In the penultimate episode of HBO's Boardwalk Empire, Margaret Schroeder stared at herself in the mirror searching for someone recognizable. Margaret started the series a poor, meek Irish housewife with a membership in the local temperance league (the series begins right after Prohibition) and a husband who beat her. But by the last episode, she was the concubine of Atlantic City's boss, Nucky Thompson, a Republican who smuggles illegal alcohol, kills men and collects from shopkeepers. Not only was she aware of her man's indiscretions, she'd started to participate: negotiating an under-the-table deal with a local storeowner, stumping for Nucky's puppet candidate for mayor and even drinking a swig of illegal liquor.
We all know that cable is the frontier of the anti-hero, the complicated maverick, the man afflicted by both good and evil impulses. But the unsung heroes of this landscape are the women, who "toughen up" and delve into immorality to participate in a man's world. Here, "innocence" is coded feminine and the women have to shed it to gain access to the good stuff: politics, job advancement, even relationships, all while killing, firing, cheating and lying.
At a time when TV is awash in Tony Soprano doppelgangers, it's refreshing to see shows give us something different. Unlike cable's procedurals, these series take their time to show us how and why a woman might delve into dangerous and unprotected emotional and professional territory.
Margaret Schroeder (Boardwalk Empire): In an otherwise slow-moving and at times unfocused narrative, Margaret is by far the most engaging character, reason enough to keep coming back week after week. Each episode, Margaret drifts further away from her past. The key turning point came when she ratted out Nucky Thompson to the Feds, blowing the whistle on liquor smuggling happening right outside her home. Nucky came over to her house, forced himself on her and moved her to a townhouse, all expenses paid. Since then, she's been his confidante and increasingly his accomplice, even keeping the secret of William Harding's mistress and child. Nucky killed her husband, but now she's participating in his world of smoke-filled rooms—women just won the right to vote—and late-night shoot-outs. Will she bail or is she getting drunk on power?
Tara Knowles (Sons of Anarchy): An accomplished surgeon involved with a leader in a local motorcycle club dealing guns to gangs in Northern California, Tara does not, like Margaret, need to be with Jax, her teenage love. But there's a proverb among the Sons of Anarchy: "either you tell her everything, or you tell her nothing." Jax chose the former, or close to it. So Tara must increasingly lie and cover for the members of club, occasionally getting them prime hospital treatment or helping her mother-in-law escape the Feds—twice. She's already killed two women, though both times in self-defense. Sons is all about whether the younger generation will inherit the sins of the former, and Tara and Jax are headed the way of Clay and Gemma.
Peggy Olson (Mad Men): Peggy might not be committing murder, but she's hardly the same modest girl from Brooklyn. A series of critical moments have changed Peggy: from giving away her child—the product of a brief office affair, if you can call it that—to save her career; moving to Manhattan out of her mothers overseeing eye; and an encounter to Bobbie Barrett, a talent manager who told her to "be a woman." While Peggy only occasionally goes out to drink with the boys (where she'd be subjected to various kinds of misogyny), she has smoked a joint with her colleagues. This season she is confident, better styled and bossing around her immature counterparts, all culminating in firing her creative partner who waged a bitterly chauvinistic battle with the office's chief secretary. Peggy has so far tried to mold herself as the next Don Draper, the show's adulterous, alcoholic, short-tempered and ultimately douche—you know what I'm talking about, finale watchers!—anti-hero. How far will she go?
Ellen Parsons (Damages): Ellen started Damages as a promising law school graduate eager to work with New York's prominent corporate lawyer, Patty Hewes. Though she was warned about Patty, she took the job, and since has been enmeshed in a spate of dubious practices: from corporate espionage (which in the first season indirectly led to the suicide of the opposing counsel) to lying to her boss by working with the FBI. Glenn Close's Patty may be the most dynamic character, but Rose Byrne's Ellen is the show's heart. In the last season, she took a job with the city prosecutor, a position she thought came with some moral clarity. She brought down the bad guys, but still slipped into duplicity. With two more seasons promised to Damages from savior DirectTV—starting in January—will the series writers, who'd basically concluded Ellen's storyline, push her back into the dark arms of Hewes & Associates?
