Peak TV Has A Bunch of Bad Mothers…(Shut Your Mouth!)
No, I’m Not Talking About Maid
It is rare that I write a column directed at someone in particular, but in this case I’m going to do so. I saw a letter written in the New York Times Magazine about a month ago and the rank ignorance it portrays about one recent Netflix series and Peak TV in general was so astonishing that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since. So to that woman — and whatever demographic she represents — this is for you.
Now I don’t know what inspired this particular letter — maybe it had something to do with the way the world views motherhood in general and how it affects our society. That I can get behind without a problem. It’s the example this woman used that galls me.
She mentions the recent Netflix series Maid — a series I have already raved about in this column and that is already a top contender for Emmy nominations this year. The series deals with a young mother named Alex (played brilliantly by Margaret Qualley) who leaves an abusive relationship with her toddler daughter and finds herself thrust into a situation of what its like to be poor in America. The main comments this woman said was that she ‘thought it would have been more realistic if Alex had resented her daughter.
Let me give you the scope of how utterly stupid that sounds. From the moment Alex drives off into the middle of the night, she has no support system. Everything in the world is against her. It takes her an episode just to admit that she’s an abused woman because her boyfriend never physically hurt. She moves from a battered woman’s shelter into a homeless shelter that is infested with mold. She has to survive on government assistance. Her boyfriend, who is an alcoholic, initially sues for full custody. Her employers and many of her fellow maids are unsympathetic to her needs. She doesn’t want to even see her born again father initially and that’s before she remembers how abusive he was to her mother. Her mother (who Alex spends most of the time calling Paula) is a bipolar artist who barely remembers her daughter on a good day and hates her the rest of the time. In the last episode I saw, her mother disappeared off the grid for nearly two days. When Alex came to the trailer park looking for her with sympathy for her for the first time the entire series, Paula told her she had been at Joshua Tree with no cell service and had spent the last two days getting married. Paula on more than one occasion clearly has resented Alex if she thinks of her at all.
So given all of the immense amount of suffering that Alex is going through just to survive, this letter-writer seems to think it would be more realistic if Alex resented her baby. The only person she feels nothing but unconditional love for. Alex is clearly trying to break the cycle that Paula forced her to live in her whole childhood (we’ve gotten more than a few hints that so much of Alex’s misery because of Paula’s nomadic lifestyle and utter unconcern for her daughter’s future) . But that’s not part of the discussion. In order for this situation to be more realistic — and let’s be clear, I fully believe every bit of Alex’s nightmare is real- she also has to hate her daughter. Would this writer have been happier if Job had blamed his children for dying on him while he was suffering?
So the specific example that this writer uses is specious at best. What makes it sound somehow worse is the implication that television is currently full of nothing but examples of Claire Huxtables and June Cleavers. And that ignorance really makes me what to scream at this woman. Was Maid the only series on television since Murphy Brown ended in 1998? Because if you look at basically almost every female Emmy Winner for Drama (and quite a few in the comedy categories) you see pretty much nothing but mothers where resenting their own children may be the least horrible behavior they demonstrate towards them.
Remember how the revolution began? Livia Soprano (Nancy Marchand) the woman who behind so much of Tony’s inner angst. In the first season he did everything he could to take care of her and as he put it “she acts like she’s an Eskimo I’m putting out on an ice floe.” She put a hit out on her own son and seemed to have a stroke in self-defense. Then there was D’Angelo Barksdale’s mother, who to protect her family’s earnings forced her son to take twenty year sentence for murder rather than a deal that would given him his freedom. Her son was murdered in prison. When she asked McNulty about why she had bothered to tell her his suspicions in Season 3 he was blunt in a way he normally served only for his bosses: “I wanted to tell someone who’d care…You were the one who made him take the years.”
Those are extremes, of course, but the lion’s share of the mothers in Peak TV were little better. Betty Draper, memorably portrayed by January Jones on Mad Men, spent almost the entire series scolding and berating all of her children, wearing them down one by one. Only in the last episodes, dying of cancer, did she express her true feelings to Sally (and rather than say it face to face, she wrote in a letter.) Patty Hewes of Damages, who Glenn Close indelibly played for five seasons, spent nearly as much time jousting with her son as she did with corporate titans. (In her defense, Michael was something of a sociopath; the grenade he mailed to her office in Season 1 was just the start of the battle we saw them go through.) And Carrie on Homeland initially so resented her infant daughter so much, she took a station post in Kabul so she wouldn’t have to be in the same country as him.
