Written by Hannah Dunleavy


The antagony and the ecstasy

Two-dimensional bitches (think Alexis Carrington) have been a telly staple for years. But finally we’re getting three-dimensional female antagonists. Get in, says Hannah Dunleavy.

Liv Tyler as The Leftovers' Meg Abbott. Photo: HBO.

Liv Tyler as Meg Abbott in The Leftovers. Photo: HBO.

The runaway success of Scandi-drama has left an indelible mark on UK television and not just because most title sequences now have esoteric music and close-up shots of sundry items.

No, Sarah Lund & co’s lasting legacy is that, when the Great British Viewing Public didn’t all puke up our tea at the thought of a female lead, British TV commissioning types slowly remembered that, hang on, didn’t we all rather like Prime Suspect too? And suddenly Sarah Lancashire, Gillian Anderson et al are in our living rooms being splendid. Thank you Scandinavia.

Even long-lost ITV – you heard me – has managed to kick out two thoroughly commendable female-led dramas: Scott & Bailey and Unforgotten (#TomCourtenayForTheBafta).

So, what is this? A Golden Age for women on television? Usual cynicism notwithstanding, I suspect it might be, but not because of what’s happening with our heroines. Instead, what links all the last year’s best dramas is that they have been driven by a female antagonist.

This is nothing new though, right? There’s been loads of great female baddies on TV before, haven’t there?

Well, yes and no. Amy Madigan was full-on spooky as serenely evil Iris in HBO’s gone-too-soon Carnivàle. And I’ve a lingering antipathy for The Wire‘s De’Londa Brice (Sandi McCree) who was such a terrible human being it was hard not to scratch out your eyes when she was on screen. But these were limited roles in huge ensembles.

“Why has it been so hard to find decent female antagonists on screen? Well, much like with real-life badness, it’s all about the means, the motive and the opportunity.”

More integral to the action was the fictional world’s most joyless and vindictive mother, The Sopranos‘ Livia. Both a psychological and a physical threat to Tony, she was sadly prematurely defeated by the death of actor Nancy Marchand. Although, all credit to her and creator David Chase; Livia’s ghost haunted the series for years.

Other memorable ‘bad girls’ of recent years, for example Polly Walker’s frankly splendid Atia of the Julii in Rome and Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), aren’t strictly antagonists, but protagonists with a truly vile soul.

This means that, previous to the current wave of dangerous women on TV, only Margo Martindale’s folksy Mags Bennett who made series two of Justified  such an unqualified success, stands out in recent years (in my mind at least) as a three-dimensional female antagonist in a leading role with a satisfactory story arc.*

*Fun though Luther’s Alice might be, she’s too dependent on those old ‘baddie’ staples of sex and money to be three-dimensional.

So, why has it been so hard to find decent female antagonists on screen? Well, much like with real-life badness, it’s all about the means, the motive and the opportunity.

When so much (read too much) television drama is based around violent crime, female antagonists lack the means. Most violent crime is committed by men. Yes, some women do terrible things, but if a maverick cop is tracking someone bashing people in with a hammer, it’s highly unlikely we’re looking for a woman.

Line of Duty's Lindsay Denton (Keeley Hawes): "a triumph of well-sketched backstory". Photo: Steffan Hill/World Productions.

Line of Duty’s Lindsay Denton (Keeley Hawes). Photo: Steffan Hill/World Productions.

The reasons that women commit violent crime are also different to men and the people they kill and the way they kill them isn’t always the stuff of action-packed telly.

It’s also precisely because such crimes rarely exist in a vacuum that if you want to put a female character into this world and make her in any way believable, she has to have a reason she’s doing it. A motive.

Lindsay Denton, currently antagonising the hell out of Line of Duty, is a triumph of well-sketched backstory. The unusual structure of the series – it changes cast (with a few exceptions) every season – means Denton didn’t just arrive as a major character, she arrived as the main one, and survives in series three as an antagonist extraordinaire.

We know who she used to be: an average, law-abiding Jo who did the wrong thing, for what she thought were the right reasons** and we know who she is now. Yes, it makes her more sympathetic, but we’re not asked to like her. In fact, any mixed emotions about Denton – for me certainly – stem from the fact that her ability to plan long-term and think on her feet make her both incredibly dangerous and incredibly easy to admire.

** Obligatory Frank Sobotka reference here.

It’s a gift of a role for an against-type Keeley Hawes, who is so imposing Google has only recently disabused me of the notion that she is at least six feet tall. Long may she continue to be a pain in the balls. In every sense.

Unlike Denton, who arrives with actual suitcases of backstory, Happy Valleys Frances Drummond – Shirley Henderson exuding menace – is more opaque. A 40-something woman groomed into junking her life for a fantasy existence as an incarcerated killer’s moll.

Happy Valley's Frances Drummond (Shirley Henderson). Photo: Red Productions.

Happy Valley‘s Frances Drummond (Shirley Henderson). Photo: Red Productions.

What drives her is harder to firmly grasp. Highly charged though those prison meetings with James Norton’s Tommy Lee Royce were, I couldn’t shake the idea that what she was actually getting off on was not sleeping with him.

