Lunchtable TV talk: The woman’s hidden path: Transformation by need or desire

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In the same way as Crime and Punishment is ostensibly about Raskolnikov, its women are the compelling draw of that make me continue to think about the story, years after last reading it. What influence do they have, what sacrifices have they made — and why?

In many of modern television’s biggest draws, women characters embody and drive the growth, change, multidimensional development and complexity of the story, sometimes even within stories in which the men’s experience is the story. The women’s transformative journey isn’t given the same fanfare as men’s… but it’s arguably a more dramatic, if understated, journey. Not unlike everyday life.

The show that got me thinking about this transformation was Better Call Saul. We know — both from Breaking Bad and from the development of the lead, Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman — that Jimmy/Saul is going to go through professional and familial upheaval, and given what we learn about his early life, return to his “Slippin’ Jimmy” origins on a grander scale. The quieter transformation, though, happens more slowly, with Jimmy’s counterpart, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). Built incrementally over the entire series, Kim’s transformation has been hinted at, as she occasionally joins Jimmy in some of his minor pranks and cons and seems to enjoy it. But her conscientious, driven, all-business demeanor imply that Kim is always going to be on the right side of the law. Yet time after time, when most would expect Kim to be the voice of reason, she retorted with something unexpected. Despite these surprises, it was never as though Kim acted completely out of character, jarring a viewer into finding the journey unrealistic or unearned. Instead she became more multilayered and complex as a character, which is not what I anticipated when the show began. In fact when Better Call Saul premiered I dismissed Kim as a secondary, possibly temporary, on/off love interest kind of character (I should really have known better, considering the creators of the show).

With Kim, as with all things in her life, she is controlling her transformation and choices, never letting the out-of-her-control circumstances make the decisions (or so it seems). Some of television’s latest and greatest shows offer glimpses of women at crossroads and turning points, as well as points of vulnerability, projecting creative and unexpected evolution for their characters. (Some of these transformations are the best — and only engaging — parts of the programs they appeared in.) A few of my picks include the transformation of Sarah Paulson‘s character, Alice, in Mrs America; Merritt Wever‘s spontaneous grab for a life that almost-was in Run; Kathryn Hahn‘s role as Eve Fletcher, as Eve moves from single mother to empty nester trying to figure out who she is, particularly sexually, in Mrs Fletcher; Shira Haas embodying a young Hasidic woman running from everything she knew to discover an entirely different kind of life in Unorthodox; almost all of the women in The Deuce experience transformation – some quite involuntarily but others, in particular, Maggie Gyllenhaal‘s Eileen/Candy, Dominique Fishback‘s Darlene, and Emily Meade‘s Lori, look to find voice and agency in a changing city in tumultuous times. Similarly, all the of the women in the underrated show Queen Sugar (Rutina Wesley, Dawn Lyen-Gardner, Tina Lifford and Bianca Lawson), have transformed completely — many times — and continue to evolve — as the show continues. It probably goes without saying but needs to be said that the women of Pose are television’s most transformative and inspiring group of all.

This is what women are uniquely good at doing — not just transforming, but adapting to changing realities. An unfortunate example from real life is Norma McCorvey, remembered best as Jane Roe, the plaintiff in the landmark case Roe v Wade, which made abortion legal in the United States. After the precedent-setting ruling, McCorvey became an anti-abortion activist, but nearing death, she confessed that she’d never actually changed her mind — but instead had been paid for her anti-abortion activism. This is chronicled in a new documentary called AKA Jane Roe. Sometimes the journey involves inconsistency that benefits the individual — never mind the social impact or ethical position.

As in real life, television’s transformations often come about less willingly, driven by circumstance and need. In the Canadian Pure, a Mennonite pastor and his stubborn rigidity and black-and-white view of the world continue to cause trouble and harm to his family, but his wife Anna (Alex Paxton-Beesley) adapts to the situation at hand with greater skill, being able to operate in greyer territory. Skyler White (Anna Gunn) in Breaking Bad represents a slow but sly turn to “the dark side” as it becomes clear what she is being forced to do. Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) in The Good Wife is forced to return to work after being humiliated by her husband’s infidelity and malfeasance. He goes to prison, and she begins to practice law. Somewhere along the line, her naivete and sense of being overwhelmed are supplanted by wily dealing and shrewd calculations about her future. Ozark‘s Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) follows a similar path, reviving her past as a political operative/adviser and applying it to altogether more nefarious enterprises. In many of these cases, it appears as though these ambitions have always lay dormant and get triggered unexpectedly.

