How OZ Showed How Toxic Masculinity Can Be Homophobic As Much As Misogynistic in Peak TV

David B Morris
17 min readJun 4, 2024

And How They Broke Ground In Ideas of Consent In An Unexpected Place

Like millions of people I have become fascinated with Baby Reindeer, the very dark dramedy that tells the story of Richard Gadd’s horrifying experience with a female stalker and his very complicated relationship with her. I’ll be writing more about it when I complete the series but in this article I’d like to use as a jumping off point.

In Episode 4 Donny goes to the police and when he asks about why he waited six months to report Martha’s action we flashback five years to learn the root of so much of his problems. When he first came to Edinburgh he made contact with a much older comedy writer for a major British TV series. That writer spent a month helping him build his act and then disappeared. Later on they reconnected in London, and with the offer of a job Donny begins to indulge in what he thinks will become a professional relationship but becomes clear to the viewer (though not immediately to Donny) that of a sexual predator and prey. They spend months ostensibly working together but Donny spends too much of that time increasingly taking drugs and hanging out. Finally near the end of the episode he is sexually assaulted and raped.

This ends up destroying his relationship with his girlfriend Keeley and he spends the next several years unable to talk about it or even explain it. He believes he has been sexually broken by it and he is unable to connect with anyone until he meets up with Teri, who is transgender. Even then, he’s ashamed to be seen with her in public and after Martha assaults Terri, the clearest grounds for her arrest he is too ashamed to tell the police about that. In his eyes it seems impossible for him to explain why Martha’s relationship is monstrous without admitting his rape and he walks away. His libido has been so badly broken that eventually he begins to sexually fantasize about Martha — and actually seems disappointed when the police tell him that she’s entered therapy.

Now I haven’t finished the series yet and I know there is far more to it than that. But what I see in Donnie’s character has led me to an example of a theme that comes up often in Peak TV about the toxic male antihero. Usually this focus is on how misogynist characters such as Tony Soprano and Don Draper. Not discussed as much in these reviews of the era — or they may be and I’m just very late to the party — is how much of this toxic masculinity is just as much homophobic as well.

As far as I know the only lead character of a series whose behavior as an antihero of a series is connected to repression of his sexuality is that of Frank Underwood in House of Cards. I remember very vividly watching the first season of the show and see how Frank returned to his South Carolina boarding school to have a library named for him and he is his normal snide self — until he reunites with the Highwaymen, a ground of young teenagers he hung out with when he was there.

For the first time in the entire series, the mask goes down. Part of it is the attitude of just boys being boys as they drunkenly reminisce. But later that night they break into the old library and Frank begins to do pushups with an old classmate. The behavior, reminiscent, now takes on a different measure and its implied that the two men were lovers. Now I stopped watching the show in Season 3 and I know that much of the series from that point forward acknowledges Frank’s bisexuality. But remembering that he comes from the South and considering what it takes be elected to office in South Carolina, we wonder how much of Frank’s cynicism and behavior comes from a lifetime in Washington and how much from having to from an early age hide who he truly is.

He was hated for more by gangleaders for more than his stickups.

In the last twenty years, you constantly see supporting characters among the greatest shows ever made hiding their sexuality or facing more contempt from society because of it. Anyone who is fan of The Wire knows that Omar Little was hating by slingers as much for — if not more so — being gay as for constantly robbing their stash-houses. In Season 4 of Breaking Bad we learned the deep-seated loathing Gus Fring had not just for Hector Salamanca but the entire cartel had its origins in the fact that as a young man his lover was killed by Hector in sight of him and that the head of the cartel (Steven Bauer) had only let him live because of ‘who he was’. We got a better look as Gus’ devotion to Max in Better Call Saul and poignantly in the last scene Giancarlo Esposito had in the entire series we saw him at a bar engaging in a quasi-flirtation with a restaurant owner, trying to connect — and then walking away back to the path that will lead to his death.