Now admittedly these are mostly dramas but there have more than a few comedy series out there where mothers treat their children despicably. Weeds had Nancy Botwin (Mary Louise Parker) start selling pot to support her children after her husband’s death. By the time the series was half over, she was admitting to her husband that she ‘f — -ed up her kids and it was pretty clear by the end of it that even her youngest was beyond repair. Edie Falco on Nurse Jackie spent much of the first half of the series denying at work she was even married and her kids got more and more dysfunctional that by the fifth season one of them was on drugs herself. Hell on Veep Julia-Louis Dreyfus on her best day regarded her daughter as a political prop and we learned early on she never really felt anything for her; in a flashback, immediately after holding her for the first time, she said: “I think I’ll get into politics.”
And this isn’t something limited to cable or streaming. Remember the Pilot of Desperate Housewives where mother of four Lynette lied to a friend she met in the supermarket about the joys of motherhood. Or Grey’s Anatomy where Meredith’s care for her mother with early onset Alzheimer’s did nothing to hide how much Ellis clearly resented her as her child. (The last lucid exchange they had was Ellis telling Meredith how disappointed she was her.) Almost every character on Lost had problems to ‘daddy issues’ as one fan admitted, but more than a handful (I’m thinking Kate and Daniel in particular) had horrible mothers. Hell, a lot of fans of the series were hostile when we learned near the end that almost all the actions that had taken place in the series were due to a crazy woman, killing a mother after she gave birth, adopting the twins as her own and arranging things so that one would want to spend his existence wanting to destroy the island and the other being forced to spend just as long protecting it.
And it’s not like so many of these mothers are rewarding for trying to be good parents. Skyler White on Breaking Bad is by far the most prominent example. She learned of her husband’s drug dealing at the end of Season 2, tried to leave him, was more or less forced to stay to keep her children safe, got dragged over and over into her husband’s horrific behavior, and in the final season was estranged from her sister, loathed by her son and left without her dignity or support. She should have received sympathy from the beginning. Anna Gunn received death threats mainly because she was seen as the obstacle to Walter being allowed to be a monster. Somehow I don’t think the two Supporting Actress Emmys she received are enough of a consolation for that.
I could keep going like this for awhile, but I haven’t the heart. The point is there are almost no really good mothers on TV more. I can count on the fingers of both hands the number of series in the past twenty years that I’ve seen with truly good and pure mothers and I think that half of them were played by Lauren Graham and Connie Britton. There are a lot of great roles for actresses in television these days — which is why so many are coming from movies — but the lion’s share of them seem to dictate that if you take them you must be as mean and soulless as the men. Now if you choose to view this as Peak TV taking a real look at how horrible motherhood can be, you are free too but don’t complain that there television doesn’t show life with mothers resenting these children. Those are basically all you do find on TV — and to be clear almost all of them come from infinitely better situations, social and economic, than the one that Alex faces in Maid.
And may I speak as someone who has witnessed so many of these ‘Bad Moms’ in action? After awhile, it truly becomes exhausting and depressing seeing so many great actresses being forced to play mothers who don’t just resent, but in several cases openly dislike their children. To be clear, I have as much of a problem with all the ‘white male antiheroes’ in TV who do horrible things to protect their families. But I don’t particularly feel much sympathy for characters like the one Ellen Barkin played on Animal Kingdom who ‘loves’ her children by controlling every aspect of their criminal careers and forced them to shoot her dead rather than die of cancer.
Perhaps that is the reason I obsess so much about the fate of a series like Big Little Lies to constantly hoping we’ll get a third season some day. Yes, it’s well written and acted, funny and sharp, but it centers on five mothers who will do anything for their children. None of them are anywhere close to perfect, but they want the best for their children. Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline wants her oldest daughter to have a better life than her. Nicole Kidman’s Celeste wants her twins to get out of the wreckage of her abusive father and mother-in-law. Laura Dern’s Renata wants to protect her daughter from threats, even if she’s extreme in her methods. And there’s Shailene Woodley’s Jane, whose Ziggy was the result of a sexual assault and who she spends so much of the first season thinking might be as monstrous as her assaulter, but will protect him despite being much lower on the caste system than everyone else on Monterrey. None of these women are perfect mothers, but all will do anything for their children.
So to the writer of the letter that inspired this article, if you want to watch a series where mothers resent their children, stop watching Maid and look at just about any of the other series I’ve mentioned here, most of which you can also find on Netflix. There are just as many out there I haven’t even mentioned. You may think the world deifies motherhood, but Peak TV sure as hell doesn’t. Believe me, after you’ve spent maybe two or three days looking through some of these series, you will be begging to binge watch Gilmore Girls and Friday Night Lights just as a tonic.