands the struggles Carol is inviting into her life — and, more importantly, why she’s doing it. And we know in this way that Carol is not alone, that neither one of them are. Each has someone she can turn to. Abby not only deftly and indifferently handles an enraged Harge who pounds on her door and makes childish demands of her, she then drives across multiple state lines to pick up Carol’s lover and deposit her back in New York. I can only imagine the phone conversation between the two of them when these arrangements are made: Carol not saying much and Abby emitting a small sighing noise, both speaking quickly and quietly into a crackling line. And Abby’s answer is, as it will always be, yes, I am here, I am coming. The stakes are high, but they are not impossible.
In some criticism written about the movie, Abby is posited as the jealous, “other woman” who is still in love with Carol, and skeptical of Therese based on that fact. And in an interview with Paulson herself, she discusses two Abby-related scenes that were ultimately cut from the movie, and which would have perhaps made this perspective more warranted. (One was a scene in which Abby confronts Therese about Carol directly, before their trip, and the other is a moment during which Abby floats the idea that they try something again and Carol rebuffs her.)
There are layers upon layers at work throughout Carol — which is part of the reason it’s such a terribly beautiful and nuanced film — so this relationship should be no exception. But I find myself wanting to reject this idea that Abby is only there for Carol because she’s still in love with her. To me, that reinforces a narrative that is frequently projected onto female characters, that they have to be in competition. Carol and Abby’s friendship is bigger than their fling, is bigger than whatever inevitably happens between Carol and Therese.
Paulson herself says of the Abby and Carol, “It was definitely an example of beautiful female friendship and loyalty. Yes, this friendship did have a romantic component at one time, but it was not something that was going to cause the relationship to dissolve because it didn’t work out romantically. They had a bigger bond than that.”
Abby is, after all, Aunt Abby, the godmother of Carol’s daughter. There is something essential and unshakable between them. And the fact that this friendship exists between two gay women in a mainstream Hollywood movie, and remains largely unmarred by drama or a romantic entanglement, is pretty damn special too.
Because we need our queer friends. We need the people who give us the space and safety to explore whatever it is we need to explore, without judgement or explanation. And we need those same people, who have been there, who have grappled with it all too, to remind us firmly and tenderly of any precipice they think we might be standing on — romantic or otherwise. We need people who also understand the singular experience of walking through the world as a queer woman. Carol and Abby are in this thing together. They share a perspective, a history, a struggle. They share a context.
These are the friendships that fortify us, that give us strength. I’d like to think it’s the kind of strength Carol summons in that pivotal moment when she stands in front of Harge and the lawyers and tells them, in no uncertain terms, that she will never hide who she is for any reason. Her actions echo the sentiment she shares with Harge early on in the film when he tries to manipulate her into spending Christmas with him. “I’m not alone,” she tells him. “There’s Rindy, there’s—” Harge finishes the statement for her: “Abby. There’s always Abby.”
Indeed. There’s always Abby.
If you haven’t seen Carol (or even if you have), you can enter our DVD giveaway! Thanks to the folks at Anchor Bay Entertainment, we have five copies of the film to share with you!