There are more subtle storylines in this throughout the era as well. In the first season of The Shield we see that Julian (Michael Jace) has homosexual leanings but because of his religious upbringing he chooses to deny them. He will get married and have a child but he never comes face to face with his sexual identity in the course of the series. I also well remember the first season of Damages and the tragic character of Ray Fiske, played by Zeljko Ivanek in an Emmy winning performance. The lead counsel for Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson) he is a Texas born attorney and a married mad but he has been hiding his sexuality for years. The critical revelation in the arc comes when we learn that Ray was having an affair with a young man (Peter Facinelli) who he advised to sell his stock just before Frobisher’s company went bankrupt. When Patty Hewes reveals this story to Fiske, he kills himself in front of her, though we never know whether it is because of his legal exposure or the possibility of his double life being revealed.

But by far the clearest example of just how deep toxic masculinity and sexual denial of ones identity goes starts at the beginning of the revolution with OZ. Part of me wonders even now whether a large part of the reason this show never gets the credit for being the impetus of the Golden Age is not so because of the graphic violence or nudity — but because it was the first show to openly deal with homosexuality in a very complicated way. Because while we never really saw much of the sex that was happening in OZ — and what we did was mostly heterosexual — it was always laying beneath the surface of so many of the major storylines and the characters on the show. And it went further than no show had before — and frankly until Baby Reindeer I’ve almost never seen since — about not only consent but how in the world of prison where by definition all of the inmates have been robbed of their freedom, its basically understood that freedom apparently applied to sexual assault as well.

Lee Tergesen as Beecher.

This is clear from the first episode where Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen) is raped by his new cellmate Vern Schillinger (J.K. Simmons). We never see the assault (though its implied how Schillinger is burning a tattoo of a swastika on his ass that he has been claimed by him at the time) but he spends the next several days in his cell trying to recover from it. Both Schillinger and Dino Ortolani (Jon Seda) just shrug this off, calling him weak. Beecher stays in his cell to the next episode where Em City guard Diane Whittlesey (Edie Falco) finally goes in.

We will later learn that Diane was the wife of a biker, part of a very abusive marriage which she managed to get out of alive and may have been sexually assaulted herself. But when she goes to see Beecher, she is the opposite of sympathetic. This isn’t tough love; the man has just been raped and she knows it — but she doesn’t even urge him to report it or talk to Sister Pete. Basically she just tells him to get over it and walk it off.

This is a stunning reversal of the usual male-female dynamics in this situation (I didn’t realize it even years after the fact) but its part of the fundamental nature of OZ that, with few exceptions, everyone in authority basically doesn’t care about the inmates well-being. Sometimes this is shown in very dark relief.

In the second season Leo Glynn (Ernie Hudson) demands that Miguel Alvarez (Kirk Acevedo) work in his office. His job is to just stand there for the next six hours, and at one point he demands Alvarez clean the toilets. When Alvarez asks hostilely Leo beats him to a pulp. We later learn that Glynn’s daughter has been raped by a gang of Latinos and Glynn has decided to take it out on the first Latino who crossed him.

However during that same season Peter Shebetta (Eddie Malvaraca) who has spent the season in a power struggle with Simon Adebisi is raped by him. (This we get a very clear look at.) The assault essentially causes Peter to have a break with reality and he spend much of the next three years in the psych ward. When he returns as a regular in Season 6, he gets raped again, this time by Schillinger. Peter spends the next several episodes trying to recover from this.

When Sister Pete (Rita Moreno) who has been counselling him tries to talk to Leo about this, he shows no sympathy for Peter calling rape ‘a leveler’. Sister Pete is justifiably shocked by this talk: “You want rape to do your job for you?” Leo is unapologetic. “No, just survival of the fittest.”

Now to be fair to Leo Peter went out of his way to blackmail him for a position of authority when he was first sent here and he’s never forgiven him for that. But it speaks to a larger context throughout the entire series that at the end of the day the guards basically due view the sexual rape of inmates — which has been happening at practically the rate of one an episode — as something that they don’t really care about. To them, the most traumatic experience a human being can suffer is something these prisoners either deserve or at the end of the day is such small potatoes that punishes them is a waste of time.

