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Sara Fredman

Mother/Russia

Illustration by Zoë van Dijk

Sara Fredman | Longreads | May 2019 | 10 minutes (2,965 words)

 

What makes an antihero show work? In this original 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.

 
Something happens to a person trying to watch six seasons of The Americans in just four weeks. First, the math: It’s about 60 hours of television, which is a realistic goal for someone without any significant responsibilities or sleep requirements.

But suppose you’re not that kind of someone.

You might find yourself, every so often, watching with the sound off and the captions on while your toddler feeds herself noodles. You know you should be stimulating her mind and promoting the development of her language, but there is work to be done. A mission, you might call it, though only to yourself. You may also realize that you’ve been wasting perfectly good time in the car and begin to listen to the show while driving, as if it is a poorly executed narrative podcast. This gets tricky when it comes to the Russian dialogue but also lends a new layer of intrigue to the prosaic tasks of suburban living. Against a soundtrack of what closed captioning calls “suspenseful music,” a seemingly innocent Target run could be anything, especially if you happen to be wearing a baseball cap. Later, when your 7-year-old refuses to clear her dinner plate, you might find yourself muttering about how when you were her age your mother was sick with diphtheria and you wished there was a dinner to clear. In short, you begin to have a secret life, which is watching The Americans.

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The spy genre relies on a precise interplay between secrecy and authenticity. We enjoy stories about spies because we get to experience the thrills of skilled artifice while being privy to the comfort of the authentic; the fun comes from watching a person pretend to be someone else while knowing who they really are. The Americans, a show about Soviet spies living in a D.C. suburb in the ’80s, offers this kind of entertainment. We relish seeing Philip and Elizabeth Jennings execute their missions while sporting a dizzying array of wigs, but that pleasure would be incomplete if we didn’t also see them return home, in their natural hair, to help the kids with their homework.

The homework-type scenes are important because we assume that, for Philip and Elizabeth, the authentic part is their family. Like David Chase recognizing the impact that the domestic could have on the mob genre, The Americans brings the spy thriller into the home. And family serves somewhat of the same function for Philip and Elizabeth as it did for Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Don Draper, humanizing them by showcasing their ability to exhibit tenderness and care toward their children. To this The Americans adds another layer. In making the Jennings’ spy HQ the home where they raise their children, the show turns a story about enemy agents raising a family into a relatable metaphor for the way parenting works, the way it has to work: the dining room versus the secret basement passport cache of it all. It becomes a story about the secrets one must keep as a parent, and also about the way feelings and beliefs and habits that have become unremarkable, or perhaps simply the way things are done, become troubling — perhaps even monstrous — when seen through the eyes of one’s children.

And so, it turns out that what we initially identify as the Jennings’ authenticity reveals itself to be just another locus of secrets. Until the end of season three, neither of their children have any idea that their parents are Russian spies; poor Henry doesn’t find out until the series finale that they have already fled the country without him. Every family moment is true and a lie at the same time, and The Americans uses the Jennings family to blur the boundary separating those concepts from each other. Family itself is multiplied on this show, with Philip and Elizabeth constantly making deep connections with other people. They’re always knocking on doors, entering lives and families, gaining trust and playing house. Philip marries Martha, who wants to have a child with him. Elizabeth cooks with Young-Hee and babysits her children. In the fifth season they both play family with Tuan, a Vietnamese agent who later reports them for jeopardizing the mission by indulging “certain petty bourgeois concerns.” When we see them slip seamlessly into these other familial tableaus, it destabilizes our own ideas about what is real and what is pretend. When they return to their children amid and in the aftermath of those missions, the domestic ministrations we once thought of as real can’t help but take on the patina of performance. Which, after all, is the real family? None of these homes is free of secrets.

