Sara Fredman | Longreads | March 2019 | 11 minutes (3,057 words)
What makes an antihero show work? In this Longreads series, It’s Not Easy Being Mean, Sara Fredman explores the fine-tuning that goes into writing a bad guy we can root for, and asks whether the same rules apply to women.
The antihero shows of the early aughts relied on wives as antagonists. A wife became another hurdle to leap in her husband’s quest to run a criminal organization/become an undisputed drug king/sleep with whomever he wanted in an attempt to outrun his past. More recently, however, there have been shows that seem to push back on the impulse to pit husbands and wives against each other. What if, they asked, an antihero and his wife were partners instead of rivals? But in giving their wives a promotion of sorts, shows like Ozark and House of Cards also open the door to female ambition, which can become as problematic for fictional women as it has been for their real-life counterparts.
The first post in this series, “The Blaming of the Shrew,” discusses Breaking Bad’s Skyler White, among other TV wives.
The first episode of Netflix’s Ozark follows the antihero script to a T. It’s all there: a talented main character, a sad backstory to which we slowly become privy, and foils more villainous by several degrees designed to make our main guy look good in comparison. That guy is Marty Byrde, a financial planner who launders money for the second largest drug cartel in Mexico. His wife Wendy is initially set up as the Skyler to Marty’s Walt: her days are all Costco, Zumba, and cheating on her husband with a man she calls “Sugarwood.” Soon after we meet Marty, he fantasizes about an encounter with a prostitute that gets oddly specific about his life: “Let me guess, your wife won’t do what you want her to do. If you were my man, working all day so I could stay at home — which, uh, let’s face it, it was a bitch when they were little but now they’re both teens and in school all day … not only would I not cheat on you, I’d let you do anything you wanted.” This is the kind of interiority, indispensable to the antihero genre, that lets us know that Marty is doing everything right despite Wendy’s worst efforts.
But when Marty is forced to move his family to southern Missouri and launder $8 million to save them from the cartel, Wendy shifts from antagonist to helpmate. She isn’t excited about the plan but, unlike antihero wives of yore, she hasn’t been kept in the dark about Marty’s criminality and she willingly presents a united front to their children and the FBI. The important thing, Wendy and Marty agree, is that the family stays together and safe, and they’re prepared to do anything to keep it that way. Family as sacrosanct, as the highest good, is a theme of this show. Versions of “I did it for our family” are repeated like a mantra throughout the series. Marty and Wendy both use it as a rhetorical justification and also as a kind of mystical prayer meant to insulate them from their own internal critics.
Ozark offers us an antihero team but finds a different way to humanize a flawed man, with a wife so helpful that she eclipses the antihero himself.
By season two, however, the family becomes a battleground, with Marty and Wendy developing a low-grade rivalry. They operate less as a team than as dueling pianos, each taking turns making decisions “for the good of the family” without consulting the other. It turns out that Wendy has her own expertise to contribute from her years working in Chicago politics, which makes their partnership more equal but also more fraught, and the show’s almost pathological focus on the family becomes yet another way to make an antagonist out of a wife. Ozark’s initial bait and switch turns Wendy from an antagonist into a helpmate who recognizes the necessity of her husband’s infelicities but a more cunning reversal has Marty become the one to stand in opposition to the show’s plotline. The final episodes of season two see him preparing an escape plan for his family only to be thwarted by his wife, who makes the unilateral decision that they will stay. It’s not clear when Wendy makes the decision because she doesn’t get the kind of interiority that Marty does — only long, meaningful looks out onto the horizon. Naturally, she frames the decision as the best thing for their family. But the show’s writers have already given Marty the insight that this kind of rationalization, the very premise of the show, has been undermined: “We’re not fit to be parents. It’s not even a family, it’s a goddamn group of criminals.”
Explaining her decision to stay in the Ozarks, in danger, in criminality, Wendy says: “This is who I am, and this is who I want to be.” Marty was only ever portrayed as a reluctant criminal, a serf in service to his family. Wendy’s first-person declaration is ambition, which we should know by now isn’t usually a good look on a woman. Ozark offers us an antihero team but finds a different way to humanize a flawed man, with a wife so helpful that she eclipses the antihero himself. It turns Marty into the hero who wants to save his family, if only his wife would let him.
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Wendy Byrde isn’t the first wife of an antihero to have higher aspirations. House of Cards was always a show about two people with naked ambition. Frank and Claire Underwood didn’t have any children so their nefarious deeds were never in the service of providing for, or saving, anyone other than themselves. They wanted power and they were going to get it as a team. Until they weren’t. Things start to unravel at the end of season three. Frank walks into the Oval Office to find Claire sitting behind the desk: “Look at us, Francis, we used to make each other stronger, or at least I thought so, but that was a lie. We were making you strong and now I’m just weak and small and I can’t stand that feeling any longer.” House of Cards could be extremely woke about power and gender. More than any other antihero show, it seemed to be aware of the conventions of its genre and what those conventions meant for women. What family is for Ozark, power was for House of Cards, and it recognized what it meant to want power as a man and as a woman, that there was a difference between the two. The show could also be extremely meta, especially the final season, in which lines like “Are you telling me she knew nothing of what he was up to?” and “Are you even capable of defining her on her own terms?” could be talking about the characters, the actors who play them, or the tropes they were called on to embody for six seasons.
