Flirting with danger: Domestic ennui and crime in ‘Good Girls’

Photo of Good Girls
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Warning: Spoilers for “Good Girls” and “Gone Girl.” Also, a disclaimer: as of press time, only six episodes of the most recent season of “Good Girls” were available for viewing.

NBC’s “Good Girls” is a nail-biting show, the kind of thriller where every move the characters make seems to get them out of a hole, but at the last second only manages to dig them deeper, making it both agonizing and incredible to watch. But under the excitement and humor of a show in which three suburban moms find themselves neck-deep in a world of crime, the show is saying something radical about the struggles of contemporary motherhood while also perpetuating racist myths about the criminal justice system.

Despite living three fairly different lives, protagonists Beth, Annie and Ruby all seem to face the same struggles.

Ruby (Retta) primarily struggles with earning enough money to keep her family afloat. She and her husband Stan both work full time at jobs that barely pay them enough to survive and generally make them miserable. In the pilot, we see Ruby at the diner where she works, and an old man attempts to steal the one dollar tip left for her on a table. To make matters worse, her daughter Sara’s kidneys are failing. Ruby waits with Sara in a crowded public clinic, and, when Ruby sheepishly asks a doctor how long it will be until they’re seen, the doctor ignores her entirely. When she finally sees a doctor, he calls Sara the wrong name, tells her the only thing she can do is get on the transplant list and stay at home resting until her name is called and ignores Ruby’s objection that she and her husband both work full time and can’t afford to stay home with Sara. She broaches the subject of a medicine which can keep Sara healthy until she’s able to get a transplant, but the doctor informs her that it’ll cost $10,000 a month out of pocket, and, eyeing her diner uniform, says it is probably not an option for her family.

It’s a damning portrait of health care in late-stage capitalism where life-saving treatments — even for children — are withheld from the working class, and it’s this $10,000 sum that drives Ruby to crime.

Ruby isn’t the only working class mom in the show. Annie (Mae Whitman) works at a grocery store and is a single mother who dropped out of high school after having her child as a teenager. She, like Ruby, works hard at a difficult and frustrating job to barely earn enough money to maintain a dingy apartment, which is frequently the butt of jokes. In a recent episode, Annie is shown holding her laptop up to the corner of the ceiling in the shower: the only spot in her apartment where she can steal her neighbor’s wifi. Yet, while Annie’s finances are a struggle, far more focus is given to her difficulty erecting an appropriate mother-child dynamic and to maintaining healthy romantic relationships. In other words, her financial struggles are the impetus for her interest in crime, but they are not the defining aspect of her character in the way Ruby’s are.

Beth’s struggles are the second-wave feminist complaints: she’s unsatisfied with a day of baking cookies for bake sales, attending PTA meetings, taking care of the house, and being married to her high school sweetheart.

Finally, there’s Beth (Christina Hendricks), Annie’s older sister, and by far the most privileged woman in the group. While Annie lives in her dingy apartment and Ruby lives in the house she inherited from her mother where things are always breaking, Beth lives in a sprawling two-story house on a quiet suburban street. Her husband, Dean, owns a car dealership, and Beth is a stay-at-home mom, making them decidedly middle class. In the opening scene of the show, Beth makes her kids lunches, telling each of them that she loves them, then hands her husband his lunch, and when he tells her that he loves her, she reminds him to pick something up on his way home from work.

Beth’s struggles are the second-wave feminist complaints: she’s unsatisfied with a day of baking cookies for bake sales, attending PTA meetings, taking care of the house, and being married to her high school sweetheart. We also quickly learn that Dean is having an affair with his much younger assistant, a cliche signaling that, in his eyes, Beth has also lost her sex appeal as she has taken on the role of wife and mother, which only worsens Beth’s dissatisfaction. On top of the infidelity, Dean’s business is also failing, and between these two events, Beth’s previous aversion to crime falters.

Which is how, when Annie recounts all she’s learned from previous failed robberies at places she’s worked over the years, Beth and Ruby agree to rob the grocery store and unwittingly end up tens of thousands of dollars in debt to the gang that uses the store to launder money.

But, unlike Annie and Ruby, while her financial situation is the stated reason for her entry into the world of crime, Beth becomes deeply invested in it. Later, when given the opportunity to cut their ties with the gang and return to their normal lives, it’s Beth who wants to stay despite the financial and physical toll it has taken on all three of them. When asked in later seasons how a nice PTA-mom such as Beth wound up counterfeiting money for a gang, Beth replies, “I was bored.”

And that is the crux of it. Annie and Ruby are deeply in debt, and while they don’t like the idea of crime, they don’t see another choice. Beth sees her financial straits as a way to break up the monotony of her domestic ennui.

