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by Alison Willmore
August 13, 2013 2:47 PM
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The Good Wives: Isn't It Time to Give a Rest to the Character of the TV Antihero's Disapproving Spouse?

Anna Gunn and Bryan Cranston in 'Breaking Bad' Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

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.

'Boardwalk Empire'

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."

'The Sopranos'

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.

Skyler has essentially served as Walt's longest-running antagonist.

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.

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10 Comments

  • Blake Gray | August 24, 2013 7:13 PMReply

    I really hate where this debate has gone.

    I hate Skyler White. I hate her because of the way she's written, and to some extent portrayed. I believe she has been created to hate. Each viewer may have their own interpretation, but the fact that so many fans of the show hate Skyler White seems to indicate that being hated is part of her role.

    And what's wrong with that? Why is that misogynist? Are you racist if you hate an annoying black character? Are you a xenophobe if you hate an annoying foreign-born character?

    Skyler's annoying. She whines all the time, but she takes the money. She fucks Ted, then gives him $600,000. She doesn't even consult with Walt about giving the guy she fucked $600,000. She's may be slightly more moral than Walt, but Walter doesn't constantly complain. Moreover, as much of an asshole as Walt is, he is nice to some people, sometimes. Skyler is really never nice to anyone.

    And that's fine. That's the way she's written. It's a drama. Am I supposed to be embarrassed for disliking the character on a drama who was created for us to dislike?

    If there is misogyny here, it's on the part of the writers, and it's worse if they don't admit that they have written Skyler to be unlikable.

    But now it's an Internet meme, started by Anna Gunn, that if you dislike Skyler, you're misogynist. So what if I dislike Anna Gunn for calling me misogynist. Does that make me misogynist?

    Is there ANY approved reason to dislike a female character. Or, in order to be socially cool, do I have to like every female character ever written?

  • Kathy | August 13, 2013 11:33 PMReply

    This article misses the point completely. All the shows that the authors talks about are male-dominated and that is a HUGE problem. In such an environment, the "good wives" will seem like killjoys. Also, it is very sexist to say that a stay-at-home mom doesn't work. She works harder than her husband and gets no salary. As for the "choice" being legitimate, I hate to say it but as long as mom stays home, men will continue to rule the world.

  • - | August 15, 2013 3:42 PM

    "All the shows that the authors talks about are male-dominated and that is a HUGE problem"
    How many women would you expect to be playing a major role in the modern-day New Jersey mafia, the production of crystal meth, or bootlegging in the 1920's? Just curious.

  • Adam | August 13, 2013 9:19 PMReply

    I don't think it's so much the conceit of the wife being a killjoy, so much as Margaret Thompson and especially Skylar White being incredibly underwritten to the point that whenevere screen-time is devoted to them, it feels to audience members like repetitively slow molasses that serves no point except to fill out an episode's runtime.

    I've never once encountered the same complaints in relation to Edie Falco's Carmela - because Carmela Soprano was an incredibly fleshed-out and complex character who existed and operated as more than just a foil for Tony Soprano. I think Margaret Thompson also displayed this potential in Boardwalk's first season and am hoping they return her to more interesting ground.

    But yes, fuck Skylar White - not because she's a killjoy in terms of Walt's abhorrent activities, but because she is a one-note character that only ever seems to exist as a vice for Walt. If you were to ask somebody to describe Skylar as a character independent of her relationship to Walt, she would have zero distinguishing characteristics.

  • CR | August 13, 2013 5:35 PMReply

    Glenn Close as Patty Hewes was a very memorable antiheroine in DAMAGES, as was her foil, Rose Byrne as Ellen Parsons.

    Also, Connie Neilson was an equal and an antiheroine as the steely life/political partner of Kelsey Grammar in the underrated BOSS.

  • Laurence Barber | August 13, 2013 4:27 PMReply

    It's pretty crazy that Elizabeth Jennings is the closest thing there is to a female anti-hero character, and even then she shares focus of the series equally with her husband. Claire Underwood still exists very much in the shadow of her far more powerful husband, to whom her will still must bend more often than his does to hers.

    I like to think of Amy Jellicoe as what happens when a "good wife" is set loose. Imagine a version of Enlightened where Levi is the protagonist, possibly a high-functioning, drug-addicted professional, with Amy as his long-suffering, mid-level executive wife. Ick. What resulted was so much more interesting. I hope that's a lesson new content creators can learn. I think, perhaps, that the looming end of the anti-hero era (surely Ray Donovan and Low Winter Sun are the death knell?) will encourage more shows to think, "What if the story began in the aftermath?"

  • Mayan Gosling | August 13, 2013 3:50 PMReply

    But is it not natural for the spouse/loved one of the antihero the natural choice for being the moral sounding board? In all of the examples provided, their status enhances the dramatic narrative, often complicating the antihero's internal monologue and external actions.

    It's fair to say that completely complicit, life-partner-in-crime characters such as those seen on "The Americans" and "House of Cards" are a welcome addition to the television scene, but I don't gather the reason as to why you suggest creatives going forward should eschew this bit of family drama. Those characters are often the ones who are most effective in providing that moral counterbalance. Yes, it can be done without Skyler White (See the dismantling of the motorbike after the train robbery in Season 5A of "Breaking Bad"), but why? To spare us from hearing from misogynists who will pile on the hatred for these female characters? Those trolls will find other ways to be awful. The assorted inanities of those idiots only make it clearer when a well-written female character such as Carmela Soprano or Skyler White exists.

  • Josh | August 14, 2013 1:19 AM

    Well said. I think Skyler and Carmela are both well-written, well-acted, and believable characters. So fuck the haters. They don't even really understand what makes The Sopranos and Breaking Bad so good.

    As for Margaret Thompson, I do think the writers on Boardwalk Empire have let her down.

  • Uh | August 13, 2013 3:39 PMReply

    Maybe you should write the character you want to see on television instead of asking others to.

  • John Heuer | August 13, 2013 4:04 PM

    Way to be completely dismissive and add nothing to the conversation.