We have been so forgiving of the Walter Whites and Tony Sopranos. So why do we hold antiheroines like “Homeland’s” Carrie Mathison to a different standard?
One of the most devastating moments in the fourth season of Homeland doesn’t come from an eruption of wire and shrapnel, or from the barrel of a sniper’s rife; it is Carrie Mathison, new mother and CIA station chief, staring into the crib where her infant daughter sleeps. Carrie has left her daughter in the care of her sister (who has also been Carrie’s nursemaid and personal pharmacist during her bipolar breakdowns); this is a short visit stateside from Kabul, where she’s affectionately nicknamed “ The Drone Queen.” She looks down at this baby, who has her eyes and her lost love’s soft red hair, and her face becomes a clear crystal reflecting hues of sorrow, longing, and guilt. Then she turns around and leaves.
Many fans were no doubt expecting a scene like this, given Carrie’s it-will-surprise-you-how-much-this-never-happened reaction to her pregnancy. Yet the moment is still potent, even jarring. We’ve seen Mad Men’s Don Draper close the door on his children many times (or leave it open at the wrong time; poor Sally can never un-see Don with his pants around his ankles and the neighbor woman’s legs around his back). We’ve seen The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty get his two young sons to tail a drug kingpin through Lexington Market. We’ve seen so much worse from Breaking Bad’s Walter White (oh God, so much worse). Yet we haven’t seen a female lead abandon her child so she can follow her passions—no matter how narcissistic and destructive those passions are.
Carrie’s path aligns with the drone whistling toward its target; her life’s work is cratered wreckage, forty civilians dead to scratch one name off the kill list. The job is her calling, but it makes her a killer. She offers a perfunctory “well done” to her team as a farmhouse becomes a mushroom cloud on the screen behind her, and her detachment is amplified to the point of parody by her failure at nurturing the one life she created. Carrie is ruthless, impulsive, and even cruel—exactly the kind of women we need to see a lot more of on screen.
Television now has a bristling, neurotic fixation with masculinity: thwarted masculinity, retro masculinity, reclaimed masculinity. Critics trace the lineage of the anti-hero—Tony Soprano begat Don Draper who begat Walter White who begat True Detective’s Rust Cohle—as though it contains the alchemy for something more transcendent than mere entertainment, something that is nothing less than the totality of human experience. The problem is that this human experience—the scramble for meaning, the indulgence of selfish desires and selfless love, and the power to be devastated and redeemed (often in the same moment)—is limited exclusively to men, and mostly White men. Whether he carries a briefcase or a pistol, the anti-hero amplifies the common man’s malaise, elevates it into myth.
Men who are belittled and diminished in white-collar jobs that still can’t make ends meet feel their pressure valves released when Walter White shucks off the petty degradations of suburban life and dons his porkpie hat. He aids and abets the murder of children (and isn’t above orchestrating some low-down-dirty killing, either). He terrorizes his family and allows his protégé to be kidnapped and tortured. Yet his bobble-head appears in cubicles across the country and there are bald caps and Hazmat suits a-plenty at almost any Halloween party. Walt remains resonant not in spite of his transgressions, but because of them. His appeal is an undertow that sucks in bored, angry men adrift in the shallow seas of respectable lives.
Walter White’s lingering power as a cultural icon speaks to the need for women like Carrie Mathison—and Scandal’s Olivia Pope, Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen, and any of the acidic vixens that Jessica Lange has played on American Horror Story. In her essay “Why Do All the Best Movie Villains Have to Be Men?,” Kelsey McKinney calls for “female protagonists who show the ugly and the messy and the horrible parts of humanity … We need lady mob-bosses, female serial killers, and women who are leaders of the dark side.” McKinney’s call-to-arms is resonant on the smaller screen, too, when most of the conversations about TV as an elevated art form still focus on the cinematic richness of male-centered programs.
We can’t have equality without visibility: When we allow women on-screen to chase their Ids regardless of the chaos wrought in full pursuit, to live unabashedly for themselves, we allow women in the audience to turn their own pressure valves. Though the woman on her couch can’t summon dragonfire or drones against someone who has flat-out pissed her off, she has likely wanted to (after all, who hasn’t?). This isn’t just about a permission to revel in petty vengeance, or tossing flies to the long tongues of our reptilian brains; it’s about affirming the self—the 360-degree self: wanting and flawed, selfish and driven, smart-as-Hell and felled by the heart.
