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Good Girls Portrays No Greater Con Than Capitalism Itself

A not-so-stealthy subtext has emerged in the NBC dramedy's second season.
  • Retta, Christina Hendricks and Mae Whitman star in Good Girls (Photo: NBC)
    Retta, Christina Hendricks and Mae Whitman star in Good Girls (Photo: NBC)

    Good Girls has the kind of noisy premise you can easily imagine having sold in the room: what if three midwestern moms decided to solve their money problems through criminal means? What was supposed to have been a one-time score -- committing armed robbery at the supermarket where one of them worked -- escalates when it turns out the manager was involved in some dirty schemes of his own; thus, their take is much larger than they had expected; and the crime boss up the chain recognizes the value in having suburban women -- over age thirty and therefore unmemorable -- launder his counterfeit cash. What happens when a trio of Good Girls go Bad? The show's first season answered that question: high jinks! (And just a little light kidnapping and false imprisonment.) The second season, however, has been achieving something more complex, situating the titular Girls' challenges in the grim realities of capitalism in late 10s America: the biggest con of all.

    Last week's episode chewed through a lot of plot. The feds, led by FBI Agent Turner (James Lesure), having charged Stan (Reno Wilson), cop husband to titular Girl Ruby (Retta), with stealing a key piece of evidence in the case against crime lord Rio (Manny Montana), Stan's now out on ill-gotten bail. Ruby's childhood friend Annie (Mae Whitman) had taken the advice of her ex Gregg (Zach Gilford) to be wary of her new love interest/Fine & Frugal supermarket manager Noah (Sam Huntington), but just as she was about to break things off with him, he confided that he's on probation for having stolen from his last job and lied to get this one, and she joyfully told him all about her own "extracurriculars" -- not knowing, as we do, that he is actually an undercover FBI agent working the case with Turner. Annie's sister Beth (Christina Hendricks) was on edge since her husband Dean (Matthew Lillard), hypocritically jealous of Beth's affair with Rio despite his own many infidelities, left their home and took their children with him. After one last job -- robbing a payday loan joint so that Ruby could use the proceeds for Stan's aforementioned bail -- and...well, one last hot afternoon with the super-hot Rio, Beth decreed that they're all done with "book club" (the crew's euphemism for organized crime), and Dean brought back her kids.

    But as the season nears its close, it's clear that straight life is, actually, unlivable. We watch Ruby dump a bucket of change into a CoinStar and then ponder what groceries she can buy with $7.02. As a suspected felon, Stan can't even resume his old job as a security guard; as we keep seeing Ruby in her donut shop uniform polo shirt, we're reminded that she can't run a household on her minimum-wage income alone. (This episode takes place around Thanksgiving, presumably of 2018, before Michigan raised its minimum wage a princely 20 cents an hour to all of $9.45.) Ruby's is one of the "working families" politicians proudly claim to represent, and her situation in this episode starkly portrays that she is living in a system that has set her up to fail.

    We also watch as Annie carefully pumps precisely $7 worth of gas into her car, before bravely smiling at Sadie (Isaiah Stannard). Annie goes from there to stock room sex with Noah: pretty sure she knows the answer, she asks whether Fine & Frugal's health insurance possibly covers puberty blockers, because despite having lived as a girl to this point, Sadie has just come out to Annie as a boy. Noah likes Sadie and is empathetic to Annie's plight, but reminds her of the "Frugal" part of their employer's name. Trying not to sound too desperate, Annie offers to pick up more shifts or do tasks outside her job description -- cleaning, unclogging toilets -- but there isn't any legitimate way for her to increase her compensation at work. Though Medicare For All opponents try to tell horror stories of "rationed" care in socialized medicine, Sadie's care is being rationed now: by Annie's incapacity to pay for it.

