From ‘Homeland’ To ‘Mad Men,’ How Prestige Drama Quietly Became Young Adult Fiction

Yesterday at The Daily Beast, I got to dig into an idea that’s been striking me for a while: that in the age of anti-hero dramas, teenage girl characters have become almost as prevalent as middle-aged men with dark secrets who we shouldn’t root for, but do. In a look at Game of Thrones, Homeland, Mad Men, and The Americans, I explained:

Like almost every major anti-hero drama on television today, Mad Men is also a story about what it’s like to be a young girl discovering the realities of the world she’s living in. The secret of today’s prestige television is that it can all be read as young adult fiction….

In Homeland, Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), the prisoner of war who returns home after years of captivity by the terrorist Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban), reconnects most easily with his daughter Dana (Morgan Saylor). She’s pulled into her father’s plan to become a suicide bomber and the CIA efforts to stop him when agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), deep in a bipolar episode, asks Dana, in desperation, to help stop him. Dana insists that she doesn’t believe he could possibly be a terrorist, but calls her father anyway. A year later, when Carrie is interrogating Brody, she tells him, “It was hearing Dana’s voice that changed your mind, wasn’t it?” Dana, whether she intended it or not, has become a full participant in the moral world of grown-ups, due to her father’s plot. And she finally reaches maturity in the second season, when she realizes that Carrie was right, though for the wrong reasons — she’s finally capable of seeing Brody independently, rather than through the haze of daughterly love…

Mad Men has always had Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka), who was a little girl for much of the series, but one with secrets of her own, including her relationship with Glenn Bishop (Marten Holden Weiner). But this year, she is growing into maturity. After Betty’s cited for reckless driving, Sally tests her mother’s limits, announcing to Henry, “Isn’t somebody going to say something? Betty got a ticket.” She may have rushed home after getting her period last season, but now Sally’s shutting the door on Betty’s face to have some privacy on the phone and asking to go to New Year’s Eve parties.

The regular presence of teenaged girls, particularly teenaged girls in juxtaposition to anti-heroes, isn’t a new development, either. The Sopranos had Meadow Soprano, Tony’s daughter, The Wire had Felicia Pearson, 24 had Kim Bauer, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer let the teenaged girl herself be at the center of the frame — and even sometimes let her be a little bit anti-heroic herself. At this point, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead are notable in part for having teenaged boys in relation to their main characters, and in giving them fewer opportunities to critically assess their parents than shows like Homeland, Mad Men, or The Americans do, and Justified and Sons of Anarchy are notable for not really featuring teenagers at all.


What’s interesting — and I think considerably unremarked on — about the rise of a teenaged girl as a staple of big, prestige, often anti-heroic dramas is that these characters function as built-in critics of the behavior of the adults who are at the ostensible centers of the shows they share. Sally Draper is one of the first people to really see the cracks in her family’s facade, whether her parents are late to pick her up from ballet practice, or failing to be on the same page as parents, with Betty shunted into the role of enforcer while Don gets to be Fun Dad. One of the things that’s made Morgan Saylor’s performance as Dana so impressive on Homeland is the way that Dana simultaneously loves her father deeply and comes to see his true flaws — not the conversion to Islam that upsets her mother so much — more quickly and clearly than anyone else in her family. On Game of Thrones, teenaged boys like Jon Snow, Robb Stark, and even to a certain extent Loras Tyrell, get sucked into pre-packaged narratives of chivalry and bravery, while it’s teenaged girls like Sansa and Arya Stark, Margaery Tyrell, and Daenerys Targaryen who see the real truth of the system in which they’re forced to live their lives, and find ways to circumvent or expand the boundaries placed upon their lives. And while in The Americans, it’s probably too early for Paige and Henry to figure out the real nature of their parents’ work and marital arrangements, their experiences with American consumerism, latchkey kid culture, and emergent sexuality are as important expressions of the show’s themes as Elizabeth and Phillip’s dalliances with sources and conversations with Claudia, their handler.

This isn’t to say that Don Draper, Tyrion Lannister, Nicholas Brody, or Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings don’t matter. But if you want to know how to judge the dark princes and princesses of prestige television drama, you might be better off keeping your eyes on the girls standing off to the side, rather than watching the throne.