Skyler White (Breaking Bad): Bryan Cranston's Walter White is such a magnetic and complex presence on Breaking Bad he overshadows his wife, who's grown ever more interesting in the last season. At first woefully unaware her husband had been manufacturing industrial-size loads of crystal meth, Skyler was brought into the loop and filed for divorce. But when her brother-in-law got sick and with her family in need of financial support, she agrees to accept Walter's money. Once she starts to handle the large sums of cash coming, she questions how Walter is covering up his tracks and offers to cook the books for him—with full knowledge that married people do not have to inform on one another. The drama surrounding Walter's business relationship with his meth distributor has overshadowed Skyler’s increasingly precarious role as the drug peddler's bookie, but season four should bring this out.
Sookie Stakhouse (True Blood): Always dressed in virginal white, Sookie was the Southern belle who looked after her grandmother and cared for her friends. The central tension in True Blood is to what extent her love with vampire Bill Compton would "corrupt" her. We were reminded of this fact the past season, when Sookie's fairy godmother warned her Bill would "take her light." She's well on her way! Sookie is neck-deep in vampire politics, helping kill and bury several of them at the end of the season. As on-again, off-again as Bill and Sookie are, we all know they'll continue to orbit around each other, and wherever Sookie goes, danger and Bill are likely to follow. In self-defense or intelligent offense, she's going to have to get even bloodier.
Nancy Botwin (Weeds): It's hard for us to see Nancy Botwin as ever having much in the way of morality or innocence. Weeds has strayed so far from its first season that any idea of Nancy as a bored suburban housewife are a distant memory: "Originally a tart little suburbs-suck satire, the series became a caustic jumble of international drug dealers, the DEA, city council intrigue, teen angst and single motherhood—and that was just in the first three seasons," Jeffrey Bloomer wrote here last week. Indeed, Nancy's descent into the depths of the US drug trade are indicative of how dark she has gone. What has bothered some about Weeds was the thought Nancy would go the way of Breaking Bad's Walter White and become a kingpin; instead, she has spent the past couple seasons as the plaything of various men: doing less dirty work and doing more seducing, moping and running.
Tara Gregson (United States of Tara): It may seem unlikely to place Tara on a good-girls-gone-bad list, but there's a case to be made. Tara has been consistently portrayed as a victim on Tara, slave to her "alters." She started the show with her personalities under control, but she soon lost it and in turn lost them: she's slept with her son's boy-crush, cheated on her husband with another woman, and sabotaged countless family gatherings. This past season she befriended Viola Davis' Lynda, cheating again—this time emotionally. But the series tries hard to obscure Tara's agency in all his misdeeds—she is, after all, grappling with deep psychological trauma. The latest season finale brought much of that to the surface. Perhaps in season three, Tara's alters will play nice.
Zoe Barkow (Nurse Jackie): Master liar and adulterer Jackie Peyton (Edie Falco) has never been an angel, but her sweet apprentice Zoe, at first a bright-eyed and idealistic newly-minted nurse, started out as one. While she hasn't descended into the depths of dysfunction like her senior colleague—who has done some seriously twisted stuff—she does digress with greater frequency. She has started a workplace romance, even following in Jackie's footsteps by doing the nasty at work. Throughout the show, she has become willing to skirt the rules to do the right thing, a Jackie hallmark and something she at first seemed too moral to do.
Tamara Adama and Zoe Graystone (Caprica): When Caprica began—it ends in January—Zoe Graystone was already a terrorist and ideologue, killing hundreds of people to show Caprica there was one true God. But as the series progressed, we saw glimpses of pre-crazy Zoe, afraid of fire and in need of love. Zoe was corrupted from the start; now she is starting to come into her own again, trying to find something moral in her virtual, hedonist prison. Meanwhile, Tamara, a victim of Zoe's attack, has morphed from a sweet teenager to the leader of an underworld. Incapable of dying in the show's Second Life-like world and cut off from her family, Tamara has decided to become an overlord, with an army of thugs and even a gladiator-style fight tournament under her command. With Zoe and Tamara now a team, will they both find peace or team up with the would-be cylons before the series finale?