Of course, we are able to tell which family truly matters to our protagonists based on how much anxiety they express over it. Philip and Elizabeth spend a lot of time worrying about the threats to their family, from the FBI and the KGB alike. This dedication to their children, the precarity of their family, humanizes them. But the show tempers that humanizing effect by presenting it alongside their role in the dissolution of other families. Together and separately, Philip and Elizabeth spend a lot of time threatening other people’s families, exploiting their particular weaknesses to destroy them. They leave those families worse than they found them, a trail of broken homes and irreparably altered futures in their wake. In the end, their own family is no exception. Their separation at the end of the series is not the work of any of their adversaries but instead the inexorable result of an authentic life built on secrets. They choose to leave Henry behind in the only life he’s ever known and, in a scene that guts me every time I watch it, Paige makes a last-minute decision to stay in the U.S. Her parents learn of this decision when it’s too late, seeing her standing on the platform as their train pulls away toward Canada. Philip and Elizabeth will finally be able to live a truly authentic, albeit slightly less comfortable, life in Russia. Henry will continue to live his American life in spite of his parents’ betrayal. Paige is the show’s true victim, most likely doomed to live off the grid. She is stranded forever between worlds, between what is real and what is pretend: a citizen of no country relegated to the purgatory of drinking vodka in a D.C. safe house.

It is this refusal to deal in binaries that facilitates the astounding accomplishment of The Americans: the refusal of the show to turn on its wife.

Read the first post in this series on Golden Age antiheroes and the nasty women who humanized them.

Blurring this line between inside and outside, between real and pretend, between work and family, is representative of The Americans’ goal of weakening our belief in the very notion of lines. The antihero genre, dedicated as it is to selling us on characters who are neither wholly good nor irredeemably evil, is the perfect vehicle for this project, and The Americans hews closely to the antihero script. Philip and Elizabeth are special because they are highly trained Soviet operatives. They are really good at what they do; they get away with things. And we want them to get away with those things because they also have interiority. We’re privy to several flashbacks and reminiscences aimed at illustrating their difficult childhoods, the sacrifices they’ve made in their lives, and the misgivings they have about their line of work. They’re humanized not only by their children but also by the remorse they feel when they kill anyone whose death does not serve their mission.

But what about the other important element of the antihero formula? Who are the easier-to-hate characters who make our murderous protagonists more likable? Here is where The Americans diverges from the genre as we know it and takes it to even grayer pastures. We would expect a show about the Cold War to present an abundance of options for antagonists and there are certainly a handful of stock villains who crop up throughout the show’s six seasons. But more often than not, The Americans surrounds Philip and Elizabeth with individuals who are, like them, neither wholly good nor irredeemably evil. Almost everyone on this show with more than a few minutes of screen time gets nuance, from Nina, who survives by making herself a helpmate to every man she meets but who ultimately risks her life for something greater than herself, to Martha, who starts off as a naïve mark but becomes one of the show’s most sympathetic and respected characters. Claudia, Philip and Elizabeth’s KGB handler, is introduced as an antagonist but by the end gains our respect and some sympathy. FBI agent Stan Beeman is the Jennings’ most proximate adversary but he is also Philip’s best friend. Characters who on any other show would have been the unsavory antagonists meant to make Philip and Elizabeth look better instead serve a more noble purpose, testifying to the ways in which people ultimately defy the categories into which we want to sort them.

It is this refusal to deal in binaries that facilitates the astounding accomplishment of The Americans: the refusal of the show to turn on its wife. When even the American-Soviet binary is called into question, it is easier to imagine a world in which an antihero husband does not need a nagging wife to win viewers’ allegiance. But this feat is still remarkable given that Elizabeth mostly refuses to traffic in what Kate Manne calls feminine-coded goods. In her monogamous American life, she bakes brownies and asks her husband if he’ll be home for dinner, but in her secret spy life she kicks serious — usually male — ass, sleeps with multiple men to gain information, and often leaves her husband and children to order takeout. That we as viewers did not turn on her is especially surprising given that she is not the kind of mother our culture respects and rewards. Flashbacks reveal that she had reservations about having kids and it’s clear that Philip is the more natural parent. The show not only gives us a wife who is smart, strategic, and quick-thinking, but it also allows that wife to be a stubborn and somewhat-absentee parent who is sometimes very, very wrong without losing her humanity and with it our empathy. The result is that we root for a wife and a marriage in a genre that has made a pastime of destroying them.

If their roles were reversed, would we have turned against Elizabeth the way we turned against Skyler? I’m not sure.

