The Fester’d Lily

by kto

I know this isn’t how time works or anything, but Shakespeare’s sonnet 94 could totally be about Nancy Botwin. I MEAN:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow

Okay, sure, her attitude toward casual sex with her bosses/coworkers/neighbors/prison girlfriend’s brothers/aggro rural bartenders may not qualify Nance as “slow”. But seriously, the big man’s definitely got her (or whatever fickle twink he was actually writing about) pegged. Leaving a trail of violence and chaos in her wake but never getting her hands dirty; pathologically secretive and wildly unpredictable; exerting an almost magical pull on everyone she encounters, but rarely, if ever, affected by others—it’s all there, Nancy Botwin in stanza form. Except maybe the beauty, the way her milk-quartz skin and anime eyes mask a take-no-prisoners ruthlessness and OH WAIT HOLD UP:

The sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

!!! I fucking love it when that happens. Lily-white and long of stem, smelling of (I’m spitballing here) Viktor & Rolf Flowerbomb—but rotten to the core. In fact, fucking evil (NSFW).

The balance between those two facets of its main character has tended to be Weeds’ tipping point. When they got it just right, the show was deliciously bitchy and stunningly honest and hauntingly poignant. When they got it wrong, the writing soured, the ratings tanked, and everyone wrote articles about how horrible Nancy Botwin was. Which, yes. Moving the show out of its suburban California setting—and thus losing the seedy-underbelly-of-Pleasantville commentary that spiced up the melodrama—was a massive misstep. Motivations got muddied, the depictions of Mexicans got racist, Nancy got raped and liked it—I agree, that shit was a mess. And yeah, it got hard to watch a Nancy stripped of any moral compass, any real concern for others, any reason to live. But there’s more than a little hint of misogyny in the idea that we as viewers simply can’t stand “Nancy’s parental fecklessness and narcissism” when by pretty much any standard she’s a better parent, and person, than male Kings of Cable Crime like Tony Soprano or Walter White or Nucky Thompson, who are consistently lauded as grand achievements in characterization. As always, men who fuck over their loved ones for adventure are only human; women who do it are monstrous.

Critics’ response to Nancy in her dark period plays into an old pattern in the way we as a culture read powerful female characters—as projections of masculine anxiety about female sexuality, as facile warnings about the dangers of promiscuity and illegality, or as personifications of the death drive. In other words, as femmes fatales. And Nancy herself fits rather neatly into that category. She’s innately self-destructive—there’s a lovely moment in season 5 where she describes jumping off a bridge at age ten: “I was in the newspaper: ‘Daredevil girl survives fall’. Well. It wasn’t a fall, it was a leap. Big difference.” She’s also the proverbial black widow; over the course of the show four different men meet their ends (two in grisly fashion) after getting involved with her. And certainly she’s slinky enough to give Stanwyck or Turner a run for their money. But while the sirens of noir were often secondary characters, Nancy is not, and so our perspective on her necessarily changes. In viewing this kind of woman on her own terms, instead of through the gaze of a male lead, we see Nancy less as a cautionary figure and more as a tragic one. In fact (not to over-Shakespeare but fuck it) Nancy bears resemblance, in some crucial ways, to Lear. They’re both vain and selfish, resented by one child and worshipped by the other. Both stumble through their lives blind to the needs, wants, and true intentions of those around them. And both, though suffering a slate of misfortunes (betrayal, insanity; prison, shooting), share the deeper tragedy of a failure of identity. Though Lear and Nancy would do anything to get what they want, they don’t actually know what that is, because they don’t know who they are. Lear asks, “Who is it that can tell me who I am” (I.iv.238), and Nancy, in the finale, echoes him:

Andy: Look at it this way. You’re free. You did your job and now it’s done. No one there to answer to.

Nancy: No one to come home to.

Andy: No one to hold you back from doing whatever you want to do, becoming the person you always wanted to be.

Nancy: Who is that? What is that?

So although there are certainly issues with taking Weeds as a feminist text (pretty much all the Esteban sex; the frankly insane wardrobe) I think ultimately it is valuable as a complicated and oddly truthful portrayal of a woman whose first loyalty, as with so many canonical male characters, is to her own desires. As hot as MLP was (and is! At fucking FORTY-EIGHT! What is that about is she a wizard), Nancy’s ultimate appeal isn’t sexual. It’s her unabashed, though sometimes unacknowledged, dedication to doing and getting and being whatever the fuck she wants that makes her irresistible, not only to those around her but also to the viewer.

But that irresistibility, as the finale made clear, has its limits. Nancy can be read as a tragic figure, but the show in which she appears is a comedy, and so the series doesn’t end (as last season did, and as justice would demand) with a bullet in her skull. We get to see a side of the pay-cable protagonist we usually don’t—age. Change. Growth. As Nancy says to her business partner, “I had my adventures. Now I date men named Norman.” She’s managed to stop her slide into sociopathy and seems to be doing alright—a stable, legal business, a kid who loves her unreservedly, and a banging house in Old Sandwich, CT.

Of course, none of that can get her what she really wants—a do-over. She asks Silas to make his wife forget the wrongs she’s done him in the past; she asks Shane not to be the particular brand of fucked-up she made him; and she asks Andy, finally, and far too late, to be with her. In each of these increasingly pathetic entreaties Nancy gets not quite what she asked for, but not nothing either. Silas refuses to call off Megan but gives his mother partial absolution. She extracts from Shane a promise to enter rehab that seems too easily given to be genuine, but it’s a start. And Andy, the most-kicked of puppies, the most loyal of camp-followers, the one who always came back until one day he didn’t, gives her his love but not his heart: “I love you, I’ll always love you, but I can’t be near you. That doesn’t work.” Like some kind of reverse Odysseus riding the third wave down to disaster, Nancy dragged her family along for her exploits, but once she’s ready to go home again, she finds them gone. They’ve made lives for themselves elsewhere, and even her formidable charms can’t tempt them back into her crazy orbiting.

And so the show ends on an ambiguous but satisfying note. This woman’s story did not merit a happy ending, and Jenji Kohan is too smart to give her one. Instead, like a lot of us, she gets not the love she most desperately wanted but infinitely more love than she deserves. Despite the wounds she’s left them with, her boys do not abandon her; they save her, a little bit, as much as they can stand. For once, the crucial action here is not Nancy’s brave, misguided machinations but her family’s heroic effort to forgive them.

In the final scene of this show known for buttery Cali sunshine, a light snow is falling. There’s the sense of possibility that winter brings, the freshness of a world in a clean white dress. The original five leads arrange themselves outside to smoke a joint, and laugh at nothing in particular, and all at once you can feel the love between these people, this family, a love choked by circumstance and bitterness and hurt, a love its constituents have done their best to root out, but which survives, keeps coming back, keeps growing, like weeds.