Television this summer has been preoccupied with a timely question: How far will women go when systems fail them?
https://www.theatlantic.com-By Sophie Gilbert
Apple TV+; Taro Yamasaki / FX; Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic
There’s something about John Paul Williams, the deceased nucleus of the new Apple TV+ show Bad Sisters, played with gleeful intensity by the Danish actor Claes Bang. Bang’s typical role is a thinking person’s toxic crush; he simmers with intellectual self-satisfaction in the art-world satire The Square and indulges in casual fratricide and a spot of naked, fiery volcano-side wrestling in the recent Viking epic The Northman. But in Bad Sisters, Bang offers up a villain who’s sadistic, yes, and controlling, cruel, abusive, petty—truly a tapestry of spousal shittiness—but also disgusting. His masculinity is so pernicious that it almost festers. Watching him, you might feel small spasms of repulsion and rage, relics of muscle memory from bad men gone by.
Not to mention that John Paul leaves the toilet unflushed and sniffs perpetually from a bottle of sinus spray kept in his pocket; he buttons his pajamas all the way up to the top and flashes his teeth like a shark when he hurts people. The crux of Bad Sisters, a semi-comic murder caper, is that John Paul is so awful, he has to die; there are simply no other options. The show is part of a trend that I want to call the summer of discontent: works about women forced to go rogue when systems—social services, courts, families—fail them. In the HBO documentary The Janes, activists recall organizing in 1970s Chicago to provide “safe, affordable, illegal abortions” for other women in their community rather than see one more person butchered in a back-alley job. FX’s Children of the Underground is a five-part documentary series about the charismatic, flawed activist Faye Yager, who in the 1980s ran an outfit that helped women and children flee from alleged sexual abusers. Next month, The Handmaid’s Tale returns for a fifth season on Hulu, with a hero facing the consequences of drastic action she took to bring her abuser to “justice.”
Against a backdrop of ambient powerlessness and seemingly invisible rage, these works carry more weight than they should have to. In July, the writer Lux Alptraum published an op-ed in The New York Times titled “Women, the Game Is Rigged. It’s Time We Stop Playing by the Rules.” Alptraum makes the case for “a feminism of disempowerment” that rejects the legitimacy of existing systems in favor of unconventional, unsanctioned, and even illegal alternatives. Clearly, this isn’t to say that murder is the answer. But Bad Sisters, you could argue, suits a certain prevailing mood: John Paul is written to trigger every viewer who’s ever felt trapped under the sole of someone else’s size-10 boot. The show takes an age-old premise—man turns torturing woman into sport—and inverts it. We find out in the first episode that John Paul will die, but not how, and over 10 episodes, Bad Sisters circles his eventual end like water in a drain. The satisfaction of watching comes from knowing that he’s in our sights. Reprisal is rarely so reliable in life.
You can imagine Bad Sisters being pitched as an Irish Big Little Lies: The houses are oversize and seaside, and the atmosphere roils with the turbulence of open water and domestic strife. Sharon Horgan—the producer and writer behind Catastrophe, Divorce, Motherland, and other tales of midlife disaffection—adapted the series from a soapy Belgian drama called Clan, keeping both its central premise and its maudlin humor. In the show’s first scene, Grace Williams (played by Anne-Marie Duff) stands weeping over the open casket of John Paul, her late husband. She tenderly strokes his face, then, as her eyes move downward, starts when she notices distinct tumescence in his pajama pants. “The dead prick,” her sister Bibi (Sarah Greene) says later. “Postmortem priapism isn’t uncommon after a violent death,” Ursula (Eva Birthistle), a nurse, pipes up. Eva (Horgan) adds nothing, but viewers have already witnessed her palpable satisfaction at seeing the body of her late brother-in-law, who, it turns out, tortured all her sisters in one way or another.
