Back in the 1990s, in the days before streaming services gave us television on demand, we all rushed home to watch Melrose Place. The following day we’d gather around water coolers or school lockers to express our delight at the antics of the show’s women. Perpetual ‘Special Guest Star’ Heather Locklear, who played the heartless Amanda Woodward, provided most of the transgressions, although, at various times throughout the series’ run, she had help from any number of the other female cast regulars. The more outrageous the behavior, the more we were hooked. Without these naughty ladies Melrose Place would have been a turgid mess.
The new pan-Scandinavian series, Black Widows, sets the bar on female bad behavior pretty high, pretty early. Before the opening credits have even rolled on Episode 1, we witness three anti-heroines, Rebeka (Cecilia Forss), Johanne (Synnøve Macody Lund), and Kira (Beate Bille), stand by, dispassionately, as the boat their husbands have gone fishing in explodes not far from the pier. As the flames rise, they smile elusively and drink champagne in a moment of controlled congratulations.
Is it shocking to see that Rebeca, Johanne, and Kira barely bat an eyelash at the calamity they have caused; that they return to their homes in Sweden liberated, and able to simply continue living? Women have been behaving badly on our screens since the frothy days of Dynasty and Dallas. Other primetime soap operas like Melrose Place passed the baton to Desperate Housewives,and now, in the Golden Age of Television, the morally transgressing woman is ubiquitous and near mandatory to a program’s success. Her presence is a marker of serious art, not camp, as it so often was in these earlier shows. From Brenda Chenowith (Rachel Griffiths) in Six Feet Under to Lena Dunham’s Girls, to Edie Falco’s Nurse Jackie, and Robin Wright’s ice-cold turn as Claire Underwood in House of Cards, quality TV keeps giving us women who push the envelope of acceptability into fuzzy grey zones.
Black Widows sits comfortably in the space between soapy overstatement and dark drama. It lightens some of its shadows with humour. But there is also complexity. While these three, highly photogenic best friends seem to have perfect lives on the surface, the voiceover that opens the first episode, and the images we see when they later recount the events leading up to the ‘accident’ to the Norwegian investigator, Peter Wesselø (Kyrre Hellum), suggest something very different. Through these dissonant storytelling devices, Black Widows pokes a hole in the idea of marital bliss and female perfection, irrevocably breaking these fairytale images so there is no going back.
All of television’s transgressive women shatter similar cultural myths – that women are nurturers, selfless, and born people pleasers. Female characters that transgress, especially via murder, step right out of these roles into something else. Black Widows also smashes that old adage that women kill quietly with poisons; here they use explosive devices and revel in the smoke and ashes. We are now accustomed to the idea that women on television can be as bad as their male counterparts, maybe even worse. While they misbehave within the context of storylines pushed to the extreme, it’s an important representational challenge to the rigidity of so-called proper gender roles. Rebecka, Johanne, and Kira demonstrate a total lack of remorse and we buy into it from the start with only the barest outline of what their husband’s did to deserve it.
Maybe, in the end, our enjoyment in these transgressions says more about us than it does them.
Black Widows is streaming now on SBS On Demand. Watch the first episode here: