Dennis Broe discusses various depictions of working-class women in Wanted, Bitter Daisies, and Mare of Easttown
In large parts of the world anywhere between 50 and 70 percent of women are now actively engaged in the workplace, with most earning less than men and many performing the essential service and caring jobs that keep their societies running. This doesn’t include the nearly 100 percent of women whose domestic labour is unpaid and whose work in all the activities of reproduction (childrearing, cooking, cleaning) is still officially labelled ‘unproductive’.
Three series from across the globe, all falling into the crime genre, spotlight the ways working-class women make sense of the world and contend with a patriarchy which everywhere besets them. Wanted (Netflix) from Australia features two women who meet by chance and must take flight together in a version of Thelma and Louise that is much more class-conscious than the original. Bitter Daisies (Netflix) follows a police investigator as she burrows ever deeper into a sex ring that exposes the layers of male violence in the desolate Spanish province of Galicia. And, finally, Mare of Easttown (HBO/Sky Atlantic) presents the dense web of familial and social relationships in a Pennsylvania ex-mining town, centered around an anything-but star turn by Kate Winslet as a cop trying to solve the murder of a young girl in the town while keeping her family together.
Wanted’s Women on the Run
The set-up for Wanted is exquisite. Lola is an aging cashier who has no love for her menial job, sassing her employer and walking off the job when she feels like it. Chelsea is a young accountant at a corporate firm with a rich father who longs to assert herself in a job in which she remains faceless. They cross each other because both wait at an otherwise deserted bus station each midnight but would have never spoken except that they suddenly find themselves in the middle of a drug deal gone wrong involving a crooked cop.
In defending them Lola proves adept with a gun, resulting in a death and necessitating them fleeing together with the money from the drug deal, pursued by both the dealers and the police who are also in on the deal. The series, on Australian independent television, lasted three seasons – it was hoped Netflix would pick it up for a fourth but it did not – and over those three seasons the show highlighted various kinds and degrees of corrupt cops, mostly male but finally in the last season also a female corrupt cop who ultimately proves to be understanding of their situation.
The actual subject of the series is the relationship forged between the adamantly working- class Lola, whose family is no stranger to Australian prisons, and the privileged Chelsea who longs to break out of a patterned luxurious life that she simply inherited and that ultimately confines and limits her. Lola is ingenious at manoeuvring in the margins of the law, while Chelsea proves herself adept at manipulating a financial system which is set against them.
In each of the three seasons there is a moment at the end of the season where they acknowledge what they mean to each other. The series is touchingly about a difficult friendship forged in the midst of an impossible situation where each comes to admire the gifts of the other while accepting their faults.
Thelma and Louise was a first blow in the direction of female friendship formed through a challenging of the patriarchy, where the open road offered a vision of freedom, though it didn’t stress class differences and ended in tragedy as the only possible ending for such an encounter. In contrast, Wanted ends its three-season run on a tragic note involving Chelsea but with the two together and finding solitude in the beaches of Southern Australia while securing the deserved gains of their adventure. That they find solace together and don’t need to go over a cliff is an acknowledgement within the genre that the outlook for female emancipation has changed. It is now a more than a remote possibility and with #MeToo the potential for fulfillment may be increasing both in the crime genre and in the world at large.
Bitter Daisies and Establishment male power in the sex trade
Bitter Daisies is set in the rough northwest province in Spain of Galicia, known for hosting the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage across its mountainous terrain. The native Galego language is spoken in this series about a “newbie” female detective sent to the town by the Guardia Civil to solve the disappearance of a young girl against the background of the pope’s visit to the faithful. The detective Rosa follows a trail that leads to several murders in what appears to be a Jeffrey Epstein, Eyes Wide Shut ring involving at the lower level in the first season several of the men of the town. Rosa’s investigation is a way of exposing the web of male power that leaves the town’s young women as prey, and there is even at least a hint that the pope, whose visit delays and obscures the investigation because of the commotion, is tacitly a part of that male power. The first season also centers around a prostitution nightclub and Rosa’s forays into it in disguise have a prurient element but also partake of a Spanish, Almodovaresque flair for costuming and sex as female power.