In flashbacks that follow, a fuller portrait of John Paul emerges: less a man than a monster patched together from spite and malevolence, with a hefty dash of cringe. At a family dinner for the holidays, he casually calls Eva a spinster; he warns his daughter to watch what she eats lest she “end up the size of your cousin”; he shouts at his sweet nephew; he refers to his wife repeatedly as “Mammy.” With Grace, in private, his behavior is overtly controlling. In one scene, he pours her a drink, then tells her she’s had too much to drive to a prearranged swim with her sisters. He slams a door Grace is holding on to, hurting her arm, then berates her for making a scene. “We’re losing her,” Eva tells her sisters later about Grace. “She’s getting quieter and smaller.” Their unfettered exuberance as they float in the open water stands in sharp contrast to Grace’s confinement.
The setup of Bad Sisters is deliberately absurd, a throwback to sillier shows such as Desperate Housewives and Why Women Kill. The ease with which the Garvey sisters decide to kill John Paul, and their resoluteness when their attempts repeatedly and catastrophically fail, are pure fantasy. Barely do they try reasoning with Grace, who suffers and senses more than even her siblings see. The point isn’t to weigh the show’s ethical considerations or the practical concerns of committing homicide; it’s to feel, fleetingly, as trapped as Grace, as furious as Bibi, as manipulated as Ursula, as murderous as Eva, and to understand that there are no good, rational, pragmatic ways out. “Surely we just explain what he did,” Ursula says toward the end of the series. “Yeah, let’s try that,” Eva replies. “’Cause that always works for women.”
Her skepticism is fair, as Children of the Underground might attest. The documentary series, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish) and Ted Gesing, is rooted in the late ’80s and ’90s, when daytime talk shows ruled the airwaves, patriarchy ruled the justice system, and American culture still hadn’t fully accepted the existence, let alone the regularity, of child abuse. With shocking frequency, the series reveals, women who fought to prove that their partners were molesting their children were forced by judges in family court to cede custody to those same alleged abusers. (Judges often viewed the mothers making accusations as paranoid and hysterical, and the fathers as composed, upright pillars of their community.) Many women turned for help to Faye Yager, a housewife in Atlanta who’d established an underground network to assist mothers fleeing with their children.
The series, much like Bad Sisters, suffers somewhat from sprawl—both works could be twice as concise without losing much, and both are padded with ancillary activity that slows momentum. But Children of the Underground also benefits from its timing. When the system feels rigged, the show asks, what ends are justified in protecting the people you love? It’s not hard to draw a line from the prosecutors jailing women for having miscarriages to the judges in Yager’s day who ignored medical records and sent kids back to the same parents who’d given them an STD. In both cases, what’s mandated and what’s just seem utterly at odds.
Still, there’s usually fallout for taking the law into one’s own hands. On Bad Sisters, the characters’ violent attempts at revenge have grim consequences. The desire for vengeance, The Handmaid’s Tale has long suggested, is as corrosive as the desire for power. Children of the Underground demonstrates how Yager became so in thrall to her own legend that she overreached, losing herself in conspiratorial fantasies of ritualistic abuse and getting sued by one father who even Yager acknowledged hadn’t abused his children. When I watched The Janes earlier this summer, what was most striking in retrospect was the kind of ethical symbiosis between the illicit abortion network it describes and the police who—mostly—turned a blind eye. Yes, abortion was illegal, both sides acknowledged, but it was also necessary, whether people wanted to admit it publicly or not. Roe v. Wade was momentous for many reasons; as it happens, it also insulated the women of the Jane Collective from legal consequences. They were extraordinarily lucky.
These shows contain warnings, but more than that, they offer the transportive fantasy of opting out of systems that have such manifold shortcomings. There’s something comforting, right now, about the idea of an abstract sisterhood of grievance. And if this spate of works does nothing else, it captures a feeling that can’t be denied. “If the legal route is not protecting your child,” a mother says in Children of the Underground, “then as a parent, you’d better do the next best thing and … get that child to safety.” Possibly something illegal, something terrifying and consequential. But also: the next best thing. The only option that isn’t giving up altogether.
Sophie Gilbert is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was a finalist for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Criticism.