If nothing else, the power struggles between the two Underwoods over the course of the series can help us see how the roles of antihero’s wife and politician’s wife overlap. Both kinds of wives are at once essential to their husbands’ stories and outside of them. They are tasked with humanizing the men with whom they partner, but it is understood that the partnership is premised on a withholding of their own humanity; their story must remain the B plot. So when House of Cards suddenly found itself an antihero show without an antihero, you would think the solution would have been simple since, as it turned out, Claire’s ambition was to become a main character.
And an antihero marriage, like a political campaign, does not easily accommodate a woman at the top of the ticket.
Claire’s struggle to move beyond the helpmate/antagonist paradigm of her foremothers and become the antihero of her show is a major plot point of the show’s later seasons. The season four finale has Claire and Frank look at the camera together, her first fourth wall break. This is Frank’s signature move so there is reason to believe that Claire is finally gaining the strength she craves. And, indeed, season five in many ways seemed to be about setting the stage for Claire to eclipse her husband. This is signified, in the show’s mallet-to-the-head way, by Frank’s fascination with the app that turns his face into Claire’s and back again. But there continues to be friction: “We have one rule Francis,” Claire rails, “I cannot be your ally if I don’t know what you’re thinking … You should have talked to me instead of making a last-minute decision like this.” Frank has just let her in on his plan to resign the presidency and make Claire the leader of the free world. You would think Claire would be pleased with this turn of events but she knows, as we do from Ozark, that where you are matters less than who made the decision to put you there.
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Just as concepts like “leader” and “free world” don’t mean quite what they used to, so too Frank has emptied out the presidency of its power before handing it over to Claire. “Where does the real power lie? The power behind the power?” he asks. The answer is the private sector, the existence of which the supposedly brilliant politician Frank Underwood is apparently just learning. Exaggerated eyerolls aside, this show is one in which a woman finally gets her hands on some agency, only to discover that the rules have changed and she’s not holding anything at all. “It’s no longer about who lives in the White House,” Frank’s civic lesson continues, “it’s about who owns the White House … the real power isn’t here.” And when he says, “I wanted you to be the president, I’ve made you the president,” Claire realizes that for an antihero and his wife, there is no such thing as equal partnership. And an antihero marriage, like a political campaign, does not easily accommodate a woman at the top of the ticket. While wives may humanize presidents and antiheroes alike, for this wife at least, a husband is only a liability.
So season five ends with Claire ignoring Frank’s calls about a presidential pardon and turning to the camera to declare: “my turn.” This could have become more true than anyone had planned once the allegations against Kevin Spacey became public and Netflix cut ties with him when the show was already into production on season six. But the show wasn’t prepared to become a female antihero show. Frank had already told us that “If she doesn’t pardon me, I’ll kill her,” and season six was supposed to be a showdown between the two Underwoods. Instead of coming up with a new story line, we get Frank by proxy. Unable to use his face or his voice, the show’s writers turn Frank into a series of human horcruxes, transposing his malintent onto several new characters we are supposed to care about but don’t. Oh, and Doug. Poor loyal, murderous Doug, who is like if the legion of antihero fans sticking with Tony, Walt, and Don to the bitter end became one person with a weakness for sad brunettes. While the final season can identify the predicament of the antihero’s wife who yearns to break free — it begins with a reading of threatening tweets and other online content, including a contest for the most creative way to kill Claire — it never comes close to resolving it. Instead it centers on Frank’s absence. Claire spends most of her time as commander-in-chief trying to figure out how to distance herself from Frank’s crimes and escape Frank’s shadowy posthumous vendetta against her. She never gets a chance to be a president, or an antihero, on her own terms.
Even when Claire makes it to the Oval Office, she is only, as Frank tells her in their very last conversation, ‘the most powerful woman in the world.’
It wasn’t just the writers who couldn’t seem to let Frank go. In December of last year, Kevin Spacey, who had no qualms about using Frank’s face or voice, released a video in which he blurred the line between himself and the character he played for five seasons. Looking straight into the camera, he attempted to recreate the camaraderie with the audience that made his House of Cards character so unique and effective:
I know what you want. Oh sure, they may have tried to separate us but what we have is too strong, it’s too powerful. I mean after all, we shared everything, you and I. I told you my deepest darkest secrets. I showed you exactly what people are capable of. I shocked you with my honesty, but mostly I challenged you and made you think. And you trusted me even though you knew you shouldn’t.