This is made very clear at the start of the final season. Schillinger was sentenced to solitary confinement at the end of the previous one for raping two young men, one of whom killed himself later on. Solitary has become crowded and the staff has to vote who stays in it and how is let out. Sister Pete doesn’t want Schillinger to leave prison — among other things, Beecher is up for parole and she’s justifiably terrified for his fate and she has spent the entire series dealing with the fallout from these rapes. But when the time to vote comes, it is six to one in favor of releasing Schillinger. When Glynn tells the man: “if you commit another rape, you will be sent back here,” it’s so rote its clear that its lip service. Schillinger simply grins at Sister Pete. “Let me guess. You were the one.” And the moment Schillinger is released, one of the men he raped is willing to kill Beecher’s father for him as long as he can be upgraded from ‘prag’ to a member of the Brotherhood. Schillinger immediately agrees and Beecher’s father pays the prize.

It’s worth noting that while Schillinger has committed multiple rapes throughout the series, he doesn’t consider himself a homosexual. Indeed as leader of the Aryan Brotherhood he considers homosexuality nearly as bad a sign as being anything other than white. One is reminded of this very clear late in Season Three when Schillinger has a talk with Jason Cramer, one of the openly gay men in Oz.

Cramer is about to fight Hamid Khan, one of the leaders of the Black Muslims. (I’ll get back to them in a minute.) Schillinger wants Cramer to beat Khan. Cramer immediately calls out the hypocrisy. “It must be killing you who to root for…But you know more about having your cock sucked than having an Afro.” Schillinger doesn’t blink. “You better watch your mouth, Tinker Bell. Or Khan’s gonna win by default.”

It’s clear from the moment Oz begins that for all Tim McManus’ ideas of ‘equality’ for Em City, the same bigotries apply on the inside as the outside. The irony is that the one thing the Aryans and the Black Muslims are in lock step on is that homosexuality is an abomination. This is basically a view that is held by every other ‘clique’ in OZ, even the ones who are engaged in it.

I remember a third season episode where Antonio Napa (Mark Margolis) is having a conversation with Adebisi asking: “Why he left the cafeteria to work with a bunch of f — -s?” Adebisi, who is putting on a slightly crazy act asks if he doesn’t like them. When Napa returns the question, Adebisi’s response is actually honest: “Out there, I hate them. But in here, sometimes you need your dick sucked.”

This is as clear a delineation as to the denial of so many of the characters in OZ and it speaks to the idea of their sexuality while they’re serving time. They’re not gay, they just need to have sex and these are the only partners available. Beecher comes the closest of any inmate to realizing that there is more to it than that in the early stages of his relationship with Keller (Christopher Meloni). He has a conversation with Sister Pete:

BEECHER: “Two men can’t love each other the same way a man and a woman can.”

SISTER PETE: “Well, some men come to Oz as homosexuals, and some become homosexuals.

BEECHER: “I’m not talking about sex. I’m talking about love. I had sex with Schillinger. It was brutal, unloving.”

Sister Pete pauses. “Are you in love Tobias?”

Beecher pauses: “Yeah, I think I might be.”

It’s worth noting that Chris Keller is clearly bisexual. He has been married three times (“Four if you count Bonnie, who I married twice) before he comes to Oz. The relationship he and Beecher have is initially built on lies (Schillinger has been working with him to get revenge on Beecher for destroying his chance at parole) but by Season 3 it’s clear Keller is in love with him. He spends much of the third season engaging in sexual gamesmanship with Sister Pete (causing her to consider leaving the convent) but by the end of Season 3 Beecher and Keller are together.

Loving Chris Keller could be as dangerous as being his enemy.

