Most of our great TV dramas center on the tragic lives of powerful men. Not that that’s exactly new: the great tragedies of Sophocles and Shakespeare do the same. But a unique unifying thread in today’s serious programming is that these antiheroes’ wives always have one recourse: infidelity, so common that it’s becoming a cliche. Skyler White on Breaking Bad, Claire Underwood on House of Cards, Betty Draper on Mad Men and now Maggie Hart on True Detective have all violated their wedding vows (often the second person in the marriage to do so; I’m not judging here!). They do it for different reasons, though it’s usually reducible to a shared essence: in these shows’ man’s worlds—whether 1960s New York or 1990s Louisiana or present-day New Mexico and Washington, DC—women are still just Lysistratas, powerless but for their sex.
Female characters on television today are often—let’s be generous—underwritten, particularly when playing against men who are so larger-than-life. Skyler was infamously annoying—an I Hate Skyler White Facebook page still has more than 29,000 likes, and I don’t think that’s even the most popular one—which the actress, Anna Gunn, blamed in a well-read oped on a segment of the population too immature to handle strong, independent women. That’s true to an extent, but she’s too generous to the shows’ writers, crediting them for creating a complicated character while ignoring the fact that they often also ignored her: meth cookers-turned-drug kingpins Walt and Jesse were the stars of Breaking Bad, endlessly developed and infinitely complicated; Skyler was an afterthought.
For all her “complexity,” she was also still, at her most sympathetic, the stereotypical scold and nag, even if that was a psychologically reasonable response for her to have. When her husband betrays her by engaging in dangerous illegal activities and then keeping it from her, she does what any woman on TV would do: she betrays him back with sex. Walt, not so likable in his own right, drives the drama of the show; in those seasons before she too becomes irreparably morally compromised, Skyler’s always trying to make the drama—what makes the show interesting—stop. The more you’re fascinated by a show driven by unethical (or ethically knotty) behavior, the more likely you are to disdain its moral compass.
Claire Underwood, on the other hand, helps drive the intrigue on House of Cards: she’s as shady as her husband, the House Majority Whip from South Carolina, whose Rube Goldberg political scheming could land him an even more powerful position. Claire, played by Robin Wright Penn, is at her icy best when plotting with her husband beside an open window in their home, sharing a cigarette. She is at her most laughable in scene after scene as the head of her nonprofit Clean Water Initiative, the victim of a writing team that didn’t want to leave one of their strongest female roles as a mere enabler of her husband but also didn’t have any but the laziest ideas to turn her into a commanding character outside of that relationship. And so when her husband isn’t treating her as an equal in their marriage-of-equals, what else can she do? She leaves town and hooks up with her former lover—because even strong women like Claire Underwood still need to find someone to meet their emotional needs ASAP.
Betty Draper (January Jones) was never part of a marriage-of-equals, and when she gets confirmation in the Season Two finale that her husband hasn’t always been faithful—that it’s not all in her head—she goes out to try to be Don. She gets all dressed up and visits a fancy cocktail bar alone, where she’s immediately chatted up by a stranger. (As all men know, women who come into a bar without a man to protect them from small talk want you to talk with them!!) This talk immediately leads, as such small talk does, to impromptu intercourse in an empty office in the back. Betty’s act seems less about vengeance than about curiosity—about the victim wanting to have the victimizer’s carnal knowledge.
Perhaps the most empowering infidelity on television was in Sunday’s episode of True Detective, in which Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), already cheated on once by her gruff detective husband (played by Woody Harrelson), found out that he’d cheated on her again. First she plans to sleep with a stranger, and she visits a bar in almost a parody of that Betty Draper scene. (The cocktail lounge looked a lot nicer than any place we’ve seen within the show’s tumbledown Louisiana!) But soon she realizes she could inflict much more psychological trauma on her contemptible spouse by seducing his partner (the astonishing Matthew McConaughey). Maggie comes to see that she has no power in her marriage, yet she still possesses the power of her sexuality—just about all she has left, given her circumstances—which she wields like a bludgeon, using McConaughey (which he quickly realizes and which drives him to shouting, perhaps the first time on the show that the character has raised his voice) to get back at her philandering policeman.
Emily Nussbaum criticized the show yesterday in The New Yorker, writing that “every live woman” on it “is paper-thin,” laying into Maggie especially (“the only prominent female character on the show”) as “an utter nothing-burger, all fuming prettiness with zero insides.” But with this calculated, maliciously intended act, she showed an understanding of her disenfranchisement within the show’s machismo South—and her ability to subvert that imbalance.
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