Although Mike Taylor’s reaction is pity and even Catherine Cawood gets to a point where she sees Drummond’s story as “sad”, what the viewer feels about her is up for grabs. Despite teasing that her aim might be violence, the damage inflicted on the Cawood family was psychological. The sort of damage so often seen on TV as the poor cousin, when in fact, it has potentially to be much more harmful in the long term.

In the end, it didn’t matter who Drummond was, the very point was that a corrupting force plus social isolation often produces the most horrific results. We can never really know what anyone is capable of, given the right circumstances.

Similarly, prison drama Orange is the New Black is ideally suited to showing the many and varied reasons women turn to crime. Its setting, plus its heavy use of flashbacks, should be a perfect storm of means, motive and opportunity. But while it’s produced all manner of female antagonists, it’s been to varying degrees of success. (For my money, Aleida Diaz is the true baddie in OITNB.)

Often, the series has denied its characters the opportunity. Seemingly unredeemable people are permitted a turnaround as if we can’t bear to believe that this woman could be that bad. Pennsatucky, for example, rapidly moved from life-threatening to light relief – a fate echoed by a similarly ‘unforgivable’ character in the sporadically brilliant Orphan Black (Tatiana Maslany: what a fucking star). It’s particularly grating in what are, to all extents and purposes, two of the most feminist things on TV.

Both could take a lesson in giving characters the opportunity to run a bit wild from The Leftovers, which has most of the best female characters on TV, full stop. Fittingly for a series which is twice as good as anything else on TV, its second season had not one excellent female antagonist, but two. (Happy Valley Season 2 had a second female antagonist, Vicky Fleming, but her time was too brief for her to be considered a major character, hence I’ve not included her here.)

The premise of the series is ideal for the creation of badness as it has means and motive dealt with in a single event. An unexplained phenomenon has caused two per cent of the world’s population to disappear, putting the entire human race into mourning and pushing extremes of character and behaviour into the mainstream.

In series one, our protagonist Kevin Garvey is harassed by The Guilty Remnant, a chain-smoking cult headed by the often-silent Patti Levin (played with relish by Ann Dowd). They’re a vindictive, mindless lot who might not threaten Garvey’s life, but certainly threaten almost every individual aspect of it. Their ability to soak up near endless levels of abuse, anger and violence, make them a distinctly ominous presence and Patti a highly effective antagonist.

The Leftovers' Patti Levin (Ann Dowd). Photo: HBO.

Patti Levin (Ann Dowd). Photo: HBO.

But what makes her so different – and indeed superior – to many other TV characters is that she has the opportunity to go so much further. Midway through the first series an act of violence – probably the most horrendous I’ve seen on TV – occurs on Patti’s orders***. She finds a way to justify it, even excuse it, to herself. But we can’t ever forget it – or forgive it.

*** Patti doesn’t carry out the act, but not because she’s a woman, but because she’s in charge. The group that does carry it out is not visible, but almost certainly contains women.

In the perfect second series, Patti (let’s say, for the sake of being as spoiler-free as possible) evolves, but remains a daily threat to Kevin’s sanity, inevitably putting his life at risk too.

Now able to talk, indeed rarely shutting up, we’re introduced to something new – her personality. She’s pretty funny and Dowd and Justin Theroux are terrific together. Watching her slowly unravel Kevin’s mind while singing Rick Astley was the weirdest, most wonderful thing. But forgive her? Like her? Trust her? Never. It’s not for nothing than Patti Levin is wedged into Kevin’s brain. He feels a lot of things towards her – even, at points, compassion – but above all, she scares him. And she bloody well should.

But then, so should the second series’ other force for bad: Meg Abbott. Meg’s probably had less screentime than almost any other female antagonist I’ve mentioned in this piece, but she’s easily the strongest. This is down to a few things; the shifting focus of the series, some brilliantly economic writing and an absolutely belting performance by Liv Tyler.

“Yes, some women do terrible things, but if a maverick cop is tracking someone bashing people in with a hammer, it’s highly unlikely we’re looking for a woman.”

Let’s deal with the last point first, as it’s perhaps the most striking. Tyler’s not so much playing against type as redefining her career. Nothing she’s done previously suggested she’d be able to produce such a calm and collected malevolence, including a face-off with Christopher Eccleston that ranks as one of the best two-handers TV’s ever given us.

Meg’s also capable of enormous cruelty, often aimed at traditionally ‘no-go for women’ groups, such as children. She also strays into areas often seen as male, including the rape – for the want of a better word – of a vulnerable male character.

What makes this so believable is that what motivates her is clear, and goes beyond the ‘the world sort of ended’ unease that drives so much of the plot. Other things have happened to bring her here. But aside from all that, a quick delve into her past also reveals Meg has always been like this. It’s in her nature to be cold, to be ruthless, to be relentless. It makes her powerful and, since it comes with an ideology, increasingly hard to defeat.

So are Meg, Denton, Drummond and Patti the result of a turning tide in writing for female antagonists? I hope so. Women might not, statistically, be the instigators of violence, but we’re not saints either. And if television is beginning to reflect that, more power to those bad girls’ elbows.

Check out Hannah’s Line of Duty blog here. Contains spoilers.
Enough about the baddies – do today’s comic-book heroines fare any better? Debra-Jane Appelby opens up the fridge of shame here.


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Written by Hannah Dunleavy

Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.