As a devoted Mad Men fan, I am always excited when members of the Sterling Cooper universe turn up in new projects. Yet while I get to watch Betty Draper surviving the apocalypse on Last Man on Earth and Don Draper is always trying to get me to do my taxes at H&R Block, the past few years have done very little to scratch my Joan Holloway–slash–Christina Hendricks itch.
Good Girls, Hendricks’s new dramedy on NBC, doesn’t hold a candle to Mad Men in quality. It’s not bad, per se — it just feels derivative, kind of like a feminist Breaking Bad with the hard edges sanded off to make it palatable for network viewers. It’s not worthy of Hendricks, to be sure. (Though what show is?) And yet I can’t deny, from the moment I turned the show on, I felt a frisson of delight at finally seeing Hendricks back on prime time. Long-running TV shows like Mad Men foster intense intimacy among their viewers, and seeing beloved actors recurring in new contexts is kind of like the excitement of running into an old friend in a foreign country. It’s Joan! My girl Joanie! There’s Joan, in the kitchen making school lunches! There’s Joan, brandishing a toy pistol at a home invader with the confidence of a hardened mafiosa! While she has traded her pencil skirts for turtlenecks, her man-child co-workers for a bunch of actual children, her deadbeat doctor husband for a deadbeat car salesman husband, the two characters share many of the same charms. Hendricks excels at balancing an ultra-ladylike softness with a steely toughness, and Good Girls certainly makes the most of that natural aptitude.
The gist of the show is this: Hendricks plays Beth, a housewife who decides to rob a bank with her best friend Ruby and sister Annie (Retta and Mae Whitman, both very good) after she finds out her husband (Matthew Lillard) has pissed away all their money and is having an affair. Things quickly spiral out of control, they end up kidnapping someone, a scary cartel comes after them, and by episode two, we’re fast on the road to “Ozymandias.”
Yet much like Joan, Beth gets shits done. Whether it’s marshaling her children through homework assignments or marshaling her girl gang through the their descent into the criminal underworld, Beth is a natural born ringleader, who multitasks as easily as most people breathe. Like Joan, her domestic-goddess charms are what make her so effective in the more typically “macho” pursuits she finds herself embroiled in (tough-talking in the boardroom on later seasons of Mad Men; a life of criminality here). With those big blue eyes and the bosom that could launch a thousand ships, we see her wooing cartel members as easily as she wooed ad men, weaponizing her hyperfeminine physique and her unassuming “good girl” façade to disarm men set on underestimating her.
While the first two episodes of the show feature plenty of bumbling and mishaps, what sets Beth apart is supreme competence. She’s the definition of unflappable, capable of handling crises from blackmail to money laundering with the same poise she used to manage the daily chaos at Sterling Cooper. Watching Mad Men, one always felt frustrated by Joan’s obvious potential — how, in another era, she could easily have been a CEO or a lawyer or doctor or crime boss or really anything she put her mind to. Here, too, we quickly see that there’s a lot more to Beth than her mild-mannered suburban housewife veneer. When the store robbery starts to go awry and Ruby and Annie begin to falter, it’s Beth who takes the lead, screaming through her balaclava: “I better get a manager up here right now or I WILL START CAPPING PEOPLE, and I’m not even joking.”
Just as it has been interesting to imagine that each flashy prestige TV role Elisabeth Moss plays is an outlet for Peggy Olsen’s feminine rage — whether it’s fighting the patriarchy on Handmaid’s Tale or chasing bad guys on Top of the Lake — it’s fun to imagine Good Girls as a fanfiction fever dream, like a revenge fantasy alternate universe where Joan gets to say and do all the things you wish she could have done on Mad Men. By episode two, she’s putting her husband in his place with the sort of ass-kicking monologue one wishes Joan could have given that jerk Greg Harris the moment he tried to lay his hands on her. “I handled it because you couldn’t. And this thing that we do where you bring home the bacon, and I don’t ask any questions, that’s over,” she declares to her husband. “Does that mean we get to stay in the house?” he asks meekly. “It means I get to stay in the house with the kids. You get to go to a motel,” she snaps back.
Good Girls doesn’t have Mad Men’s pacing or nuance, but it does have the sort of feminist instant gratification that network TV is well poised to provide. As you may recall — though it really pains me to do so — Joan dealt with a lot of bullshit on Mad Men. Some of the most rewarding moments of Joan’s arc came near the end of the series, as she began to rebel against the patriarchal views she had internalized for so long. Beth, too, has been consistently screwed over by the men in her life. Yet her course correction arrives much faster. In the second episode, brandishing her fake gun at a sleazebag intruder who tried to rape her sister, Hendricks delivers such a powerhouse tirade that it was enough to override (momentarily) my doubts about the show. “Every man in the world thinks he can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants,” she says with measured fury. “When a lady screams ‘Stop’ it is usually because she is not having the time of her life. Now you’re gonna pull up your pants, and you are gonna get the hell out of here.” If only Joan had been able to deliver this searing oration when she was being pimped out for a Jaguar account, or being hustled out of McCann Erickson for 50 cents on the dollar. Now, finally we get to see what we’ve been waiting for — Joan Holloway, or some 2018 version of her, transplanted into suburban Michigan — armed, angry, and unleashed.