Each day this month (assuming I don’t get busy or bored!), I’ll reflect on a tiny sliver of pop culture that I enjoyed or appreciated this year — scenes, shots, gestures, verses, sights, sounds, moments. Today: on three of the best “prestige” dramas, women rule the roost.
Better Call Saul and Mr. Robot are as driven by their respective leading men as shows can be, a fact the titles make abundantly clear. The Americans has a dual focus on its central couple. But on new seasons of each this year, the MVPs were the women.
Nothing against Bob Odenkirk or his character Saul Goodman, a slippery con man who’s constantly caught between good intentions and material desires. Nothing against Rami Malek, who brings aching vulnerability and disaffected sensitivity to the role of Elliott Alderson, a hacker struggling with mental illness and revolutionary impulses. And nothing against Matthew Rhys, who deserves far more than the one Emmy nomination he secured this year for the shape-shifting masterstrokes on display as Philip Jennings, the KGB operative who always has going straight deep in the back of his mind.
With respect to these three fine actors, though, I found myself drawn to the women surrounding their characters this year, thanks to remarkable acting and increased screentime for each. On Saul, Rhea Seehorn carried off Kim Wexler’s characteristic mix of self-assured confidence and occupational frustration, and the show refused to relegate her to a mere love interest role. Kim represents one side of Saul’s dual impulses, as well as a fully realized human being in her own right, experiencing the same tugs in multiple directions with which Saul has struggled for all of his adult life. (I talked to Seehorn more about her work on the second season for The Week.)
In a similar vein, Portia Doubleday’s Angela and Grace Gummer’s Dom faced professional and personal struggles entirely independent of the main narrative of Mr. Robot on the show’s rocky but entrancing second season. Angela seemed to give in to the thirst for power and comfort with manipulation that her friend Elliott railed against in the first season, but she showed signs of internal turmoil throughout, with an array of motivations that have yet to fully reveal themselves even after the finale. Her on-the-nose rendition of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and her surreal conversation with a mysterious child were among the year’s most surreal, shocking and emotionally gripping TV moments.
Dom’s journey had a slower burn. Her storyline didn’t intersect with the main one until the season finale, when it’s revealed that her penchant for curiosity helped her pull steps ahead from her FBI colleagues without them suspecting a thing. But Dom’s relentless pursuit of the truth came at a cost. Her discomfort in social situations and her workaholic attitude left her tired and defeated during the few hours when she wasn’t working. Her only friend was the artificially intelligent Amazon device known as Alexa. Such is the outlook for human connection in 2016. Gummer brought levity and jittery resolve to the end times.
There was no levity to be found in the trajectory of Martha (Alison Wright) on The Americans this year. Her entire world crumbled around her, as the revelation that her husband Clark is KGB operative Phillip Jennings in disguised uprooted her entire existence and, after a harried series of chase sequences across D.C., sent her on a plane bound for Russia with no return ticket. To use the spy parlance, Wright’s characterization of Martha as both timid and passionate has been an asset for four seasons, but she really stepped up to the plate this year. It’s a thrill that a show of dizzying complexity like this one has time for characters and roles like Martha — or Dom, or Angela, or Kim. Dusk has arrived for the white male anti-hero. In his place: women with strength, layers and nuance.