Varieties of working-class women: ‘Wanted,’ ‘Bitter Daisies’ and ‘Mare of Easttown’
Wanted’s cross-class feminist fugitives

In large parts of the world, anywhere between 50 and 70% of women are now actively engaged in the workplace. Most earn less than men, and many perform the essential service and caring jobs that keep their societies running. This is, of course, not even to count the nearly 100% of women whose domestic labor is unpaid and whose work in all the activities of reproduction (childrearing, cooking, cleaning) is still officially labeled unproductive.

Three series from across the globe, all falling into the crime genre, spotlight how working-class women make sense of the world and contend with 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 and could have gone on longer. 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 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.

Hollywood fugitives Thelma and Louise

In defending them, Lola proves adept with a gun, resulting in death and necessitating their 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 herself understanding of the two fugitives’ 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 inherited and that ultimately confines and limits her. Lola is ingenious at maneuvering in the margins of the law while Chelsea proves herself handy at manipulating the financial system, which is often dead set against them. On a more personal level, Lola is careless and leaves their money around where it can be stolen, and Chelsea snores.

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 her faults.

Thelma and Louise, a first blow in the direction of female friendship formed through a challenge to the patriarchy where the open road offered a vision of freedom, though not stressing class differences, ended in tragedy as the only possible ending for such an encounter. 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, at this point, deserved gains of their adventure. They find solace together and don’t need to go over a cliff is an acknowledgment within the genre that the outlook for female emancipation has changed. It is now more than a remote possibility. With MeToo, the potentialities for fulfillment may be increasing both in the crime genre and in the world at large.

Bitter Daisies and male establishment sex trade

Bitter Daisies is set in the rough northwest Spanish province of Galicia, known for hosting the Santiago de Campostela pilgrimage across its mountainous terrain. The native Galego language (similar to neighboring Portuguese) 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 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. 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.

Bitter Daisies’ beleaguered cop Rosa

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 that may be related to the larger mystery and 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 then became a global hit, recording, for example, a place in the Top Ten most-watched non-English language shows in the U.K. The second season promised the detective to return to the area and investigate 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. In the second season, the problem is that the tendency toward titillation, evident in the first season, continually vies for attention with a kind of hypocritical condemnation of this exploitation.

There is a particular scene in which a young B&D Spanish mistress who, 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 indulge in the same kind of mooning that the show accuses its wealthy 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 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 the victims of it. Nevertheless, 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 in the dominance of West European masculine power and which, in a Jeffrey Epstein-like web, extends to the British and American world as well.

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 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 her brother’s demise 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.

Kate Winslet’s haggard cop

Mare is an excellent cop who uses her knowledge of the town and her relations, 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 honored 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. 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 despite herself of caring for those near her and the welfare of her community as a whole. This is one of the best American series on the toll 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’s odd that this ultimate 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 that is much more conscious of class differences than that of the U.S.


CONTRIBUTOR

Dennis Broe
Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe’s latest book is Diary of a Digital Plague Year: Coronavirus, Serial TV and the Rise of the Streaming Services. He has taught at the Sorbonne and is currently teaching in the Master’s Program at the École Supérieure de Journalisme. He is an arts critic and correspondent for the British daily Morning Star and for Crime Time, People’s World and Culture Matters, where he is an associate editor.

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