I’ve written many, many posts about what it means that we’re obsessed with television’s anti-heroes, the archetype that’s dominated and defined the medium’s decade-long rise to serious critical acceptance and analysis. Whether it’s a demonstration—and test—of our moral flexibility, as in The Sopranos, an exploration of what our obsession with an archetype means when taken to its logical conclusion like The Shield, or a tool for illustrating what our political preconceptions blind us to, as in The Wire, there are good reasons to be fascinated with men from Tony Soprano to Walter White. But those good reasons also mean that women have been locked out of the rise of television, whether because we’re uncomfortable seeing women behave as pathologically and methodically as men, as with Patty Hewes on Damages, or because while we find active male anti-heroism fascinated, we’re repulsed by the feminized version of inactive, self-undermining indecisiveness, as some viewers were with Girls.
So yesterday in Slate, I wrote about a lesser-explored figure in the anti-hero universe: the anti-hero’s wife. Specifically Breaking Bad‘s Skyler White, and why people hate her so much:
I think Skyler sees Walt as we’re meant to see him: a self-deluding, pathetic man, but a dangerous one. She punctures the fantasy that there’s anything admirable left about Walter White, that we should still root for the man who fought back against illness and emasculation with a pork pie hat and chemistry. But even if Skyler has a moral clarity that those of us who want to identify with Walt as a badass would like to deny, she can’t easily act on it. She has an infant daughter and an ill son to protect, and her husband is a man who boasts of killing legends, who’s used physical force to establish his dominance over her before. It’s hard enough for women who aren’t married to evil geniuses to leave abusive relationships. Skyler is attempting to negotiate a livable existence for herself in highly unusual circumstances. And her steel is hardening every day.
Women in anti-hero shows may be voices of morality, but they’re also cast, to a certain extent, as spoil-sports. It’s Claudette Wyms who’s a constant reminder that there’s nothing cute or charming about Vic Mackey’s behavior, even as he makes busts and acts as catnip for an endless string of babe. In Sons of Anarchy, part of the tragedy of Tara’s experience is the capture of her independent voice by SAMCRO—in smashing her repaired hand and giving up her career as a surgeon, she’s also relinquishing her chance to act as a reminder to Jax of the other life he could be having. This is a critically important role, but it’s one that makes some people itchy and irritated because it’s not fun, it’s a reminder that you’re indulging, maybe even falling prey to something ugly and unpleasant that you wish you could just enjoy.
Deadwood‘s one of the few prestige shows where the women get to be at least as fun as the men, and where male brutality is presented as ugly rather than witty. Watching Cy bully Joanie is never fun—her depression is more sympathetic than his violent need for control. Francis Wolcott’s compulsions aren’t some Dexter-ian fascination: they’re vicious and pathetic. When he’s confronted, Hearst doesn’t marvel at Wolcott’s evil, he’s disgusted. The show doesn’t pull us into a romance with a bad person and then make a woman do the work of puncturing our fascination with him.