“Ain’t bitches supposed to be like, lifting each other up these days?”
The above is not quite a feminist manifesto, but it’s the closest the women of Good Girls are likely to get. Currently airing its third season, the NBC drama centers on three working-class women—Beth (Christina Hendricks), Ruby (Retta) and Annie (Mae Whitman)—who find themselves drawn deep into the criminal underbelly of their Michigan suburb after desperation leads them to rob a cartel-controlled grocery store.
The show, now in its third season on NBC, is tense, engaging and often fun, but it is so often marked by hubris that it’s difficult to resist the temptation to compare it to Mad Men or Breaking Bad. The difference is that Good Girls has three leads, and only one of them (Beth) is Walter White. Much of the show is centered around their ongoing deadly tango with the terrifyingly attractive Rio (Manny Montana). The women quickly move from trying to extricate themselves from a dangerous situation to voluntarily getting in deeper when the opportunity for a bigger payout presents itself. It’s the classic “too big to fail” dilemma of most anti-heroes on television. As viewers, we’ve agreed to the bargain that our protagonists are the heroes, no matter who gets hurt because of their actions, a classic antihero dilemma.
But what sets Beth, Ruby, and Annie apart is their genuine desire to simply provide for their families. Their individual stories more than explain why the risks they entertain seem worth it at the moment, and why each compounded complication comes as such a blow. In Season 1, Beth has just discovered that her witless husband Dean (Matthew Lillard) is not only having an affair but has taken out mortgages against their house that he cannot pay. They and their four children are close to homelessness. Ruby and her husband Stan (Reno Wilson) are working low wage jobs trying to support two children, one of whom is close to dying from kidney disease. Annie, Beth’s younger sister, is struggling not to lose custody of her teenager to her ex-husband and his new wife.
What starts as suburban hijinks quickly becomes a twisted Lean In fantasy in which The Man™ is Rio, and the machine these women must make themselves indispensable to is his inescapable criminal enterprise. They get good at being criminals because their lives and the lives of their loved ones are on the line. For Annie, the stakes are small and simple. Despite her dysfunctional life and inability to truly grow up or mature emotionally, she loves her child. Raising and advocating for a transgender son without any real resources is no small feat, yet she manages to do what she can on her meager budget because she has no choice. But the simplicity of the circumstances is part of what makes her choices so confounding. In a concrete sense, these women are just poor. They’re a few of the millions of Americans for whom money would solve all their problems. But they don’t have any and can’t get any, so they simply take some. Theft is obviously a crime, but can anyone be blamed for not wanting their child to die from a treatable disease or be put out onto the street? Empowerment here—that nebulous, near meaningless pop feminist term—means a willingness to break the law and justify it on moral grounds for the sake of survival.
The frustrating aspect of the story is how many times the women have the option to escape, but choose not to. Beth in particular—the clear ringleader—drives the women deeper into trouble at each junction. Like Breaking Bad’s Walter White, she grows to love the power that being great at something affords her, even as it threatens the very things she purportedly set out to protect. Her bullheadedness puts her and the other women in the crosshairs of FBI Agent Jimmy Turner (James Lesure), and it’s here where things get particularly sticky. Stan, whose lifelong dream is to become a police officer, finally joins their ranks, but then he’s forced to tamper with evidence to keep the women out of jail, directly leading to his suspension. For much of Season 2, Ruby and Stan’s relationship unravels, as they make hard choices about which of their loved ones to sacrifice to keep their children safe. It becomes clear that despite Beth’s cocksure attitude, it is her best friend Ruby and her family who are bearing the brunt of the backlash, and it’s a glaring issue that the show only tangentially addresses.
With Ruby and Stan as the only black family of the main three, they are uniquely vulnerable to police pressure. Turner (also black) knows that the possibility of having their kids taken away is a real and likely consequence of getting tangled up in the law, and he pushes until he loses his leverage. Even as the show marches on, it is Ruby and Stan’s relationship that continues to take hits. What began as an honest, loving partnership that faced hardships together became a fractured marriage marred by distrust, shame, and guilt. It’s been hard seeing how much they’ve struggled to come back together, especially given that Ruby is one of the few fat protagonists on television whose love life doesn’t center on her weight.
As infuriating as Beth’s decisions often are, they make a measure of sense. She is a woman and homemaker with little to no marketable skills outside the home. She married her high school sweetheart and had four children in quick succession. Then the foundation of her life was demolished when she discovered her husband’s many betrayals. Given those facts, it’s easier to see how she could get a little drunk on the power. The pride she feels at figuring out how to meet Rio’s increasingly difficult demands is apparent. A housewife isn’t supposed to be able to hold her own against a crime lord. But pride comes before the fall. Each time Beth is arrogant enough to think she can strike out on her own, Rio rises like a specter to haunt them and remind her that she isn’t the one running the show.
Conversely, Walter White’s descent into power-hungry madness was always about a dream deferred. He could have been somebody but wasn’t. Becoming Heisenberg was his way to reclaim the glory he felt he deserved and the life he thought he would have had. For Beth, it’s a new dream entirely: self-sufficiency. The allure of being able to provide for herself and her children was too seductive to pass up. She never thought she’d be anybody, but suddenly she found that she was. Why would anyone give that up? All that really separates them is a sense of entitlement to the lives they want.
Incrementally, the women have gone from robbery to money laundering to printing counterfeit dollar bills, an escalating series of charges that make it harder and harder for them to go back to their quiet, miserable lives. Each lie leads to a body that leads them deeper into trouble and back again. And as it turns out, none of the women have the constitution to do the dirty work of actually being criminals. But they do it anyway because they no longer have a choice. It’s easy to root for Beth, Ruby, and Annie because their problems are real. They are reflective of the real issues that lots of American families are facing. Each one is precariously on the brink of financial ruin with few good options for relief. But need is better than greed, and it’s greed that’s gotten them so far in over their heads.