    Beth has always had the least precarious circumstances of the show's three protagonists: she married into an upper-middle-class car sales dynasty, only to find out later how much of her life's comforts were paid for with borrowed money. Part of her journey in Season 2 has involved her corrupting Dean's car dealership by arranging for Rio to mule smuggled Canadian pills in vehicle airbags, in the process taking over as the head of the company and offering new perks to attract female customers. Having given up "book club" for the sake of her relationship with her children, Beth seeks out a support group in which she can speak (somewhat) freely about everything she's done -- and lost -- due to her addiction to the thrills of her various cons. But she also returns control of the dealership to Dean and tries to channel her talents back into being the best room mom her kids' school has ever seen, planning a Thanksgiving celebration as meticulously as she formerly arranged heists. She also tries to find ways to inject thrills into these domestic pursuits, boldly declaring her intention to cook with nuts and gluten, no matter the current prejudice against them, and livening up a trip to buy classroom decorations by shoplifting lip balm for sport.

    To say that Beth does her best to find fulfillment in her job is a gross understatement: Beth does the best anyone ever has or could.

    But when she actually attends the celebration, Beth finds that none of her lovingly decorated, impeccable creations has made it to the dessert table, and that no one could even be bothered to arrange their store-bought replacements, just slapping them down in their plastic packaging. The other room moms who originally co-signed Beth's gluten- and walnut-laden treats had second thoughts, didn't tell her not to go to the trouble, and ran out to Kroger to grab whatever junk was on hand.

    Bitterly, Beth schleps her edible artwork home and trashes it, sobbing. Not long afterward, she's despondent in the park when Rio appears with a barely veiled warning, sending Beth racing to the car dealership moments before Turner launches a raid. Beth grabs the "book club" ledgers and barricades herself in the bathroom, flushing pages down the toilet and emerging with her hands as clean as the cars the feds have searched. Later, she tells Annie and Ruby how much fun it was to evade arrest. Destroying her intricate pastries felt awful: it's a heartbreaking reminder of how little appreciation is bestowed upon women's homemaking labor and craft. Destroying the evidence of her latest criminal scam feels great -- not just because Beth is protecting all the comrades that participated in it, but because the Canadian pills weren't narcotics but completely innocuous drugs, to treat ailments like depression, heart disease, and erectile dysfunction, for American customers who can't afford to procure them via private health insurance. Beth is right not to be guilty over her part in what is, one might well argue, a victimless crime.

    However I might feel about the basis for the laws our protagonists are breaking, it's impossible not to be anxious about where we are leaving them in the run up to the Season 2 finale. Ruby has pledged to ankle Stan's overworked defense lawyer and hire a better one, no matter the cost; this means making Stan knowingly complicit in any further heists she might conceive. (Note: even the abducted employee of the payday loan joint can't bring himself to press charges against Ruby, whom he knows robbed the place; he sides with her, a fellow worker, over the bosses at the innately corrupt enterprise that employs him, asking only for the use of her address to help get a smart younger relative into a better public school. The injustice that is education spending in this country is yet another skein in this show's tapestry of neoliberal failures.) Working without Beth as a buffer exposed a lot of tension between Annie and Ruby that will need to be resolved at some point. Annie has also figured out that Noah isn't the person he said he is, but is endangering her fellow "book club" members by keeping this information secret. And while Beth was able to flush the ledger's pages, she was left with a hard cover that Turner may be about to find in the drop ceiling of the dealership bathroom.

    These are, of course, the kinds of Good Girls problems that make it into explosive show promos. But the reason the Good Girls are running grifts is the smaller, more recognizable, more relatable problems that the economic system they all live in doesn't permit them to handle legally. Stan can't get a decent lawyer on $7.02 worth of converted CoinStar change. Annie can't affirm her child's gender identity on the $7 she needs to fill up her car. Beth is probably running her more comfortable life on credit cards with limits fattened during more prosperous times, but it's not a sustainable solution. Sure, this season we've watched her fill up shoeboxes full of illicit cash. But do we really think she's a bigger criminal than, say, the people who run a bank that blames you for your low balance while paying its own tellers $12 an hour? The first season of Good Girls was about what could turn three normal women into thieves. I hope the third gets even more explicit in blaming the thieves in the system who gave them no other choice.

    Good Girls airs Sundays at 10pm on NBC. Talk about it in our forums.

    Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.

    TOPICS: Good Girls, NBC, Christina Hendricks, Mae Whitman, Retta