Read the second post on the wives of Ozark and House of Cards.

This is not to say that The Americans is free from the marital friction characteristic of other antihero shows. In fact, the show’s dramatic stakes depend as much on the fault line between Philip and Elizabeth as it does on whether they will be caught by the FBI. This was my second time watching the show and I had forgotten how much the pilot relied on the traditional formula for an antihero and his wife, presenting them at odds rather than as allies. Philip wants to defect and live as wealthy Americans while Elizabeth is a loyal KGB agent for whom the mission always comes first. They argue like Marty and Wendy Byrde (“So you’re just deciding for both of us?”) and Elizabeth rejects Philip’s sexual advances. The moment for defection passes by the end of the first episode but the tension between Philip and Elizabeth persists throughout the series, sometimes simmering and other times boiling over. As the one who yearns to stop spying and live a normal American life, Philip is in the position usually occupied by the antihero’s wife, standing in the way of the show’s plot and threatening to undermine its entire premise. We don’t turn on him either, though I wonder whether that’s a function of his gender. If their roles were reversed, would we have turned against Elizabeth the way we turned against Skyler? I’m not sure.


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But in crafting the Jennings’ relationship the way it did, with doubting Philip and committed Elizabeth, The Americans ends up doing something far more interesting than pitting a wife against her husband. As much as the pilot played with the elements familiar from other antihero shows, its conclusion throws the normal trajectory of such shows into reverse. First episodes of antihero shows have to work incredibly hard, establishing what its main character does wrong while making the case that we should root for him anyway. The Americans pilot does that for two different characters at once and the sum of its hard work is greater than its parts. By the closing credits the show has bound us to Philip and Elizabeth individually, and, perhaps more importantly to their relationship.

Most husband-wife pairs in antihero shows share a history of love. We imagine, or are given flashbacks to, a time when they were in a state of uncomplicated adoration and devotion. A Breaking Bad season three flashback gave us a young and upwardly mobile Walt and Skyler; Ozark’s second season offered a similar look back at the happier and non-money laundering Byrdes. Usually, by the time we get to them, most of that love is gone and only conflict remains. The Americans works in the opposite direction, both in the first episode and in the series as a whole. The pilot reveals that Philip and Elizabeth are essentially strangers sharing a home and a family, having been instructed to never divulge anything of their past lives. Their entire relationship is a lie by omission and they don’t fully trust each other. Elizabeth has even reported on Philip’s weaknesses to their KGB higher-ups in the past. But something happens over the course of the first episode. Elizabeth shares an experience from before they met and by the end of the episode has told Philip her real name; there is a moment of real affection between them. Other antihero shows begin with authenticity and devolve into secrets and lies. The Americans takes a relationship built on lies and guides it toward authenticity. It builds a marriage rather than destroying one.

We cling to this marriage like Jack Dawson to a floating doorframe in the vast and icy sea of pain and destruction that Philip and Elizabeth perpetrate throughout the six seasons of the show. We want them to keep getting away with things but we also want them to continue to love and trust each other. The final season unsettles us as the chasm between Philip’s and Elizabeth’s worldviews widens and threatens their family and their mission, if those can be said to be two different things. Philip, a devotee of EST, the personal transformation seminars popular in the ’70s and early ’80s, wants to trust his gut. A convert to the American cult of the individual, he wants to be free to live his life without destroying the lives of others. Elizabeth has put her trust in an institution and, though she is beginning to see that her loyalty may have been misplaced and abused, she still believes in the cause and the collective that she signed up for. Philip ends up spying on her, trying to figure out whether she is part of a plan to overthrow the Soviet government and derail peace talks. But just when it appears that we’ll finally get our showdown between this particular husband and wife, Philip comes out of retirement to fly to Chicago and help Elizabeth with a dangerous mission. He doesn’t want her to do what she’s doing, and he really doesn’t want to be doing what she’s doing, but when he thinks she’s in danger, he goes to help. When he said, “Sit tight, I’m on my way,” I cheered silently. The final season shows Elizabeth at her worst. Not only is she chain smoking and snapping at Philip, but she is also not getting away with things. Her missions are getting sloppier and less successful and it would be easy for us to shift our loyalty entirely toward Philip. What keeps us from turning on her?