Of course, “Good Girls” isn’t alone in exploring the idea of what happens when women become criminals. A whole genre of women in crime has emerged in recent years. Some of it casts women as vigilantes combatting a culture of gendered abuse: “Promising Young Woman” and “Big Little Lies,” for example, both show abuse and assault as dark undercurrents in the seemingly idyllic world of suburbia. Then there are others which cast women as calculating criminal masterminds, seemingly just for the shock of it, such as Gillian Flynn’s oeuvre — most notably “Gone Girl” and “Sharp Objects” — and “Killing Eve,” where Villanelle’s ability to make herself appear to be a nice and unthreatening girl is her most dangerous weapon. Criminality, then, is a form of empowerment for women, either in taking gendered assault into their own hands or in the thrill of thwarting the misogynistic expectations of law enforcement.

And that is the crux of it. Annie and Ruby are deeply in debt, and while they don’t like the idea of crime, they don’t see another choice. Beth sees her financial straits as a way to break up the monotony of her domestic ennui.

There’s another trend here as well: almost all the women above are well-to-do, usually suburban, white women. “Gone Girl” is basically premised on Amy’s suburban dissatisfaction driving her to frame her husband for her murder, and she’s largely able to get away with it because she rightly assumes that law enforcement won’t even consider the possibility that women can be responsible for violent crime (an assumption which is apparent even in the naming conventions of this genre, which often feature “girl” and “young woman,” underscoring that the infantilization of women is what makes their capacity for destruction so alarming).

And “Good Girls” definitely sings the same tune. The opening shot of the series is a slow zoom into Beth’s typical two-story suburban house with a voice-over from Ruby’s daughter saying, “Girls today can be anything: CEO, Olympic golden medalist, even a Supreme Court Justice. We’ve finally broken that glass ceiling, and, wow, sure looks good from the top.” If women can head companies, be star athletes, and even hold some of the highest offices in the country, why can’t they be criminals?

But unlike the rest of this genre, “Good Girls” also features the “real” criminals, which plays right into pervasive stereotypes about who commits crime in this country. The U.S. criminal justice system is founded on white supremacy, and racism is the bedrock of these policies from the top down: from the fact that the police force began as slave patrollers, to the fact that the 13th Amendment left prisoners as a loophole in the abolition of slavery, to the fact that Black and brown people disproportionately make up prison populations.

For Beth, a white suburban mom, crime is a romanticized thrill to break up the monotony; for Rio (Manny Montana), the gang leader, and the other gang members — all of whom are portrayed by people of color — there is no heart-wrenching story of how they got there. They are woven into the fabric of the imagined criminal world in “Good Girls.” They were there when Beth arrived, and they’ll be there after she’s gone.

Although it’s too early to say, the fourth season seems to be heading toward fleshing out Rio’s backstory, but that doesn’t change his portrayal for the first three seasons. Despite the fact that they now know his name, Annie and Ruby still refer to him as “gang friend.” He’s a prop, who offers Beth a sexy (literally) alternative to her white bread life and a threat, something to add stakes and danger to the plot because he’s cast as being single-minded on making money and will only keep Beth around as long as she’s useful to that end.

And all the while, Beth gets to keep her hands clean. Although her criminal activity affects her marriage, she and Dean remain married. When the Secret Service seems to be closing in on her counterfeiting operation, Dean ends up taking the fall. When they try to hold up a mini-mart, Ruby is the one who gets shot (and subsequently who uses a cane for the rest of the show). In fact, a disproportionate amount of consequence falls on Ruby and her family for Beth’s actions. Stan loses his job on the police force because Ruby asks him to destroy evidence to cover their tracks. When he gets a job as the security detail at a strip club, he winds up deep in debt to the owner of the club for stealing singles that Beth uses to print their counterfeits. And each of these mistakes puts Ruby and Stan deeper in debt, making them more reliant on the money laundering scheme, which puts them deeper in debt, creating a vicious cycle. This portrayal does speak to something true: middle-class white women such as Beth do not face the same consequences as working-class people of color (though this analysis leaves something to be desired in its limited focus on the racial aspect of the treatment Ruby experiences).

This isn’t to say that Beth’s concerns aren’t valid. In fact, “Good Girls” does a fantastic job of showing that there are no “right” paths for mothers: Whether you are a stay-at home mom, a single working mom, or a happily married working mom, there is no satisfactory outcome. All three of them are unhappy, but four seasons of a vicious cycle of crime, fear of punishment — from Rio and from the law enforcement — debt, and more crime makes it unambiguous that only Beth benefits from using crime as an outlet for the monotony of suburbia, while everyone else pays dearly for it.

I hope that, should the show flesh out Rio’s backstory as it seems to be promising to do, some attention is given to the systems of oppression that let the show use a heavily tattooed Latinx man as a shorthand for “criminal” for three years. And, while “Good Girls” is hardly meant to be a manual for fixing the dissatisfactions of motherhood, I hope a more meaningful attempt is made to address it, where characters beside Beth are given a shot at happiness.

Contact Paige Prudhon at [email protected].