Then in Season 4 an FBI agent tells Beecher that he suspects Keller in the murders of three homosexual men. (He spends the rest of the series trying to put Keller in prison for their killings.) In the middle of Season 4 Keller and Beecher have ended their relationship on bad terms (to put it mildly) and Keller goes to talk with Father Ray for confession. In it he confesses that he had sex with three men and then he killed them. Ray is stunned and asked why. “I didn’t want them to tell anybody,” he says simply. As we see the rest of the series the only thing worse to having Keller as an enemy is having him be in love with you.

Beecher’s friendship with Kareem Said (Eamonn Walker) is one of the deepest in all of OZ. At a critical moment Beecher is struggling with guilt and he reaches out to Said for spiritual guidance, the first (and only) white man to do so during the entire series. Said’s decision to give it leads to him being ousted as leader of the Black Muslims and yet despite that Beecher stands with him. Their friendship lasts throughout the series until Beecher’s parole. (I won’t reveal what happens afterwards for those who haven’t seen it.)

But throughout their relationship Said’s religious doctrine make it difficult for him to accept Beecher’s homosexuality. Part of it is based in the fact that Said can sense what a dangerous person Keller is and that he is worried about his friend, but the sexual part is always at the bottom of it. When Said tells him that Allah will not accept this, Beecher’s reaction is simple: “I don’t want to love Keller, but I do. And as for Allah, I’ll deal with him when I see him.” Said comes to terms with this but it is difficult for him and it is ironic that the both Schillinger and Said, opposites in everything else, agree completely on the idea of homosexuality as an abomination.

And it’s telling that outsiders can’t tell the difference between either of Beecher’s experiences. We see this multiple times throughout the series but the clearest delineation comes in a Season 6 storyline.

We are introduced to Adam Gunzel and Franklin Winthrop, two college-age boys who have been sentenced to Oswald for 28 years for raping and sexual assault of a girl. Both men were drunk and Gunzel will use that as a crutch to say that they had no awareness of what they were doing — or that the girl was disabled.

Because Gunzel is the son of a family friend of Beecher’s, he is sent to Em City. Winthrop is sent to the general population. There’s a clear parallel to Beecher when he first came to Oz. Both are clearly young men of privilege (Gunzel grimly jokes walking into his pod: “This is the first time I ever made my own bed0 and both are unaware of what you will have to do to survive. Winthrop immediately gravitates to Schillinger and by the end of the episode is his prag. The Aryans set their sights on Gunzel, but because Beecher is aware of this he makes alliances to keep Gunzel safe.

However in the next episode when Gunzel sees Winthrop decked out in women’s makeup and pig-tails (marks of humiliation Beecher bore under Schillinger’s abuse) he expresses astonishment. Then Winthrop (backed by Schillinger) tells Gunzel Beecher’s history which inflames Beecher. It is a mark of Gunzel’s bigotry that he views Beecher’s relationship with Schillinger and Keller — the former which had nothing to do with consent — as essentially equivalent. Gunzel turns on Beecher, calling him homophobic slurs and eventually rejects Beecher’s protection, essentially demanding that he be sent to gen pop despite Beecher’s warnings. When Beecher reluctantly does so Gunzel immediately goes to Schillinger who immediately rapes him. Winthrop asks if he can watch. “If you don’t, how will you learn?” Schillinger says jovially.

Eventually Beecher reveals Schillinger’s role in Winthrop and Gunzel’s rapes but Winthrop denies it and says the sex was consensual. (This leads to Schillinger being released from solitary at the start of the final season.) Winthrop doesn’t consider Beecher’s action help; if anything it turns him more towards Schillinger and indeed, he agrees to kill Beecher’s father as long as he is given an upgrade.

This might be PTSD as much as anything else but we’ve seen countless people sexually assaulted by Schillinger and none of them have decided to ally with him. I think, like Schillinger, Winthrop has essentially decided to follow the advice that Beecher was given by Whittlesey at the start of the series, only he has taken it in an infinitely darker direction, himself becoming an abuser. It is a pattern that we see far too often during the series to the point that it becomes a drag over time.

