Why Michelle Dockery's Good Behavior Role Matters

Photo: Courtesy of TNT.
“Are you mad? You look mad,” an American-accented Michelle Dockery says 29 minutes into the series premiere of Good Behavior. She delights in this confrontation, savoring each word more than the last, and whatever idea you have of Dockery shuffling into eternity as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey is swallowed whole. Words like these are not found in the dictionaries of British gentlewomen. No, these words are fighting words, the kind that get you labeled an “antihero” when you’re a lead character. But to assume Dockery's character Letty is that is too easy, too reductive, and possibly just plain wrong.

If a hero is someone who is brave in the face of danger, smart in the back alley of trouble, and ethical when it really, really counts, it’s hard to argue Letty is anything but. Her list of accomplishments may range from pickpocket to junkie, but within 45 minutes of meeting her, we see her risk her life to save a stranger’s. She may break more laws than are worth counting in the process, but this sort of contradiction does not make her an antihero as much as it makes her a fully formed, if TV-ready, character.

Part of the problem is the term “antihero” is overused by viewers and critics of prestige television. It's become a catchall for protagonists whose flaws are too deep, dark, and numerous to be dismissed as quirky, suggesting a resistance to complexity. For any character who dares to suggest good and bad are not a binary but a continuum, there are four ready-made walls waiting in the wings. And it’s this type of black-and-white thinking, which — let’s face it — we are all susceptible to, that Good Behavior challenges.

“The show is really about human behavior,” Michelle Dockery tells me from Santa Fe, NM, where she’s filming her next project. “It asks questions: ‘What is good behavior?’ ‘What is bad behavior?’ ‘What makes a person good and what makes a person bad?’ It’s observational — there are no morals in this story.”

This sort of complexity is what drew Dockery to the show in the first place. Letty is an ex-con and present-day addict who is obsessed with self-improvement, listening to affirmations like, “Today, I feel good. I have a lot to be proud of. I am the best me I can be.” She wants to be the best version of herself, so she can regain custody of her son, but this is not necessarily in line with society’s limited idea of good — not to mention what it means to be a good mother.

“She has this personality where it’s never enough. Normality is not enough,” Dockery says. “She tries so hard. She’s constantly trying to be a better mother to her son, but it’s not enough. She doesn’t want to be a drug dealer; she doesn’t want to be an alcoholic. She tries to better herself, but what she's really trying to do is survive and get through life. Her way of finding those moments of extremity is through deception and thieving.”

Trying and failing is what makes Letty relatable. The show’s creator and executive producer Chad Hodge says he’s pushing the boundary not only of what's acceptable but also what viewers can relate to. And when people connect to someone behaving so outwardly bad, it can create a sense of discomfort.

“I’ve heard from a few people that they’ve seen the first three episodes, and they’re like, ‘Wait is it really weird that I totally relate to her?’” he says. “There’s something that comes up for people — I think it’s a personal thing for everybody, where they connect to her — but at some point, pretty early on, people identify with her. We’re all going through struggles of our own, trying to figure out who we are and what’s the best version of us and how we associate with society.”

Ultimately, Good Behavior puts one of life’s big questions — what is good? — front and center. Letty’s role in that question does not make her an antihero as much as it makes her a nuanced character, which is to say a good (as in fully realized) character. This is something television, a medium that has a history of favoring mind-numbing consistency, has only begun to tackle over the last two decades. And why shouldn't we welcome it when there are shows like Good Behavior and characters like Letty to greet us?

Good Behavior
premieres November 15 at 10/9c on TNT. Watch the trailer below.
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