Chandler Riggs as Carl and Sarah Wayne Callies as Lori in "The Walking Dead."

Gene Page, AMC

Anna Gunn as Skyler on "Breaking Bad."


January Jones as Betty in "Mad Men."

Frank Ockenfels, AMC

On AMC, wives get no sympathy

  • Article by: MEREDITH BLAKE
  • Los Angeles Times
  • December 14, 2012 - 11:24 AM

Even by the gruesome standards of AMC's zombie megahit "The Walking Dead," the death of Lori Grimes, the heavily pregnant wife of protagonist Rick Grimes, was unusually brutal: a crude prison-floor C-section followed by a bullet to the head dispatched by her young son, Carl.

Yet many viewers greeted the development not with despair or horror but with a sadistic kind of glee, flocking to Twitter, Facebook and online comment threads to post heartwarming eulogies such as this one: "Lori left 'The Walking Dead' the same way she came in. With her pants off."

The incongruous reaction to Lori's demise in the Nov. 4 episode fits in with a broader trend at AMC, where unpopular first wives have become a network hallmark in the same way incest plot lines and gratuitous female nudity have at HBO.

In addition to Lori, there's Betty, the long-suffering now-former spouse of "Mad Men's" Don Draper, and Skyler, trapped in what may be the most miserable marriage in TV history to Walter White, the high school chemistry teacher turned crystal meth kingpin at the center of "Breaking Bad."

Lori's bloody end capped off a particularly rough year for AMC's first wives club. When the once-svelte Betty showed up at the beginning of "Mad Men's" fifth season carrying 50 or so pounds of extra weight, "Fat Betty" became an instant meme. Similarly, when Skyler plunged into her pool in a desperate cry for help this summer on "Breaking Bad," her detractors wondered aloud why she didn't just drown herself.

Minor sins, major hate

Whether it's a problem built into the antihero drama, a reaction to haphazard character development or just plain old-fashioned sexism, wife-bashing is for many viewers an integral part of the AMC experience. Even professional TV-watchers have joined in the hate.

All three women face difficulties that by any reasonable measure ought to elicit our sympathy, from borderline psychopathic spouses to the ever-present threat of flesh-eating zombies. Yet Lori, Betty and Skyler have all committed minor sins that make them wholly unsympathetic -- or at least "annoying" -- to certain viewers: They've slept with men other than their husbands, made parenting mistakes and, perhaps worst of all, gotten in the way of their partner's bad behavior.

"There's a narrative challenge to doing stories about male criminals or men who have an exciting violence to them: It's how to handle the women in their lives," explained Emily Nussbaum, TV critic for the New Yorker. "You're rooting for the antiheroes in this really complicated, libidinal, charged-up, cathartic, taboo way."

Shows such as "Breaking Bad" encourage viewers to relate to men who do truly unspeakable things (poisoning children) while judging their wives for much smaller transgressions (retaliatory affairs). If they stand up to the men in their lives, they're irritating obstacles; if they don't, they're hypocritical colluders.

And because TV is still written predominantly by men, about men, even the most forward-thinking writers will resort to a certain shorthand for female characters, said Alyssa Rosenberg, a TV columnist at Slate and the Atlantic. "Skyler nags; Betty is cold and personality-less. Lori is lame and stupid enough to get pregnant during an apocalypse."

Condemning a character like Skyler is a convenient way for viewers to have their antiheroic cake and eat it too, she said. "People want to judge somebody, but they don't want to look straight at what these antiheroes have become. Blaming the wives becomes a way to deflect that."

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