The result is that we root for a wife and a marriage in a genre that has made a pastime of destroying them.

In the penultimate episode of the series, Philip talks about Elizabeth with fellow Soviet operative Father Andrei. This is just moments before he will realize that his cover has most likely been blown but at that moment his biggest problem is Elizabeth’s anger toward him. He admits that he has broken some of his vows — “I haven’t been as honest with her as I should have been” — but Father Andrei thinks the marriage can be saved: “There must be something between you she thinks is worth staying for.” The thing is, Philip replies, Elizabeth “thinks bigger than that … she cares about the whole world.” I think this is key to Elizabeth’s success as an antihero: her commitment to a cause outside of herself and her family, and Philip’s commitment to her. Where personal and familial ambition failed to rally us to the causes of wives like Claire Underwood and Wendy Byrde, selfless dedication to saving the world, no matter how misguided, allows us to feel empathy for Elizabeth. Perhaps more importantly, Elizabeth has what other wives do not: her husband’s love and his trust. They may not always be on the same page, but they aren’t rivals. Philip cares about her. He roots for her, so we do, too.

This is not necessarily where we need to be; wives shouldn’t have to want to save the world to gain our support, and I’m not convinced that Philip and Elizabeth could have switched roles without altering our allegiances. I suspect that a line-dancing, responsibility-shirking Elizabeth would have garnered a different audience response. Her success as an antihero is still in many ways contingent on her proximity to heteronormative marriage, and it remains to be seen whether we can root for a woman who doesn’t have a man vouching for her. But it is progress. In compelling us to root for a marriage — no small feat in an antihero show — The Americans tricks us into rooting for a wife.

What happens when there’s no husband? Next, we’ll take a detour into half-hour television for our first solo female antihero — single mom Sam Fox of Better Things — because there’s no audience more adept at pointing out a woman’s flaws than her children.

 

Previous installments in this series:
The Blaming of the Shrew
The Good Bad Wives of Ozark and House of Cards

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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.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Illustrator: Zoë van Dijk

The Good Bad Wives of Ozark and House of Cards

Illustration by Zoë van Dijk

Sara Fredman | Longreads | March 2019 | 11 minutes (3,057 words)

 

What makes an antihero show work? In this original 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 LongreadsThe RumpusTablet, and Lilith.

 

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Illustrator: Zoë van Dijk

Everything is Fine

Illustration by Brittany Molineux

Sara Fredman | Longreads | March 2019 | 10 minutes (2,523 words)

Everyone is screaming.

It is 4 p.m. and we are in the car. The 6-year-old and the 3-year-old are cranky from a long day at school, the baby indignant at having spent too long strapped in a car seat. Still, when my phone rings over the cacophony, I answer because it is my father and because he has dementia.

“Hi Daddy, is everything OK?”

“Yes, yes, everything’s fine,” he whispers, with unusual loquacity.

“Then why are you whispering?” I yell over the din.

***

We are sleep training the baby. She is our third so I am no longer surprised by the uncomfortable feeling that I have somehow become pitted against my own child in a fight for survival. This does not make the feeling more comfortable. Every night before bed, I jam Amazon’s top-rated earplugs into my ears in the hopes that I can sleep through her crying and her father can perform the prescribed rituals. It rarely works. Apparently, a baby’s cries are like a “sledgehammer” to its mother’s brain. The next person who tells me that the days are long but the years are short is going to get a sledgehammer to the brain. It is always an older person who says it, their soft words offered up as comfort. But what they no doubt intend as knowing reassurance I hear as a warning of still more different sorrows yet to come; their nostalgia seems deployed to shame me into recognizing my blessings before it is too late.

How long do I have before it is too late?

I do, of course, recognize my blessings, and I know, with a certainty I rarely possess, that someday I will look back on this tired person and I will want to be her. But it’s not just the sleep-challenged baby, it is also the auditory assault that begins before dawn. There are so many voices. More voices, it sometimes seems, than there are bodies from which they supposedly emanate. I move through my day to a soundtrack of temper tantrums and raucous laughter, endless questions and knock-knock jokes with nonsensical punchlines. Almost every sentence begins with the words “And, Mom.” They have so much to say and they want to say every bit of it to me, all at the exact same time.