This is Frank’s shtick of making us feel like we’re in on a secret while also implicating us in the violence necessary to keep it. Spacey’s inhabiting of his character as a response to the real-life allegations against him shines an unflattering light on the cultural power of the antihero, particularly our complicity in enabling bad behavior if the person is good enough at what they do. In taking his case to the public this way, Spacey was betting on the magnetism of the fictional Frank Underwood to insulate the real-life Kevin Spacey from the bad things he did, kind of like what must have happened during the first season of House of Cards, when he had only to participate in a “training process” after allegedly harassing someone on set, a training that does not seem to have had its desired effect. The sheer brazenness of the video, that it ends with a play for a Spacey-led House of Cards revival (“wait a minute, now that I think of it, you never actually saw me die, did you? Conclusions can be so deceiving”) and hit the internet on the very day that it was announced that he would be charged with indecent assault and battery, suggests that Spacey must have really believed that his character could save his career. The video has almost 250,000 likes, which isn’t enough to bring Frank Underwood back from the dead, but is yet another testament to the power of the male antihero — in this case the character and the man who plays him — to command adoration in spite of the destruction he leaves in his wake.
The Kevin Spacey/Frank Underwood mash-up video can’t help but point out that “all this presumption made for such an unsatisfying ending,” an opinion held by mostly everyone. But what was it that made the final season so anticlimactic? Was it, as Kevin/Frank implied, the absence of its antihero? Was it because, as FX network president John Landgraf argued back in 2013, a female antihero just isn’t the same? Is the antihero genre, ultimately, a male one? Kind of. Like presidential politics, antihero shows have been built for men. Claire never got a clean break and she spent the final season fighting off the ghost of Frank. But even if she had, the show was never calibrated to make her its centerpiece. In an interview with the magazine Capitol File, Robin Wright recounts that the only note David Fincher gave her when she started on the show was to be still:
People were suggesting to base the character on Hillary Clinton or other strong women personas, and I didn’t want to do that. When we shot the first couple of scenes, David would come over to me and say, “Don’t move. Don’t move. Claire is a bust.”
Statues are memories of heroes, not the heroes themselves. House of Cards was built around Frank’s dynamism; Claire’s steely mystery could stoke or temper that dynamism but was meant to always exist alongside it. The show was about seeing Frank work and he kept us close, bringing us in and making us complicit. Even after Claire promises us that it’s going to be different (“I’m going to tell you the truth”), she keeps us at a distance. This is partially because the show wants to preserve the mystery of who killed Frank until the very end, but it’s also because that’s who Claire has always been: a stoic and a secret keeper. Instead of finding the right formula that would allow her to become the antihero she’s always wanted to be, the show shoehorns her into Frank’s.
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In writing wives who don’t fit neatly into the antagonist/enabler binary of shows like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, Ozark and House of Cards allow them to operate in the gray alongside their husbands. By bringing their wives into the fold instead of shutting them out, these shows get us thinking about what would have to be true for a woman to step into the role of an antihero herself. But while both give their wives more to do and the ability to exercise their own ambition, they ultimately handicap that ambition. Even when Claire makes it to the Oval Office, she is only, as Frank tells her in their very last conversation, “the most powerful woman in the world.” For the wife of an antihero, the glass ceiling is her husband. Perhaps Ozark will surprise us and turn Wendy into the show’s new antihero rather than an antagonist standing in the way of her family’s well-being, but season two hinted at the way a wife in control might go. Local drug lords Jacob and Darlene Snell are two of the more villainy foils who serve to humanize Marty and Wendy in season one. They initially operate as a well-oiled machine: when he asks for more lemonade, she knows it’s time to murder the man who launders their money through a strip club. But eventually, caught in a standoff with the cartel, the fissures appear. Darlene wants to keep fighting while Jacob wants to live in peace. “What do you do, Martin,” Jacob asks, “when the bride who took your breath away becomes the wife who makes you hold your breath in terror?” The show has already emphasized the parallels between the two couples: “What deals did you just make behind my back?” Darlene asks Jacob; “You made these plans without me?” Wendy demands of Marty. Darlene out-villains her husband, killing him before he can kill her, and the Snells’ storyline influences how we see Wendy’s season two arc. The lesson is that your helpmate can eventually become your killer and what is exciting and intoxicating in a man — quick thinking and smart, strategic maneuvering — is off-putting and unsettling in his wife.
Is there any hope for the wife of an antihero? Will we ever see a female antihero we can actually root for? Does having a family make a female antihero more effective, or less? Does Soviet Russia hold the key to one or all of these questions? Maybe! Tune in to the next installment on The Americans.
The first installment in this series: The Blaming of the Shrew
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Sara Fredman is a writer and editor living in St. Louis. Her work has been featured in Longreads, The Rumpus, Tablet, and Lilith.