That said there is a storyline that takes place in the final season of OZ that was more groundbreaking even then everything I’ve already discussed. What makes it remarkable is that involved a character who we’ve watched for six seasons be utterly and completely evil — and then in the final season Tom Fontana showed his depth.

Even the devil can be redeemed.

For five years James Robson (R.E. Rodgers) has been Schillinger’s right-hand man in the Brotherhood. He’s committed repeated violent acts, ordered multiple murders over the years and we’ve seen him commit more than a few. It’s also understood that he’s complicit in many sexual assaults including the rape of Cyril O’Reilly within days of his arrival in OZ.

Then in Season 6, he is exiled from the Brotherhood. One of the men who he tried to kill earlier that season Chuck Pancamo (Chuck Zito) the head of the Sicilians spent most of the year near death but recovered and now he understandably wants vengeance. Robson is desperate for help and after being rejected by the Brotherhood, goes to the head of the Bikers a man named Wolfgang Cutler, who makes it very clear what he will have to do to survive.

Robson goes to see Sister Pete. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go.” Sister Pete, who never judges, lets him in. She shares an experience that her first year in Oswald an inmate named Warren Styx nearly choked her death. She passed out and when she regained consciousness, he had slit his wrists with her tape dispenser.

Robson asks if she remembers that feeling. Sister Pete says yes and asks if he’s ever felt that way.

“Much longer than I want to admit. I was Gerald Robson’s only son…Even as a kid, you do what you have to survive. Because when you’re six, running away is not an option.”

Sister Pete probes. “Did he beat you?” Robson acknowledges. When she asks if he was sexually assault, Robson who has spent five years as the tough guy begins to cry.

“I’m thirty-six years old and I’ve got nowhere to run!” He then asks Sister Pete: “Is it okay to do whatever you have to survive?” Before she can answer, he asks: “Or should I die?” When she responds no, he says: “That’s what I thought. Thanks sister.” The episode ends with him basically agreeing to be Cutler’s sexual slave.

Within a few episodes he manages to regain his place in the prison hierarchy by getting Cutler to kill himself. But then he has a meeting with his wife, who he hasn’t seen since becoming Cutler’s prag. He demands she masturbate him right there and things go so horribly that he ends up being pulled away.

It is the pattern of OZ that far too many storylines would give hope for redemptive behavior and end with everybody going back to the start. This storyline didn’t. In the next episode Robson has a conversation with Sister Pete in which he acknowledges how horribly he feels and that he never wanted to be this way. He spends a lot of time trying to deny things but eventually Sister Pete gets him to admit that he was raped.

Then something I never saw in seven seasons happened. We got to a therapy session which deals with prisoners who are survivors of sexual assault. All of them except Robson share in increasing detail and profound sad all of the horrible experiences that they underwent as victims of sexual predators while in Oswald. They serve as a microcosm not only for every sexual assault that has been happening in Oz but that we didn’t see but all the prisoners who have gone through it. And eventually they all end their story with the same tragic four words:

“I had no choice.”

I have mixed feeling about the series finale of OZ (and indeed much of the final season itself) but the one part that still resonates after more than two decades comes the final time we see Robson. Sister Pete says he has something to say. Robson gets up and tells him he’s going to say goodbye because he’s being transferred to the AIDS ward. He tells his new friends that he knows he going to live a long life but he also knows that this didn’t have to happen. He has accepted responsibility for the man he was in prison and his last words on the show are: “Thank you for helping me see through the mirror both ways.” In a show where the only resolution to so many characters comes in death, there’s something strangely life-affirming in Robson’s arc.

OZ was a groundbreaking series and I believe it still holds up remarkable well after a quarter of a century, yet it has gotten little credit. I think it deserves to be remember for many reasons, not the least of which is how it looked at every conceivable aspect of homosexuality and self-denial as well as the ability to give consent seemed to have been a right that you surrender when you go behind bars. But it also showed the possibility of redemption, perhaps not within society’s standard but at a personal level. When so few series that followed have been willing to do that, there’s something deeply profound and moving about that — particularly in a land called Oz.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.