When the real voices have quieted for the night, the imagined ones take over. Earplugs are powerless against the phantom baby cries and other voices, similarly faithful to their waking life counterparts, that live in my head. One dream has me caught in a loop, over and over again, hearing the baby from another room and grabbing her right before she is about to fall down the stairs; in another I am once again living in my childhood home, caring for my father as he loses his memory and his ability to speak. On a good night, these dreams can provide a solace: In real life, I don’t always catch the baby, and neither my father nor I have lived in that house for more than a decade. In my dreams I can sometimes be in two places at once, both called home.
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The Blaming of the Shrew

Illustration by Zoë van Dijk

Sara Fredman | Longreads | February 2019 | 10 minutes (2,982 words)

 

What makes an antihero show work? In this original 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.

 
As night follows day, so must the announcement of a woman’s candidacy for high political office compel a verdict on her likability, a quality so ineffable that we can really only say we know it when we see it. And so rarely do we see it in people who aren’t men. Still, likability endures as our gold standard, our north star. Almost 20 years after Sam Adams polled voters on which candidate they would rather get a beer with, we are still obsessed with a candidate’s perceived likability and relatability, despite the fact that we now have the least conventionally likable or relatable president in history. This debating of female candidates’ likability while a man like Donald Trump occupies the Oval Office is confusing but it makes much more sense if you see the current political moment for what it is: our least compelling antihero show.

Whether the antihero show is in its twilight or we’re not quite ready to let it go, there is no doubt that it has been a huge cultural presence for the better part of two decades. As the proliferation of think-pieces around the 20th anniversary of The Sopranos premiere revealed that we’re still in the thrall of the show and the genre it spawned, it’s worth noting that the election of Donald Trump to the highest office in the land followed nearly two decades of tuning in to men who were supposed to be unlikable but whom we somehow liked enough to keep watching. Thinking about political likability and a world in which we say things like “President Trump” is kind of like looking at the wall of Homeland’s Carrie Mathison: it seems crazy but the connections are all there. And in this case, many of the threads lead back to television.

TV is a medium with a particular reliance on likability. Seeing a movie involves just one decision, but when we watch a TV show we must repeatedly make the choice to encounter its characters, tuning in week after week or, in the age of streaming, contributing to a show’s completion rate. When a show features a protagonist who is not conventionally “likable” — someone who does things we recognize as illegal, immoral, or just plain offensive — we must engage in some mental gymnastics. We either flip a switch and start seeing that character as a villain or we decide we’re going to excuse his behavior and continue to root for his success. With a television protagonist, if we choose the latter, it is something that we have to do over and over again, escalating our commitment to the character as his misdeeds pile up.

Trump’s path to the presidency was made smoother by a complex relationship to women and gender that finds its expression in pop culture, like television shows about bad dudes.

TV is also what brought us the concept of likability in politics in the first place because most of the time when we talk about likability, we’re really talking about the appearance of likability, and TV brought us unprecedented access to candidates’ appearances. Each emerging communication technology has changed the formula for successful candidacy and television’s contribution has been to reward a certain type of image. Most radio listeners called the first debate between Kennedy and Nixon a draw, but television viewers overwhelmingly perceived a Kennedy victory because of how Kennedy looked. When we consider TV’s role in the 2016 election, we should be thinking about the way in which television itself took Trump from a local D-lister to an icon of American success with a national profile, but also about the image that we now look for, how the medium has changed our expectations for main characters and, in doing so, changed our expectations for the main character of the country: the president.

And after an election in which we faced two very different potential main characters, we should acknowledge the role that gender plays, in politics and in television. Trump’s path to the presidency was made smoother by a complex relationship to women and gender that finds its expression in pop culture, like television shows about bad dudes. Understanding the mechanics of the antihero genre that came to redefine TV drama, particularly the ways in which the phenomenon of the likable unlikable man relies on the way that man interacts with women, might help us reckon with the politics of gender, and gendered politics, as we look toward another election cycle.

