At last year’s New York Comic Con panel for AMC’s The Walking Dead, fans cheered wildly for their favorite characters during a sneak peek at the third season. One by one, the members of the show’s ragtag group of survivors were greeted with whoops of applause as they appeared on screen, but when Lori Grimes, the pregnant wife of group leader Rick, popped up, the room erupted in boos. It was as if Michael Vick had suddenly crashed a PETA function in a fur coat.
This gleeful disdain isn’t entirely incomprehensible: As a character, Lori (played by Sarah Wayne Callies, previously of Prison Break) is indecisive, meddling, hypocritical, and seemingly unaware that the world has been overtaken by ambulatory flesh-eaters. In a recent episode, she even admitted to being a ”s—ty wife” who wouldn’t ”[win] any mother-of-the-year awards.” But all this hate lacks what the Joint Chiefs of Staff would call a ”proportional response.” Displaying such a roiling level of vitriol for such a relatively inoffensive character is like burning down your apartment building because you don’t like the wallpaper in the bathroom.
Lori isn’t the only wife on TV to be the target of fans’ flamethrowers. She isn’t even the only such wife on her own channel. Google ”Skyler White,” the wife of Breaking Bad‘s milquetoast-turned-Machiavelli, and the first suggested search result is ”Skyler White hate.” Betty Draper (played by January Jones) has always been Mad Men‘s biggest villain — beating out institutionalized racism and liver cirrhosis — but even Don’s new wife, Megan (Jessica Paré), has met with a heaping helping of derision: First she’s a gold digger for accepting a nepotistic job offer from Don, and then she’s ungrateful for ultimately rejecting it. Gossipy put-downs and whispered judgments flew up and down the corridors of the Internet as fervently as they did in those of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. We love watching men behaving badly (and in the case of Breaking Bad, baldly) on our drama series, but we save the lion’s share of our scorn for the women in their lives, whose main crime seems to be wanting them home in time for dinner.
Sure, they aren’t the most interesting characters on their respective series. Even on these ambitious, critically lauded shows, viewers want to get their rocks off, too, and the home front will always be less of a thrill than the trenches. On Showtime’s Dexter, Julie Benz‘s Rita Morgan — the moonlighting serial killer’s other significant other — got flak for being a wet blanket even though the fire she was unwittingly putting out was her husband’s insatiable lust for murder. When the character was killed off, there was a sense in some fan circles of ”good riddance.” This is the point at which the perspective starts to get skewed. Skyler may be hampering Walt’s pursuit of the American dream, but that’s only because for her, it’s a nightmare. Last season the double standard was stretched to its breaking point, as Skyler, played brilliantly by Anna Gunn, was essentially held hostage in her own home by the sociopath who had replaced her husband (the incomparable Bryan Cranston).
Antiheroes have been de rigueur on TV since Tony Soprano first sauntered into a psych session and made us question our moral identity. If he’s the anti-Adam, then Edie Falco‘s Carmela Soprano is the anti-Eve. Married to the Mob, she was hardly a lily-white innocent and knew full well how ill-gotten her family’s gains were. As a character, she was loved by plenty — and Falco earned three Emmys for her work — but even she experienced intense backlash. Despite never once pulling a trigger or ordering a hit, when she forced her mobster husband to pay $600,000 for a real estate project in exchange for forgiving his cheating ways, online fans huffily called her a ”using bitch” and ”worse than Tony.” You would think that folks who had spent four seasons watching an HBO show about the Mafia would be used to a little extortion. But somehow, perhaps because viewers had identified with Tony’s misdeeds for so long, the threat of lethal force had become less reprehensible than the threat of withheld affection. (Of course, if you really wanted to dig up some roots, you’d bypass Tony for a much older antihero: Macbeth, who may have been a scheming scoundrel, but it was still his wife who ended up being branded as the ultimate conniver.)
Margaret Thompson (played by Kelly Macdonald on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) and Jessica Brody (Morena Baccarin on Showtime’s Homeland) have been labeled everything from narrative distractions to nagging shrews despite being wed to a crime lord and a domestic terrorist, respectively. Tony, Walt, Dexter, and Don are hardly paragons of virtue, and Rick’s lack of leadership and teary-eyed dithering have been as much to blame for The Walking Dead‘s problems — both on the show and with the show — as anything Lori’s done. Yet many seem to take a Henny Youngman view of things, struck with a collective case of ”Take my wife … please.”