Rosa proves herself an able detective in her pursuit of the underlings who connive and murder to arrange and then clean up a debauched “party” for the region’s elite. Rosa is driven by a personal loss and a mystery that she is attempting to unearth and that may be related to the larger mystery. It is the subject of the ‘bitter daisies’ of the title which show up at what seems to be a burial site. The series is particularly adept at unearthing the layers of corruption engulfing the region and obscuring her investigation. One final reveal at the end of season one, where the lead female’s mental condition evokes and then far outstrips that of the counter-intelligence agent in Homefront, is entirely unnecessary and an arbitrary impugning of her skills.
The show became a global hit, reaching a place in the Top Ten most watched non-English language shows in the U.K. The second season promised the detective returning to the area and this time investigating the actual web of elite men of the region who are participants in the sex ring involving young girls. The budget is bigger in season two, culminating in a lavish crowded party scene in the finale. The problem is hypocrisy: in the second season the tendency toward titillation, evident in the first season, continually vies for attention with a condemnation of this exploitation.
There is a particular scene in which a young B&D Spanish mistress, who in order to pile on the fetishized layers also dresses in a kimono and goes by the Asian name of Huichi, when the detective leaves after questioning her, lingers in her dungeon, flexing her whip and glaring at the camera. Who is this for if not the men (and women?) in the audience to enjoy the same kind of practices that the show accuses the rich and powerful of engaging in? The season culminates in an apocalyptic party scene which is again a combination of exploitation/revenge which speaks to male and female audiences in those two respective registers. In general, though, the exploration of a net of power relations in season two falls prey itself, ironically, to a need to grab global (male) audiences.
The season focuses again mainly on the functionaries arranging the fete, though there is significant attention paid to the young women who are to be the victims of it. This focus for the most part conceals the identities of those masked exploiters at the party, and so much of the critique of season one instead of being deepened is blunted. Nevertheless, the series is a valiant stab at representing the layers of male privilege dominating not only the region but extending, through the web of young East European women gathered for the saturnalia, across the continent. This dominance of West European masculine power extends to the British and American world as well, in a Jeffrey Epstein-like web.
Mare of Easttown and intimate crime
Kate Winslet’s Mare is a sodden, downtrodden cop from solid and now decaying Scotch-Irish stock in a place that is less a suburb of Philadelphia – its actual location – than an embittered ex-mining town in the dried-up Allentown region whose mines have long since ceased to function. Mare’s family consists of her mother (an equally sodden turn from the veteran television actress Jean Smart), her lesbian daughter who is haunted by the demise of her brother and who may escape the town, and an adopted boy of mysterious origins. Right next door, lives her ex who, if that’s not torture enough, is about to be blissfully remarried.
Mare is an excellent cop who uses her knowledge of the town and her relations in it, both direct and indirect, to solve crimes. No one is above suspicion in the death of a young girl, not the local priest who refuses to talk about why he was relocated to Mare’s parish, the father of the dead girl’s son, or even the once honoured writer (Guy Pearce) who is now a dried-up professor at the local college who courts Mare. What gives the series its breadth and depth is Mare and the other characters’ display of raw emotions in this desolate working-class setting, where each struggles to find soothing words rather than fists or inflammatory rhetoric to express themselves.
This battle to throw off inarticulateness is manifest most strongly in Mare who gives way to bull-headed decisions to protect those around her and keep what is hers, but who constantly is pulled in the direction in spite of herself of caring for those near her and for the welfare of her community as a whole. This is one of the best American series on the toll that the lack of economic opportunity has taken on working-class lives, with those in Easttown struggling to keep their heads above water as they watch those around them drowning.
The general reaction of the American critics, before the mystery swung into high gear, was that the series was a bore, that Kate Winslet let herself wallow in mediocre material, a reaction that was less critical opinion than disdain for any series that treats working-class life with the seriousness it deserves.
A final note. It seems odd that this ultimately working-class series stars the English actress Kate Winslet and the Australian actor Guy Pearce – but perhaps not so strange, since each comes from a culture which is much more conscious of class differences than that of the U.S.
Dennis Broe's latest book is Diary of a Digital Plague Year: Coronavirus, Serial TV and The Rise of The Streaming Services. He is also the author of Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure. His TV series blog is Bro on The Global Television Beat. His radio commentary can be heard on his show Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris and on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the U.S. He is the author of two novels: Left of Eden, about the Hollywood blacklist and A Hello to Arms, about the postwar buildup of the weapons industry. He is currently teaching in the Masters' Program at the Ecole Superieure de Journalisme. He is an arts critic and correspondent for the Morning Star and for Crime Time, People’s World and Culture Matters, where he is an Associate Editor.