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: Tiger King + The Family + Ozark

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I’m a long way behind the curve in saying anything about the improbable Tiger King phenomenon, and there isn’t much to say about it except… well, there are idiots everywhere — some of them manipulative, some of them manipulated — and all of them thoughtless and selfish. I can’t stand watching or thinking about animals being mistreated, and under no circumstances could one claim that animals weren’t mistreated at the facility where Joe Exotic bred these creatures. No point describing this further except to say that this reflects the worst of society, its selfish streaks and disregard for life and nature.

I am nevertheless (briefly) bringing it up now largely because of the strange way that totally different programs end up having a surprising thematic overlap. What, then, does Tiger King have to do with the documentary, The Family, and by extension, Ozark? On the surface, absolutely nothing. But if you watch them one after the other in short succession, you will find a theme of destruction of one type or another, brought about by the selfishness, self-preservation, ugliness of what people can do and become.

The Family focuses on a conservative, right-wing, religious organization/cult that influences American politics heavily. Not a fantastic documentary, but it does chronicle the toxic and insidious influence an ultra-right-wing “religious” group has on American politics, and by extension, American life. I put “religious” into quotation marks because I find these interpretations and manifestations of faith to negate true spiritual or religious belief. Anything that excludes, vilifies and targets people with hatred and discrimination — or official government policy or law codifying hatred or discrimination — is not qualified to be anything but a power-hungry cult in my estimation. The Family illustrates the destructive nature of hypocrisy – how it can profoundly benefit small groups (particularly white men) and have a deeply destructive, corrosive effect on everyone else. And even those privileged by this system can be burned by it if they fail to follow its rules or if the “movement” demands a scapegoat.

Meanwhile, in Ozark, the conversion of Marty and Wendy Byrde from fearful accidental money launderers to active crime lords isn’t without its parallels to The Family — power and money corrupt, and the constant threat of violence or the long hand of the law on either end of the spectrum make for similarly destructive potential… the destruction of the family, the destruction of individual moral fiber, the destruction of a sense of right and wrong. Eventually, again, hypocrisy comes into play — as one gains more power and influence, the perception of what’s right and legal seems to shift. One of the early schemes in Ozark is Marty and Wendy’s attempt to bankroll the building of a fundamentalist church – which felt worthy of the snake-oil salesman “religious” orientation of the people in The Family. It felt equally slimy and misleading… sliding rapidly down the slippery slope.

Life is, for some, a performance: a marriage of performative religion and stupidity. A PT Barnum three-ring circus of people buying exotic animals, having no idea how to care for them (this is central to Tiger King but also appears in Ozark, in which Ruth’s two relatives buy two bobcats or something — thinking they are a male and female who will breed, but turn out to be two males), digging deeper holes for themselves, bending or making entirely new rules for themselves. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned things were in the beginning (there were probably good, if misguided, intentions driving each of these three stories before they went full circus. Fiction or non-fiction, there seems to be no immunity to the most destructive impulses.

Photo by Mark Williams on Unsplash