 

Photo by Chandra Oh on Unsplash

Lunchtable TV talk: The Good Wife and The Americans – When belief is the greatest rebellion

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In two of television’s best shows, The Good Wife and The Americans, the main characters’ children – teenagers – do not rebel against their parents or authority by partying, drinking, having sex, choosing inappropriate partners or dating at all, skipping school or typical teenage rebellion tropes. Instead, these teens rebel by seeking faith.

In many American families, this would not be unusual or considered as rebellion at all. But for the families at the heart of these two particular shows, faith is not central to the main characters’ lives and never has been. Many critics condemn the shows when they focus too squarely on the main characters’ children, and usually I would agree. In these shows, however, the children’s search for meaning and faith informs and deepens the viewers’ understanding of the characters we care most about.

In The Good Wife, arguably one of the most sophisticated and nuanced shows in recent years, the focal point is Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies). The show has always been a critical success but has always struggled in the ratings; at this point, given the way the latter half of its most recent, the sixth, season has gone, I think the show has seen better days. I highly recommend at least the first five seasons.

Alicia faces many challenges in her personal and professional life, but one story that has not been particularly well-developed but which does shine a light on Alicia’s relationship with faith (as well as challenges with mothering – you never know what to expect from your kids!) is when her daughter, Grace, becomes curious about and explores Christianity. Alicia is not religious, and Grace’s exploration creates tension. It is not always the most well-designed plotline, but we can see clearly that Grace’s curiosity, though genuine, is a form of rebellion. Not argument-filled, contentious rebellion – but given Alicia’s ambivalence toward religion (I can’t recall if she ever explicitly stated that she is an atheist, but it is clear that religion is not a part of her life and that she did not introduce religion as a part of her children’s lives), it is a form of rebellion. After all, rebellion is often a form of finding and forging one’s own identity apart from what is expected.

In the better of the two shows (both of which are exceptional), The Americans, which, if possible, is even more highly acclaimed than The Good Wife, but less watched (!), the two main characters, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), find themselves at odds when their teenage daughter, Paige, decides to pursue faith. Philip and Elizabeth, both undercover Soviet spies, are atheists – but each “welcomes” Paige’s exploration differently. Both main characters have a complex relationship with how to parent (and with America and their cause). Both love their child, but Elizabeth – less seduced by America and more deeply, ideologically committed to the Soviet cause than her husband – is first against letting Paige look into her religious curiosities but eventually joins her, as a kind of way to get closer and more easily manipulate Paige when the time comes to enlist her into the “family business”. Philip is perhaps the more emotional of the two, and feels that their children deserve independence and the right to determine their future for themselves. Regardless of whether he feels that religion is the right choice for his daughter, he does not easily conclude that he and Elizabeth should interfere – and is vehemently against recruiting her to the cause. (Interestingly, Paige is a bit of a manipulator herself – asking her parents for a simple birthday dinner rather than a party, and her only request is to ask that her pastor and his wife be invited. By having the pastor present at the dinner party, she ambushes her parents into letting her get baptized.)

Although these storylines are meant to guide and illustrate our thinking about the parents/main characters, they also underline the general tendency of people – particularly when young – not just to look toward ideas that are different from what they have always been exposed to but also to question and search for meaning, whether that comes in the form of religious faith or something else. We can see how wrapped up in and brainwashed people can become (see the recent HBO documentary Going Clear, about the cult that is Scientology for a testament about that) in their search for authenticity, identity and belonging. Some people find that in their church, some find it in a social setting or scene, some people find it in politics. We can see that Alicia Florrick, while strong herself, has a community in the legal profession, her law firm and now in politics (though she is struggling with that). We know that the Jennings couple in The Americans has a guiding belief in Communism. It is easy to forget as adults, particularly ones with that depth of community and level of ideological commitment, that young people, even one’s own children, do not necessarily share those things and values. (Obviously the case if you are secretly spies!)

Where both shows have an opportunity with the stories about their children is that they can show how their parenting and relationships with their children can encourage healthy questioning and exploration and be supportive without smothering or undermining reason (i.e., opposing the children’s curiosity to the degree that they become even more determined to pursue a path just to spite the parents). In both shows, eventually, regardless of whether the end aims had impure motives (as in Elizabeth’s case with her daughter – even if it is considerably more complicated than that), the “rebellion” is nurtured with discussion and showing increasing trust in the children, even if the belief/faith is not ultimately shared.