TV's Anti-Heroines Have Plunged Into The Heart Of Darkness

Photo: Courtesy of Zach Dilgard/USA Network.
If there is anything we’ve learned since America installed an allegedly pro-pussy grabbing reality TV show host into the highest political office in the land, it's that women are angry. They’re angry enough to build the Women’s March into an international phenomenon. They’re angry enough to share their #MeToo stories — the kinds of stories that, when brought to light, usually harm the victim more than the abuser — in droves in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. One of them is angry enough to pledge she’ll keep working until she is, at minimum, 90 years old.
During the summer months, we expect that kind of rage to subside; for the dark shrouds of the year to melt into polka dot bikinis and floral dresses. But no such softening is happening on television. June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) is burning down the house on The Handmaid’s Tale as Sharp Objects' Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) guzzles water bottles of vodka to keep from burning her own gothic house of horrors to the ground. The women of Orange Is The New Black cry and plot and claw at each other, and just-returned The Sinner is fronted by a willful woman cult leader, Vera Walker (new addition Carrie Coon), who is entangled in a brutal double homicide.
Although the upcoming fall season might be filled with women-led comedies like I Feel Bad and Single Parents, the hot house flower of that female rage has managed to blossom into an inescapable television juggernaut of summer darkness. While this TV landscape might seem so bleak it could swallow you whole, it might simply be the release we need during the year’s most laid back season.
“Our society’s reacting to a seismic shift in leadership, or lack of leadership depending on how you qualify it,” Carrie Coon told Refinery29 in between filming of The Sinner season 2 finale, reflecting on the ways pop culture has evolved since the 2016 election. “If history had gone another way, I don’t know [that] this awareness, this kind of, I hate to call it a backlash because what it actually is, is a much-needed shift in consciousness. Art has always been political, and anybody who says otherwise is not paying attention.”
After all, many of summer’s dark and fearless women-led new seasons were produced in the aftermath of #MeToo. The Sinner season 2 wasn’t even greenlit until this past March, long after a parade of powerful men were outed as sexual predators. Now Coon’s Vera has washed her hands so deeply of society, she is leading a commune guided by her own ideas of how to change the world for the better, as Coon pointed out. Those ideas may or may not involve a terrifying giant black rock in a secret barn and an old corpse in a lake, as the teaser for the Sinner season 2 shows, but that’s where Vera is right now.
The fact that viewers now immediately accept Vera proves just how long we’ve come from the days of asking if the “twisty” women of TGIT, like Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) and Annalise Keating (Viola Davis), who helped pioneer TV’s recent descent into realistically complex women, were “likable.” We're certainly miles away from the decades where male anti-heroes, and only male anti-heroes, were the de facto leads of prestige TV simply because brooding men were deemed the only people with something worth saying. The best series of 2018 recognize the world is burning around women, and it’s high time we see how they feel about it, no questions asked.

We’re all reading political non-fiction and watching women rage on television.

Carrie Coon
When you look past USA’s The Sinner, you'll see Orange Is The New Black season 6 was in the swing of filming by November, a month after the New York Times’ Weinstein exposé. Marti Noxon’s Dietland was rewritten to serve as a post-reckoning of the story, and the many that came after it. Even Freeform’s breezy The Bold Type, which began filming as winter 2018 turned to spring, tangled with the mechanisms of misogyny and sexual violence more than once this past season.
Coon can see how all of this is connected.
“Normally, you think of summer as the time you take your mystery novel to beach-read,” the actress, who is well-acquainted with darkness after also leading HBO's The Leftovers, said. “We’re just not interested. We’re all reading political non-fiction and watching women rage on television. [It’s] the summer of some much-needed release.”
That release might just be art imitating life. In The Sinner season 2, as we saw in Wednesday’s premiere “Part I,” Vera spends a lot of her time helping her son Julian (Elisha Henig) connect with his dark side. Or, as the Walkers call that alter-ego, “Shadow Julian.” As Coon explains, “The argument they’re making at [Vera’s cult] is, ‘If you can identify those shadow parts of yourself, they’re not going to loom up unannounced. You’ll see them coming. And embrace them.”
By watching this season’s darkest women act out on screen, in the midst of an onslaught of disheartening real-life news items, it’s possible viewers are getting to grapple with their own shadow selves without murdering rapists à la Dietland’s Jennifer or getting caught up in a murder mystery like Vera. Although Coon was talking about archetypes in general when she explained, “They help us identify our strengths and weaknesses and operate more fully as empathetic human beings,” it feels as though she was speaking about characters like Vera and Plum (Dietland’s Joy Nash) and June.
Of course we’ll be able to laugh along with Leighton Meester in Single Parents this fall — the summer is working hard to help audiences exorcise their demons by September.
After watching Coon commune with her darkest parts for years between apocalypse dirge The Leftovers, apocalypse blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War (where she played the darkly-named Proxima Midnight), dark FX comedy Fargo, and, now, The Sinner, it seems even the actress herself if ready to laugh.
“I’m really looking forward to taking a crack at some lighter fare myself,” Coon admitted. “Because my family finds it very strange I’ve been placed in this category of brooding, lugubrious actresses when in fact they think of me as quite light-hearted and my presence on set is quite easy going.”
“I’m eager to show my own complexity as a woman that goes beyond some of those [darker] interests.”
Hopefully the blaze of the summer, along with a couple of positive steps forward in the real world, creates room on our screens for some new complicated, difficult, happy women.
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