Originally published: Sommet Dame Magazine
With Orange Is The New Black back for a sixth season and Oceans 8 dominating at the box office, it’s clear that audiences’ fascination with female crooks is far from being sated. NBC’s own Good Girls takes the trend in a fresh new direction, showing how the veneer of a house in the suburbs and position on the school board can be enough to protect women from suspicion, even in the face of truly reprehensible acts.
Each of the show’s star players stumble into crime as a way to gain financial and personal autonomy. Annie (Mae Whitman) is a scatter-brained single mother trying to protect her daughter Sadie on two fronts, their working-class status and Sadie’s own gender non-conformity, who is put under extra strain when her ex-husband and childhood sweetheart decides to sue for custody. Her sister Beth (Christina Hendricks) is a powerhouse and mother of four who has been confined to the role of homemaker, a home she is at risk of losing due to her husband’s bad investments and extramarital affair. Their mutual friend Ruby (Marietta Sangai Sirleaf, aka Retta) is a workhorse struggling to keep her head above water, with a loving husband and a daughter whose medical condition is becoming increasingly impossible to manage.
Blindsided and driven to extremes, all three are frustrated by the struggles that have befallen them through no fault of their own, and furious that it is their job both to sit powerlessly on the side-lines while their situation worsens, and to somehow pick up the pieces regardless. Searching for a quick fix, they rob the grocery store where Annie works with relative ease, but the plan backfires spectacularly when they count the money. Instead of the $30,000 dollars they expected, they wind up with a cool half a million, courtesy of a local gang that has been laundering money through the store.
From there, we follow the trio as they struggle to adjust to the new duality of their lives: doing the school run in a sports car bought with illicit cash, going grocery shopping in a minivan riddled with bullet holes, wrestling with an overcomplicated TV remote while a gangster waits upstairs in the bedroom. The show lets the audience into the tension between what the women in the show believe they are doing (finding financial security at any cost to protect their children from hardship and be good moms) and the real-time repercussions of their criminal activity on their family. Sometimes this is darkly funny, like when Beth’s toddler asks who is sleeping over in her room, and the camera pans over to show a bleeding out gang member twitching in her pastel pink bed. Other times it results in stomach-dropping heartache, like when a heist leaves Annie’s daughter to make dinner for child protective services alone, in a startling reversal of which one of them is the responsible figure.
Of course, Good Girls is not the first show to chronicle a squeaky-clean parent figure’s descent into the criminal underworld. Breaking Bad is perhaps the most famous example of a show to tread similar ground, but Weeds hits on undeniably similar beats as well. Good Girls differs in two important ways: not only are the women are allowed cross the line into full-blown, morally gray antiheroes, but they do not lose their femininity in the process. While many celebrated “strong female characters” embrace aggression and machismo in pursuit of their goals, the tools used by Annie, Beth and Ruby are stereotypically female traits, weaponised and subverted to assist in their nefarious activity.
It’s this repurposing of domestic iconography that lends the show most of its comedy, but it also provides a significant portion of its empowerment. Yes, it’s hilarious that when the trio have to recruit others into their money washing scam, they dress it up as a kitschy shopping-themed pyramid scheme, but it also shows that their own desperate longing to take charge of their narrative is shared by almost every other woman in their neighbourhood. Yes, it’s novel to see a man tied up and held prisoner in a play house after being marched there with a toy pistol in his back, but there’s also a satisfying irony to him being trapped in the home after insisting that that’s where all women belong.
With that said, just as the characters’ double lives are shown to be unsustainable, so is that of the show itself. Just as the ladies cannot seem to decide if they want out of the crime game or to push further in, with each episode Good Girls seems less certain of the kind of show it wants to be. At times, it paints fraud, robbery and even extortion as a sexy romp complete with a snappy one-liner and a pop soundtrack. At times the harsh reality crashes in with not a moment of levity to be seen. Genres can be balanced against each other, but when attempted rapists get away with little more than an eyeroll and people are left bloodied and whimpering while the gals giggle with mimosas, it starts to seem like a less deliberate choice. Beth, Annie and Ruby cannot reconcile their ugly deeds with the cavalier way they have approached them, and neither can the show.
Overall though, Good Girls is a fish-out-of-water comedy with an intense character drama at its heart. It’s messy and fallible, and sometimes unable to dig itself out of the holes it has created, but that only further proves that their actions have consequences within the world of the show. Sometimes people do the wrong things for the right reasons, and sometimes the characters’ rose-colored glasses make red flags just look like normal flags. The show isn’t going to tell us where the line between fun heist and irredeemable moral failing is, so we, alongside the characters, are forced to decide for ourselves how far we are willing to go.