Every small screen antihero needs a failed moral compass, an illicit way of life and a nagging, wet blanket wife.
Okay, that’s an oversimplification, but it’s true that as the “golden age” of television has introduced us to a broadening range of complicated, challenging, genuine antiheroes — your Tony Sopranos, Nucky Thompsons and Walter Whites — it has also provided another now practically standard quality drama type. That would be what I’ve come to think of as the bad guys’ “good wives,” the spouses who represent, not always consistently, the domestic and moral worlds their husbands try to keep one foot in. They’re the ones who bring up the wrongness of, say, killing people, who get upset by the secrets kept from them, who fret about the danger and the consequences while fighting to maintain their household and protect the children. And because of this, they often act as narrative weights on the men as they go about their criminal businesses of choice.
There’s Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco), Tony’s loving but only sometimes supportive spouse in “The Sopranos,” whose concern about her husband’s gangster doings and identity and how it could affect their children is forever beaten back by her enjoyment of the comfortable lifestyle he provides. There’s Margaret Thompson (Kelly MacDonald), the struggling widow who pursues and marries Nucky in “Boardwalk Empire,” only to be eaten away by guilt and to interpret her daughter’s bout with polio as punishment for her mother’s sins. And there’s Skyler White (Anna Gunn), Walt’s wife and eventual unwilling partner in narcotics distribution in “Breaking Bad,” who gets pulled into his meth business despite her concerns.
These are complex characters in their own right, and the descriptors they get labeled with — killjoy, nag, harpy, parasite — are as fair as summing up the magnificent beast that is Tony Soprano as nothing more than a thug. Yet these women do tend to be incredibly maligned — there’s a 28,000 likes strong Facebook page entitled “Fuck Skyler White,” as William Brennan pointed out in Slate, while the trailer for the upcoming fourth season of “Boardwalk Empire” was celebrated by some fans for not containing a hint of Margaret Thompson, a google search for which brings up the added keyword “annoying.” Abominable acts in the name of either generally badassery, establishing one’s dominance or supporting one’s own is something we’ve long proven we’re willing, hell, happy to accept in the context of a series, but failing to adequately stand one’s man seems, for many, to be unforgivable — better a killer than a shrew.
Some of the hate has to be chalked up to flat-out misogyny — Walt letting someone die due to a drug overdose only makes him more interesting, while Skyler getting upset about her husband’s hiding his cancer and drug business somehow just gets her called a bitch. But a lot of it is due to the fundamentally thankless position that is being the good wife. It means occupying what is, from a rational perspective, the ethical high ground when it comes to objections about the mob or meth or bootlegging business, but in doing so standing in opposition to the fundamental narrative we’re watching.
When Carmela says she thinks Tony is going to hell because of what he does, when Margaret pleads with Nucky to leave his half-gangster career, when Skyler demands a divorce from Walt, these women are going up against the very premises of their shows, which are all about the two sides of their protagonists’ lives. It’s possible a straightforward historical drama about a man who’s the treasurer of Atlantic County and nothing more could be interesting, but it’d be a far cry from the thrillingly bloody gang wars of the last season of “Boardwalk Empire.”
Complicating perceptions of these characters further is the fact that they’re all financially dependent on their spouses — something that Carmela would specifically fret about, because of her materialism and fondness for luxe things, but also because it kept her counting on a man who could realistically end up dead, wind up in jail or decide to run off with a goomar, all things that would leave the family financially stranded. Margaret has the fewest options, given the era, her background and two children. Skyler’s a stay-at-home mom who has worked and who returns to her job (and workplace flirtation) to help the family’s finances, but obviously has never been the primary breadwinner.
A partner choosing not to work in order to care for the kids is an absolutely legitimate choice, and not necessarily a choice for many of the women in the time of “Boardwalk Empire,” but this aspect can give an uncomfortable extra twist to these relationships. It’s one that “The Sopranos” engaged with terrifically well, especially in the battles between Tony and Carmela in season four, because it suggests complicity and, with it, the forgoing of any right to protest. Having signed on to benefit from the illicit income being brought in by the men in their lives by allowing themselves to be (admittedly, cushily) supported while keeping house and raising one’s kids, there’s a sense from a not small portion of the viewership that this means an obligation to not just play nice but to keep quiet about disapproval — even if, in the case of Skyler White, you’re at first unaware of what’s being done for your nonconsenting benefit.
Skyler White is the most conflicting of the good wives, or at least in the most conflicted position, and while she’s a character I like a lot, she’s also the reason I’d love to see this recent type put to rest. Skyler didn’t approve of Walt’s decision to get into the meth-making business, and any argument that he’s been doing things to avoid being a burden on her, Walt Jr. and Holly has been undermined by offers to pay for his cancer treatment, by his recovery and by the fact that they long ago made more money than they needed.
Walt has put his family and his sister-in-law’s family in danger, not just in terms of law and careers but literally — people intended to kill him have been inside the Whites’ house. And yet, because the show is so incredibly well-wrought and compelling, we’re absolutely with him on this journey in which Skyler, who has actively tried to leave, only to be outmaneuvered by her spouse. In this antihero’s story, despite being justified in so much of what she’s said and done, Skyler has essentially served as Walt’s longest-running antagonist.
Viewers have proven themselves happy to go down these dark paths with characters like Tony, like Nucky, like Walt and others, so maybe we’re past the need to have a counterbalancing regular reminder of conventional behavior and what’s right. And if we do need reminders that what a character like Walt is doing is wrong, they shouldn’t have to come from a character saying so on screen but from the context of those actions. Even if television still struggles with what an antiheroine looks like, the burden of being the finger-wagging enforcer of responsibility or having the soft heart shouldn’t be shifted as often to female characters as it is. On the up side, recent morally complicated series have provided some more than welcome alternatives to the good wives, with female characters like Keri Russell’s Elizabeth Jennings in “The Americans” and Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood in “House of Cards” being fully informed partners and equals who don’t live in enforced or embraced ignorance, and who keep pace with their husbands in espionage and D.C. politicking. They’re good at what they do, and they’re also, thank god, capable of being bad.