***

The mythology of the antihero has him spring from David Chase’s head like a late ’90s Athena. In his book on the transformative shows of the late ’90s and early 2000s, The Revolution was Televised, Alan Sepinwall writes that Chase was fighting against “the notion that a TV series had to have a likable character at its center.” It was important to Chase that this new kind of protagonist not be rehabilitated, like Detective Sipowicz of NYPD Blue. There would be no redemption arc but instead further descent into whatever nefarious activities had characterized him as unlikable in the first place.

But there was a disconnect between this vision and the way viewers reacted to Tony Soprano and the other unreformed Sipowiczes who would follow in his wake. Chase has been known to complain about his audience’s relationship to Tony, cheering him on one minute and wanting to see him punished the next; Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, similarly expressed his surprise that fans were still “rooting for” Walt as his misdeeds became ever more serious and destructive. These kinds of fans have been criticized as “bad readers” missing the point of a groundbreaking new form. But I have always found showrunners’ professions of bafflement at audience reception to be disingenuous at best because the whole enterprise of the antihero show was to create a bad guy people would like anyway. Gilligan seems more in touch with his intentions when he recalls that he cast Bryan Cranston as Walter White because he recalled Cranston’s ability to convey “a basic humanity” in another otherwise unappealing character. When thinking about casting Jon Hamm as Don Draper, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner made a similar observation: “I asked myself a question: ‘When this man goes home to his wife at the end of the pilot, are you going to hate him?’ And I said, ‘No, I will not hate him.’”

Feigned surprise at audience reactions aside, it seems likely that the men who created these “unlikable” men understood that they would still need an audience to invest in them, and that such an investment would not be a slam dunk but would instead require delicate rigging. I like to break down the mechanics of the antihero in the following way:

The antihero is marked as special.

David Chase has said that he used to quote Rockford Files creator Stephen Cannell in the Sopranos writers’ room: “Rockford can be a jerk-off and a fool, but he’s got to be the smartest guy in the room.” The other Golden Age antihero shows followed this formula. Don is a creative genius (“It’s Toasted!”) and Walt is a talented chemist who regularly outsmarts very dangerous people. This distinction of being set apart is something the antihero has in common with regular heroes.

The antihero has interiority.

If, as Chase declared, his character was not going to evolve toward to a more sympathetic future, the case for sympathy would have to be rooted in the past or justified by the present. These shows gave their protagonists an interiority that made sympathizing with them feel less icky. This is where the antiheroes of the early aughts differed from a character like J.R. Ewing, who was also a popular bad guy protagonist. Therapy sessions and flashbacks, revealing monologues, and contemplative moments set to music all softened the blow of the bad things they did. Whatever interiority Chase, Gilligan, and Weiner allowed other characters, it always paled in comparison to that given to their protagonists. Like their smarts and talent, this was another way of distinguishing characters who would have ordinarily coded as villains and instead marking them as the hero of their story.

The antihero is stacked up against antagonists slightly to exceedingly more unlikable than he is.

To me, this is the real key to the antihero’s appeal. Being special and having a sympathetic backstory will only take a traditionally “unlikable” character so far, and there are plenty of movie and TV villains who have been given similar treatment. What separates a true antihero from a villain is that we’re in his corner, we want him to succeed. If we are to root for Don Draper, an identity thief and rampant philanderer, we need to see him opposite, say, a Pete Campbell type: lothario sans charm and talent. Walter White is the small business owner to Gus Fring’s Amazon. Villainy is not a fixed point, it’s a sliding scale. Real people aren’t neatly divided into Supermans and Lex Luthors. Most of us are equal parts potential for good and propensity for shittiness, a heady brew of good instincts and bad inclinations. Our virtue is contextual. While the nature of these men’s misdeeds are (hopefully!) of a different magnitude than our own, part of their appeal is certainly, as Gilligan suspected, the way they mirror our own humanity, the good and the ugly both. And we are able to focus on the former and excuse the latter when showrunners give us other characters who are less multidimensional and therefore easier to hate.

