As always, these breakdowns contain SPOILERS, and are only recommended if you've already seen the movie. You can check my introduction to these breakdowns, to get an overview of my process and philosophy.
Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments below!
Movie Level Goals
Protagonist: Therese Belivet
External/Internal Goal: Find Love
SUCCESS | FAILURE
Observation #1: But the movie is named Carol...
So if Therese is the protagonist, why is the movie named Carol? In many ways the movie is a coming of age story. Though Therese is an adult, she is also innocent about certain aspects of sexuality and the world. Her exposure to Carol is what causes her to grow and change as an adult. So Carol acts as a catalyst for the growth in Therese. Additionally, in many coming of age stories, the young protagonist serves as an observer, witnessing and being changed by the events of an older, adult figure. As much as Therese is influenced and changed by Carol, she is also an observer of the events in Carol’s life. Finally, in some ways a protagonist is simply the character whose goals structure the movie—and in this case it’s Therese’s goals that provide shape and structure to the movie.
Observation #2: Mixed Climaxes
The use of a mixed climax is much more common than it might appear, and can appear not just in complex dramas, but also in a wide variety of genre movies (see The Matrix and The Sixth Sense for other examples of mixed climaxes). In Carol, at the end of Act 3, Therese and Carol finally consumate their relationship, but Carol leaves Therese due to her husband’s pressure. The mixed climax is a great way to create ambiguity and more complex emotional responses. There is great joy in Therese and Carol finally taking their relationship to the next level, but that joy is immediately shattered by Carol’s departure. In this case, the mixed climax also creates suspense. What will happen to the their relationship? If they hadn’t slept together before Carol’s departure, the stakes would be lower and therefore there would be less suspense.
Observation #3: External/Internal
Generally, complex protagonists have either both an external and internal movie-level goal, or an internal goal only (since internal goal’s are generally more meaningful). Carol is interesting in that it only has one movie-level goal for Therese, and that goal has a strong external component, which would seem to imply the goal is less meaningful. However, relationship goals are unique in that they can be viewed as external OR internal, and often exist as both. Relationships of course are based on an external relationship, but simultaneously fulfill an internal need—the desire to be loved.