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Published: Wednesday, 12/12/2012 - Updated: 1 year ago

On three hit AMC series, pity the poor wives

BY MEREDITH BLAKE
LOS ANGELES TIMES
January Jones as Betty Draper, left, and Jon Hamm as Don Draper in "Mad Men". January Jones as Betty Draper, left, and Jon Hamm as Don Draper in "Mad Men".
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NEW YORK — Even by the gruesome standards of AMC's zombie megahit The Walking Dead, the death of Lori Grimes, the heavily pregnant wife of protagonist Rick Grimes, was unusually brutal: a crude prison-floor C-section followed by a bullet to the head dispatched by her young son, Carl.

Yet many viewers greeted the development not with despair or horror but with a sadistic kind of glee, flocking to Twitter, Facebook, and online comment threads to post heartwarming eulogies like this one: Lori left The Walking Dead the same way she came in. With her pants off.

The incongruous reaction to Lori's demise in the Nov. 4 episode fits in with a broader trend at AMC, where unpopular first wives have become a network hallmark in the same way incest plot lines and gratuitous female nudity have at HBO.

In addition to Lori, there's Betty, the long-suffering spouse (and now ex) of Mad Men's Don Draper, and Skyler, currently trapped in what may be the most miserable marriage in television history to Walter White, the high school chemistry teacher turned crystal meth kingpin at the center of Breaking Bad.

Lori's bloody end capped off a particularly rough year for AMC's first wives club. When the once-svelte Betty showed up at the beginning of Mad Men's fifth season carrying 50 or so pounds of extra weight, Fat Betty became an instant meme. Similarly, when Skyler plunged into her pool in a desperate cry for help this summer on Breaking Bad, her detractors wondered aloud why she didn't just drown herself already.

Whether it's a problem built into the antihero drama, a reaction to haphazard character development, or just plain old-fashioned sexism, wife-bashing is for many viewers an integral part of the AMC experience. Even professional TV-watchers have joined in the hate: In her recap of Lori's farewell episode, Vulture writer Starlee Kine declared, Take that, Fat Betty; that is how you ‘correct' an unlikable character.

All three women face difficulties that by any reasonable measure ought to elicit our sympathy, from borderline psychopathic spouses to the ever-present threat of flesh-eating zombies. Yet Lori, Betty and Skyler have all committed minor sins that make them wholly unsympathetic — or at least annoying — to certain viewers: They've each slept with men other than their husbands, made parenting mistakes, and, perhaps worst of all, gotten in the way of their partner's bad behavior.

There's a narrative challenge to doing stories about male criminals or men who have an exciting violence to them: It's how to handle the women in their lives, explains Emily Nussbaum, TV critic for the New Yorker. You're rooting for the antiheroes in this really complicated, libidinal, charge-up, cathartic, taboo way.

Shows like Breaking Bad encourage viewers to relate to men who do truly unspeakable things (poisoning children) while judging their wives for much smaller transgressions (retaliatory affairs). If they stand up to the men in their lives, they're irritating obstacles; if they don't, they're hypocritical colluders. See also: Soprano, Carmela.

These women are called upon to provide the drama, to serve as roadblocks that the male protagonist has to get around, says Anna Holmes, founder of the feminist website Jezebel.com.

And because television is still written predominantly by men, about men, even the most forward-thinking writers will resort to a certain shorthand when it comes to female characters, says Alyssa Rosenberg, a TV columnist at Slate and the Atlantic. Skyler nags, Betty is cold and personality-less. Lori is lame and stupid enough to get pregnant during an apocalypse.

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Skyler elicits what may be the most undeserved antipathy from viewers. To her critics, she is a harridan and hypocrite who keeps Walt from fully unleashing his inner badness — never mind that by now he makes Pablo Escobar look like a pussycat. I can't root for Skyler. She was an emasculating presence, constantly treating Walt like a child to be scolded or punished, wrote a typical commenter at the A.V. Club. She's a control freak.

Condemning a character like Skyler is a convenient way for viewers to have their antiheroic cake and eat it too, says Rosenberg.

People want to judge somebody but they don't want to look straight at what these antiheroes have become. Blaming the wives becomes a way to deflect that: They're still exercising moral judgment, but they don't have to get away from the fantasy that it's really awesome for Walt to be (his evil alter ego) Heisenberg when actually Walt is a disgusting human being.

The phenomenon frightens and perplexes series creator Vince Gilligan. Skyler compared to Walt is Mother Teresa. She's the hero of that duo, yet so many viewers are saying, Man, I wish she could get bumped off, killed off or otherwise get out of his way so he can really break bad, he told the Los Angeles Times in an interview earlier this year. I want as many people as I can to watch the show, but wow, I hope I'm not living next door to any of them.

On Mad Men, the disconnect between writer and audience is less clear. In interviews, series creator Matthew Weiner has expressed a measure of sympathy for the emotionally stunted housewife played by January Jones, describing her as a wasted resource and a tragic product of her time. But in practice, Weiner seems less charitable to Betty, rarely portraying her in a flattering (or even sympathetic) light. This unforgiving attitude stands out all the more given how sensitive Mad Men is to the struggles of its other female characters, Joan Harris and Peggy Olson.

As a result, there was something almost cruel about the Fat Betty spectacle. They've designed Betty as a character you're supposed to react against. Even if you wanted to be sympathetic, it triggered in you as a viewer this kind of ‘Ha-ha!' Nelson reaction, says Nussbaum, referring to the bully from The Simpsons.

Like Skyler and Betty, Lori is guilty of sleeping with a man other than her husband, although her dalliance with Shane hardly qualifies as infidelity: At the time it occurred, she believed Rick was dead. Nevertheless, it was enough for some fans to label her a whore and to interpret her death during childbirth as an act of divine justice.

Ultimately the biggest problem for the wives of AMC may also be the most intractable: Women are socialized to identify with both male and female protagonists, but I don't think men are socialized to identify with female protagonists. When they are asked to do so, they rebel, argues Holmes.

While this may be true, women are among the most vocal AMC wife-bashers out there, especially when it comes to poor old Betty. And with the rise of troubled female leads like Carrie Mathison on Homeland or Hannah Horvath on Girls, the language of television is gradually beginning to change, Nussbaum says.

It doesn't have to be this kind of toggle switch between somebody who's empowering and somebody who's annoying. Once you open up the floodgates to bad female behavior, it's good for everyone, she adds.



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