Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Have you noticed this?

By and large, the most "original" TV tends to be on cable, yes?*  The shows with the craziest, grittiest characters--it's all Showtime, AMC, HBO, etc.

Yet, for as "groundbreaking" as some of these characters are, more often than not, they have a spouse who is overly suspicious and controlling.

(Mild spoilers ahead.)

I used to think it was just a Dexter phenomenon--Rita, who started out sweet and oddly noble, turned into a suspicious control freak sometime around season 2 and never let up.  Honestly, the transition didn't make a ton of sense, and it always struck me as something that was done to drive the plot.  (I imagine the meetings in the writer's room went like this: Dexter needs time alone to kill people, sooo ... let's make Rita think he's a drug addict and force him into Narcotics Anonymous! Let's make Rita the neediest pregnant lady ever! Let's make make Rita, a former single mother, completely incapable of driving herself to the pharmacy!

And I like Dexter.  I just found it odd that the go-to plot twist was always, "Let's make Rita as unlikeable as we can."

Same phenomenon now that I'm getting into Breaking Bad.  About five episodes in, you have Walt (recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, he decides to use his skills as a chemistry teacher to cook meth as a way to leave a nest egg for his family after his death) acting slightly sketchy, and Skyler (his pregnant wife of 20-something years) acting like a hardened detective off the mean streets of New York. 

Skyler's thought process: Oooh, Walt took a mysterious phone call and pretended it was a telemarketer!  I know what I'll do, I'll *69 it, use a reverse phone directory to look up the owner, google the owner, find his MySpace page, look up his address, and go confront him. 


I debated this with a friend who thought Skyler's reaction was perfectly normal -- Walt was acting like a skeevy little deviant.  I counter with, "Yes, but." 

But she's been married to him for 20 years.

But she has a kid with him and another on the way.

But he's never given her a reason to be suspicious before.

But he's the most mild-mannered dork on the planet -- it's far more likely he's planning a surprise baby shower than anything nefarious.

So why now?  Why turn suspicious and controlling now?  You've obviously trusted him enough up until this point to marry him, stay with him, and have his babies.  So why is a phone call suddenly so very problematic for you?

Oh, that's right.  Because we need the plot to move forward.

The thing that is puzzling to me is that, fundamentally, Rita and Skyler (and Betty Draper from Mad Men and Lori Grimes from Walking Dead and Rick from The Killing and all the rest) are right.  There is something horribly wrong with their significant other (serial killer, meth dealer, identity thief and serial philanderer, chronically emotionally closed off, chronically emotionally closed off and workaholic, respectively).  But their suspicions, whatever they are, never really hit the mark.  (Betty Draper comes closest, but I imagine she always thought Don had one mistress, maybe two--never mind a dozen, never mind a STOLEN IDENTITY.) And because of this, the Suspicious Spouse rarely has the audience's sympathy. 

It kind of makes me want to watch Nurse Jackie, just to see if Nurse Jackie's husband thinks she's secretly running a Ponzi scheme or something.

Have you guys noticed this elsewhere?  A character who should otherwise trust the main character, but for some unstated reason, does not?  And if you have, do you think it worked anyway?

* I am not ripping on network TV.  I love a lot of its programming, particularly Modern Family and Vampire Diaries.  But we all have to admit, comparing Two and a Half Men to It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia just isn't fair to poor Jon Cryer. And let's not even start in on reality programming.


  1. I never understood Rita's change either. Sometimes it's just not the spouse that becomes suddenly suspicious. It's another family member or friend, and it doesn't make sense. Can't the writers think of another way to move the plot forward?

  2. i totally agree with this. the unlikeable wife is more noticable in buddy comedies that i otherwise like (the hangover), but apparently she exists in shows with actual character depth, too.

    also, breaking bad is amazing, and in the current season skyler is my favorite character.

  3. I could understand it some with Rita. Because she'd been through her skeevy ex-husband and was all hormonal and stuff. But I totally agree with what you're saying, especially in the case of Breaking Bad. She's just going to go to all that trouble when her husband has never ever given her a reason not to trust him. Even in the Lifetime movies they usually have a good reason for their suspicions.