But alongside the Phil Leotardos and Gus Frings, those easier-to-hate people often ended up being women. Skyler White is the most obvious example. Walt was stacked up against all kinds of villains but none inspired the kind of vitriolic responses Anna Gunn famously described in a 2013 New York Times op-ed: the thousands of people who liked the Facebook page “I Hate Skyler White,” the posts complaining that Skyler was “a shrieking, hypocritical harpy … a ball-and-chain, a drag, a shrew, an annoying bitch wife.” Some fans of the show even conflated Gunn and the character she played. One message board post read: “Could somebody tell me where I can find Anna Gunn so I can kill her?” Reddit boards still use her as the bar against which all bad wife characters should be measured. Even the neo-Nazis who killed Hank and made Jesse their slave never raised viewers’ hackles the way Skyler did and still does years later. Fan reaction to Betty Draper was similarly harsh (apparently, the only way to make her “likable” was to kill her) despite the fact that the show was premised on the fact that her life was a lie Don had to tell her over and over.

Women were the accidental antagonists of shows about ‘difficult men,’ but what does it look like when a woman steps into the antihero mold, when it is a difficult woman at the heart of a series?

Sopranos viewers rarely saw Carmela this way because for the most part she declines to take on the role of antagonist. She is instead, as the psychiatrist in season three points out, an enabler. She doesn’t stand in the way of our guy but the show is still built on the foundation of a woman who could wear a man down. In his very first conversation with Dr. Melfi, Tony talks about his parents’ relationship: “My dad was tough. He ran his own crew. Guy like that and my mother wore him down to a little nub. He was a squeaking little gerbil when he died.” Viewers dutifully saw Livia Soprano as an antagonist and a burden Tony had to overcome. In their just released book The Sopranos Sessions, Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller-Seitz write: “Tony adored the ducks in the pool because they were guarded by a mother who protected and nurtured them in a manner free of ulterior motive, of deceit and manipulation, of the urge to annihilate. Livia, for all her evident helplessness, is the most actively destructive force in the pilot, a black hole vacuuming up hope.” They’re talking about the episode where Tony runs over a guy who owes him money with his car but somehow it’s his elderly mother who is the most actively destructive force.

In interviewing Chase for The Sopranos Sessions, Sepinwall reminds him that he once said that The Sopranos, as an idea, began with his friends encouraging him to do a show about his mother. The Sopranos’ origin story is rooted in the trope of the “nagging harpy” and Chase himself suggests that the show was successful in large part because he imported domesticity into the mobster genre: “family shows were a women’s medium, and this was a family show. I thought this might be successful, or at least keep its head above water, because it would attract, unlike most Mob pictures, a female audience because of the family show aspect.” But the kind of domesticity of which he availed himself, one that would become a familiar element of shows about “difficult” men, was one in which women are set up to be either enablers or antagonists. Livia might have been the black hole, but all of the women in Tony’s life are implicated. In that same therapy session in episode one, Dr. Melfi asks Tony, “What’s the one thing your mother, your wife, your daughter all have in common?” His response? “They all break my balls.”


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Wives get the raw end of the deal in an antihero show. They are there to humanize the protagonist but we often see them as villains instead of the victims they truly are because, in opposing our guy, they stand in the way of the show’s plotline. Wives pose a problem in that they fail to deliver on what we perhaps subconsciously assume to be their role. These men provide for their families. They work hard — never mind how or what they do with their leisure time — so that their families can have what they need and all their wives have to do is not call them on it. Philosopher Kate Manne argues that a central dynamic of misogyny is the obligation by, or expectation of, women to give men “feminine-coded goods and service” like attention, care, sympathy, respect, admiration, security, and safe haven. There is, according to Manne, “the threat of withdrawal of social approval if those social duties are not performed, and the incentive of love and gratitude if they are done willingly and gladly.” Viewer response to characters like Skyler and Betty is the natural result of the expectation that wives are supposed to help, not hinder, their husbands. Carmela, on the other hand, explains to Dr. Krakower that her role is to “make sure he’s got clean clothes in his closet and dinner on his table.”