Daenerys’s transition from child bride to warlord is cited as one of Game of Thrones’ great feminist accomplishments; still, her rise to power alone doesn’t make her entirely unique, not when most “strong female characters” are exclusively defined through their hyper-competence in their (usually high-powered, always male-dominated) professions. What distinguishes Danerys and her fellow anti-heroines like Carrie, Olivia Pope, Sister Jude from AHS: Asylum or Fiona Goode from AHS: Coven isn’t just her white-knuckled will to power, it’s her struggle with that power—a struggle that aligns her story with the epic questions of justice and vengeance that animate the male protagonists who are lauded for their intellectual, even literary significance. Throughout True Detective’s arc, Rust Cohle searches for his place within the light or the dark; his “to be or not to be?” is, “The world needs bad men. They keep the other bad men from the door.”
When Dany ignores her counselor’s plea to “answer injustice with mercy” and elects to “answer injustice with justice” by crucifying the slavers in a city she’s just sacked, she is keeping the bad men from the door. And so is Carrie, when she determines that the life of one terrorist is worth the lives of thirty-nine innocents. We may not agree that the screams of men whose bodies are wrung out on the cross could ever be justice. We may look at sheet-covered corpses lined up in tidy rows along the smoking earth and think “not in our name.” But we can’t deny that these women’s motivations merit a philosophical parsing-out. Their actions show a nihilistic lack of belief in the idea of redemption and a simultaneous drive to avenge and protect the world.
The emergence of the anti-heroine, the woman who must reconcile her conflicted feelings—her capacity for violence and her desire to make a home in the world—is so important because her stories bear out the breadth and complexity of women’s emotional, ethical and intellectual selves. This is especially meaningful when that old chestnut of “likeability” has become the ever-spinning globe that any female character has to carry on her shoulders. The woman who shrugs it off gets to contain multitudes. She can be like Carrie, a woman who truly loves her baby but can’t be a mother; who devotes her life to the safety of the homeland and violates international law (and her own common sense) to protect a man she shouldn’t love, a would-be terrorist.
The women of Orange is the New Black are drug dealers and armed robbers, accomplices to murder or master racketeers, but the show takes great pains to show them as victims of circumstance, whether those circumstances are social and economic disenfranchisement or simply loving the wrong person. Piper and Poussey, Taystee, and Nichols, or even Crazy Eyes and Red, actually evolve through their fuck-ups and flailing; their vices—anger and greed and impractical appetites—don’t exist to be overcome, they are transformative, chiseling more intricate nuances into the stone of archetype: the spoiled blonde or the streetwise girl, the maniac and the mafia matron.
The second season of OINTB gifted us with Vee, a honey-tongued cartel queen who matches Walter White in ruthless ambition and disregard for devoted underlings. Vee seduces fragile foster kids into serving as her drug runners and isn’t above beating her prison rival half to death with a lock. She is the woman who knocks; every time she enters a room the viewer sucks in her breath, waiting for the latest machination, the freshest Hell. We need women like Vee, women we love to hate or hate to love, because we need women who titillate and terrify us the way that Tony Soprano or Stringer Bell do: When women are excluded from these roles, we are defined in opposition; if we are not the warlord, the troubled-yet-brilliant detective, or the charismatic predator, we are merely the wives, the window-dressing—or the victims.
Perhaps the most important aspect of a post-Brody Homeland is that the heart of the show now beats squarely in Carrie’s chest. Though Brody’s conflicted allegiances between country, family, and the terrorists who turned him (an allegiance not entirely forged from Stockholm Syndrome) made for compelling television, his enduring trauma had begun to usurp the story; Carrie may have been the ostensible lead, but her feelings and reactions too often hinged on Brody’s epic man-pain. His death (and the very public, very graphic, ain’t-no-way-he’s-secretly-alive-and-coming-back method of his execution) puts the emphasis back on Carrie; her decisions are the pistons of the narrative engine. Her reasons and feelings are the philosophical juices in which the show simmers. Homeland’s fourth season offers something that is sadly still radical: a woman protagonist whose victories and transgressions come in equal measure.
Characters like Carrie lead us through the thicket of our darkest selves; they show us that even—no, especially—when we are at our most conniving and callused, our stories have meaning. We can be selfish and wrong-headed. We are allowed to be bad—to be human. And we need more bad women to help the other bad women get through the door.
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