  4. I totally agree with you. My favorite part about Breaking Bad is how they make everyone around him, especially Skylar, look like absolute idiots for doing the social norm things, like baby showers or whatever. It's like you are rooting for them to leave Walt alone so he can just make some gdamn meth already. (That same sentiment goes for Dexter)

  5. Sandy - GAH, I *hate* the shrew wife in buddy comedies. Just once I would like to see the wife that's like, "Meh, hope you had fun" when she finds out her husband has been out all night or whatever. If he's an adult, don't act like his mother. If you don't trust him, don't be in a relationship with him. Simple solutions all around.

    Karen - part of me agrees with you (Rita's back story makes her a more suspicious person by nature), except for the fact that Dexter never gave Rita any reason to be suspicious of HIM. In fact, her suspicions started *because* of her ex-husband, the one person she had countless reasons to distrust. And then she remained suspicious and oddly needy even after he had already "proved" himself (as it were).

    Jess - haha, it's so true. And double points for using gdamn, which is pretty much my favorite swear ever.

  6. Um. I didn't realize I had to bring my brain with me and so my response to your question is, "uhhhh ...."

    Yeah. I've got nothin'. But I will say I don't like characters being suspicious just to amp the tension - in books or otherwise.

    ali's blog

  7. I really wish I knew what you were talking about...but I only watch Food Network...sorry Ru.

  8. I think because the broke from the Dexter book series, Rita took a turn.

    In the book series, Rita's son Cody has serial killer tendencies and Dex spends father/son time passing on the serial killer code.

    So--it's easier for him to hide his killer tendencies. It's Daddy and me time...son go sharpen your

    The truth is in the books, Rita was much more broken that the TV series. She was so happy to have a reliable man who didn't beat her, terrorize her or empty her bank account--she asked no questions. Her and Dex in the book rarely had sex because she wasn't interested because of her sexual abuse. And he was only interested after a kill.

    The series made Dex more normal and Rita more normal---but then tried to keep the distance in the relationship---which didn't really work. Which is why they killed her.

    As for Walt's wife, Skyler. She was a bitch from the beginning. She's always thought she was better than Walt. What made him acceptable was that she owned him. She got off on being her disabled son's caregiver and in running Walt's life. She was the Queen of her little world.

    But Walt's movement into the drug world, gave him more confidence. It gave him an interest outside of his family which he never really had before. His whole identity was husband/father.

    She becomes more controlling because Walt starts acting without her permission. And now she knows he is moving outsider her thumb.

    The undercurrents were always there.

    But what do I know? I just watch the shows.



  9. The Vampire Diaries and Modern Family premiere this week and I imagine you are just as excited as I am. Yay!

  10. Maybe it's because I'm a Brit - but I didn't understand a word of that! Never heard of any of the shows, don't know any of the characters. But if I get your drift.... is it always a female character who's controlling and suspicious? Cos if that's the case I don't think I like the sound of it.

  11. I completely agree, it's as if characters are used as a crutch for the plot instead of characters developing naturally and pulling readers/watchers into the plot that way.

    I had that same convo with a friend the other day regarding books. Hmph.

  12. Tirzah - I'm only about 12 episodes in, and so far your analysis seems pretty accurate. However, a friend did tell me when I started that in his opinion, Walt suffers from narcissistic personality disorder (he always thinks he's the smartest person in the room), but he's repressed it until cancer gave him the excuse to be the giant jerk he always wanted to be. (IE, why he turned down his friend's charity, which would have solved all his problems.) I think that could be equally possible, maybe both are right?

    Either way, I'm clearly addicted. Oh Netflix, what have you done?

    Alexis - sooo excited :)

    Morning AJ - it's not *always* the female character, but usually. Most of these "gritty" characters tend to be male (with the exception of Sarah Linden on The Killing), so their female significant other is reduced to a plot-driver by their suspicion. Laaaame.

    (And yet I still love all the TV shows I listed ... weird.)