Once you see the degree to which the antihero show is dependent on marriage and heteronormativity, you can’t unsee it. The role of a wife in an antihero story is not incidental but integral: domestic antagonists are a large part of the reason we feel OK about rooting for bad guys like Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Don Draper. These shows taught us to look for the humanity in our male protagonists and ignore it in the women who stood in their way. Television audiences’ identification with and adoration of male antiheroes were the canaries in the coal mine, warning us of the ease with which we might see villains as victims and vice versa.

Looking back, it’s painful to admit that for many in the electorate, Hillary Clinton was the Skyler to Trump’s Walt, the Betty to his Don. We had already spent years seeing her as the Carmela to Bill’s Tony, implicated in her husband’s misdeeds by dint of staying with him, forever tainted by her own moral compromises that, while they paled in comparison to his, were for some reason less forgivable and rendered her eternally “unlikable.” It made sense, then, that when Clinton took a jab at Trump’s penchant for avoiding paying taxes while explaining her plan to raise taxes on the wealthy during the third debate, Trump interrupted to call her “such a nasty woman.” This one, he seemed to be telling viewers at home, is a Skyler.

So where does this leave us, in art and in politics? Are we ready for a female candidate who is – like all of the male candidates over the last 230 years, like all of us – human? As I write this, about half of the announced Democratic candidates for president are women so it is likely that gender will play a starring role this election cycle. Similarly, as television diffuses like so many essential oils over ever-increasing platforms, there are more opportunities than ever before for female-centered shows. How have we done with female characters? Have depictions of women sharing a screen with unlikable men changed at all? Are we able to see the “humanity” that Gilligan identified at the heart of Walter White’s appeal in people who aren’t men? Women were the accidental antagonists of shows about “difficult men,” but what does it look like when a woman steps into the antihero mold, when it is a difficult woman at the heart of a series? What is it, actually, that makes a woman difficult?

When we talk about antiheroes, we’re really talking about the kinds of bad behavior we can countenance and the kinds we can’t, the conditions that need to be met for us to overlook bad behavior; the way we take the sum of some people and not others. Thinking about when and how we extend our understanding and forgiveness is key to understanding the genre and our world. Deconstructing the antihero genre may help us better examine our own attitudes toward women.

This is the first installment of an unscientific and hardly exhaustive journey through shows about difficult people, many of whom are women. Next up? The Good Bad Wives of Ozark and House of Cards.

* * *

Sara Fredman is a writer and editor living in St. Louis. Her work has been featured in Longreads, The Rumpus, Tablet, and Lilith.

 

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Illustrator: Zoë van Dijk

The Possessed: Dispatches from the Third Trimester

Illustration by Lily Padula

Sara Fredman | Longreads | October 2018 | 11 minutes (2,913 words)

 

In the second season of Stranger Things a tentacled smoke monster forces its way into poor Will Byers’ mouth, taking up residence inside his body. When his mother draws him a warm bath, he refuses. “He likes it cold,” Will intones creepily. The demon inside is invisible to others but exerts its will on Will, who is himself but also something else. As I watch the story unfold, the human being growing inside my body moves frenetically, as if it is popping and locking to a beat I cannot hear. This flurry of activity makes my stomach look like a potato sack with several distressed squirrels stuck inside; this is likely due to the cookie-dough ice cream I have recently eaten. I, too, have something inside of me; it also likes it cold.

“Pregnancy has every element of an alien invasion,” I read on the NPR website. “The human placenta is one of the most invasive placentas.”

We often turn to the extraterrestrial when we describe the phenomenon of growing a new person inside of an existing one. Early ultrasound images recall the classic imagining of alien form: a giant head attached to a smaller, translucent body set against a black abyss. It’s not just the optics. As pop icon and formerly-pregnant person JLo once remarked, “Pregnancy and giving birth are weird, strange. The growing life inside you — it’s like an invasion of the body snatchers.” I assume this creepy description reflects the way in which the growing fetus influences, commandeers even, so many of the bodily processes of its host. Google “alien” and “pregnancy,” and the least-frightening video that comes up will confirm: “Clearly, the fetus has no qualms about doing whatever it needs to do to get things for itself.”

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