It’s Always Sunny In California
Hello and welcome back to another blog post!
This week, I spent watching several of the shows off my list. Just like last week, I am going to be breaking each of them down with my thoughts on the ways that each show sets up moral ambiguity in their protagonists. I enjoyed myself immensely, as did my parents who watched the shows with me. I am going to split up my blog posts so they’re not too long. In this one, I will cover Big Little Lies and Dead To Me because they are so similar: both shows are about mothering and are set in California.
Big Little Lies
When I was first researching this show, the first thing that popped out to me was actually the cast. Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, AND Zoë Kravitz?! It was already on my list of shows to watch before, and I have to say that it did not disappoint. One thing that I do want to address is that despite the fact that there are technically three protagonists, I will be focusing on only one of the protagonists because I believe she acts the most morally ambiguous. I also want to focus on the way that the show uses setting to construct moral ambiguity across all the female characters.
The woman I want to cover is Madeline Mackenzie, played by Reese Witherspoon. The first thing I took note of was how she was portrayed, because in the pilot I wasn’t sure whether we were supposed to hate her or like her. We see her yelling at her daughter and getting upset at her younger daughter, and on top of that, we also get these scenes that cut to people in an interrogation room that are speaking very poorly of Madeline. We get the idea that she is not particularly liked in the community and that she has made a lot of enemies.
Throughout season one, she revealed more of her moral ambiguity, but I wouldn’t characterize her as a morally ambiguous person. Rather, I would say she has morally dubious actions. She cheats on her husband several times, but she is also vilified by the people around her. Her elder daughter moves out of the house after claiming that her mom is putting too much pressure on her, while her ex-husband constantly criticizes her parenting of their daughter. I think Madeline is simply a woman with a big, bold personality who tries her best to do the right thing, but ultimately doesn’t always do that.
The main reason why this show exemplifies moral ambiguity is because of the setting they create. The world that the writers create for the characters has a major impact on how they express themselves. As with anything, there is a reason for each and every choice in a piece of artwork, and Big Little Lies is no exception to this rule. The pressure-cooker town of Monterey, CA pits people (especially the women) against each other. Madeline constantly mentions how the stay-at-home moms are against the working women. This constant competition paired with the perceived moral standards ultimately lends itself to utter hatred and almost animalistic behavior.
Everyone in this town has their own assumptions to how everyone else lives. Everyone believes Celeste Wright leads a perfect life when she is getting verbally and physically assaulted by her husband. Everyone believes Renata Klein loves her life as CEO when she is torn between her work and her insecurities as a mother. When the people of Monterey gossip and spread rumors, it perpetuates ideas about an idealistic life, which allows room for moral ambiguity to exist. Moral ambiguity pops up because the town leans so far into the concept of perfection, meaning that any action that strays from this perfect idea is morally ambiguous.
My main takeaway from this show is how important it is to create context for people’s actions. By setting up this belief of perfection or assumed moral righteousness, I can create a character whose actions make sense because there is no way she can live in this perfect standard. In other words, if perfection is pointing north, no one can be perfect forever, and thus provides an explanation as to why she will be heading northeast.
Dead To Me
When I was talking about my project at the beginning of the year, Ms. Srivastava’s first response was that I should add this show to my list. And it did not disappoint. This show was full of morally ambiguous characters and it is such a good example of what moral ambiguity is. Not only did I have a lot of fun with the dark humor, but I found the premise incredibly enticing and it held up the excitement throughout the first season. I am going to focus on both the protagonist Jen and I actually also want to talk about Judy, who is not technically a protagonist but is featured and is a perfect example of morally ambiguous.
Starting off with Jen, who loses her husband to a car accident and is dealing with her grief as a widower and mother. Jen is struggling with her emotions, as she is irretrievably sad after her husband died, then she finds out that her husband cheated on her for a year and a half leading up to his death. She then finds out that the person who she let in her life and in her kids’ lives is the one who killed her husband. So, clearly Jen is going through lots of emotions, and the show sets up Jen’s moral ambiguity to stem from her grief, but in reality I think it reaches further than that.
There are hints that Jen was violent and angry and rude before her husband died: Christopher, her business partner, reveals he has wanted to stop working with her for years, and Jen herself explains how she punched her husband in the face the night he got hit by the car. Without a doubt, Jen is a complicated woman and throughout the season we understand her to be someone who has been unhappy long before her husband died… and this leaves us not all that surprised when we see her kill someone.
When we defined morally ambiguous, we said there were two ways to be morally ambiguous: through actions and through innate traits. Jen is the perfect example of someone whose traits are morally ambiguous. To me, Jen exemplifies a woman who is struggling with being moral regardless of her grief. She is a rude, harsh, and cynical woman who still tries her best to be a good mother and person, even going so far as to admit to her shortcomings. She knows she is not a morally good person, but she also won’t let herself get to the point of morally bad either.
Now, I want to talk about Judy, who befriends Jen shortly after her husband’s death and lies to her about her fiancè dying. From the start, we are warned about Judy and the fact that chaos ensues when she enters the picture. She is the perfect example of someone who is morally ambiguous in terms of their actions. She is set up to be a good person who occasionally makes wrong decisions. Throughout the season, you can’t help but feel for Judy because of the immense guilt she carries for hitting Jen’s husband and leaving him on the side of the road. Judy clearly is going through a lot, as she is dealing with her body’s inability to have kids, her five miscarriages, her fiancè leaving her, and her early menopause, not to mention the manslaughter and living in the victim’s house and befriending his wife.
As viewers, we don’t doubt how guilty she feels, and that’s what makes it all the harder to watch Judy finally confess everything. She is such a morally ambiguous character because of what feels like a perfect storm of everything going wrong in her life. Even though she killed someone, we find ourselves pitying her because she wears her heart on her sleeve despite all the heartbreak she has endured. Sometimes, morally ambiguous characters are a product of happenstance. It’s insinuated that Jen was already a morally ambiguous character long before the show started, but it’s hard to believe Judy was.
I will post more blogs later this week, but I just had to get my thoughts out for these two shows. Later on, I will talk about The 100, How to Get Away With Murder, Wynonna Earp, and Sharp Objects.
Until next time!