Updated: Aug 30
Weeds' Drug-Dealing Protagonist, Nancy Botwin: Probably Not Calling the Cable Company
Every year, around July or August, I subscribe to Showtime specifically to watch Weeds, the season finale of which aired on Monday. I’ll call and cancel my subscription after I’ve drained the maximum entertainment value from the $15 Showtime adds to my cable bill each month by re-watching the whole season, binge-style, OnDemand. If I can do it before this billing cycle ends, I might even re-watch the entire series, which I own in its entirety on DVD. At this point, you probably think I’m a crazy person (or at least an obsessive), and you may be correct in that assessment, generally. But in my Weeds watching, at least, I’m just an ex-grad student.
The First Drug Dealing Novel (Want to Fight About It?)
Weeds played a prominent role in my 2008 M.A. thesis, and I’ve allowed it an equally prominent spot in my TV schedule (and effect on my wallet) ever since. I began my thesis by tracing the origins of what I call “drug dealing narratives” or “the drug dealing genre” from proto-generic tales of the opium-laced “white slave trade” to the genre’s first true inhabitant, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, published in 1925 (reasonable people may disagree on this contention, but I’d like to see a full-on fight in the comments section; throw the first punch, and I’ll hit back). But the jewels in the thesis’ 150 page crown are discussions of the ways in which the genre changed when it moved to the small screen with the advent of television dealing narratives: namely, The Wire (2002 – 2008) and Weeds (2005 – present).
Writing about The Wire makes for great conversation filler and arguably led to my future employment in drug law reform. But, while no doubt David Simon made the more complex, politically challenging, and intellectually stimulating series, Jenji Kohan’s Weeds was not only more fun to write about but, to my mind, suffers mainly from its frequent comparisons to its more “authentic” generic predecessor (on which Weeds actually comments in the Season 7 episode “Object Impermanence;” Pablo Schreiber, Nick Sobotka on The Wire, also played Nancy’s supplier and main love interest this season). Most importantly, though, Weeds did a much better job of proving my argument.
He Loved the American Dream...With Cocaine
In short, I argued that typical iterations of the drug dealing genre hold out to their protagonists a specific kind of masculinity, that of the “self made man,” and quickly pull it out from under them when they get too close to achieving it outside the confines of legitimate capitalism. Ultimately, drug dealing can only disempower those who dare undertake it because it’s just a cheap, morally bankrupt shortcut to obtaining all those markers of traditional, white, capitalist masculinity: nice house, nice car, nice woman, nice children. For example, Tony Montana falls not only because he refuses to kill a journalist with kids in tow but also right after he berates his wife for her “polluted,” unimpregnable womb, and Jay Gatsby will never have Daisy, no matter how perfect the house he builds (and awesome the parties he throws) with the wealth he amasses – first from bootlegging booze and, after the repeal of Prohibition, from something too dark for the novel’s characters to name – arguably, drugs people aren’t getting from their doctors.
The Most Literal Ad Campaign of the 21st Century
The Wire comments on those issues to great effect and with an incredible nuance that could almost only be achieved by a serialized television drama (and is way beyond the scope of this blog post), but Weeds turns the whole thing on its head. Not only is the drug dealer a woman – basically unheard of in the genre – but the illicit enterprise does empower and fulfill our protagonist, widowed mother Nancy Botwin – played magnificently by Mary-Louise Parker. Nancy’s just not herself when she’s not slinging weed, and dealing shows her that she wants neither the masculine markers of capitalist success for which other fictional kingpins are looking nor to be bound by the constraints of white, heteronormative femininity. Only her involvement in criminal activities (and sometimes sex) allows her to shake off the shackles of patriarchal suburbia and traditional motherhood, and to defeat anyone who gets in her way – law enforcement, other drug dealers, nosy neighbors, other drug dealers, law enforcement, other drug dealers, law enforcement and, hopefully, whoever the hell is after her this time. Sure, she often puts herself under the (typically) masculine authority figures from whom she must break free, but this is the show’s central narrative conceit, and at least she’s making her own (arguably, bad) decisions instead of passively letting things happen to her. It’s really only when she isn’t dealing drugs that Nancy can’t get control of her life.
Showrunner Jenji Kohan and Weeds‘ writers work hard to make sure that every season is fresh and different, even going so far as to hit the reset button – completely altering the setting, dropping major characters, and adding new ones – three times in the show’s seven season history. Sounds like viewers and critics would be on the edge of their seats, right? But, for the most part, they’re not, with Gawker going so far as to say that Weeds has “jumped more sharks than exist in all the oceans of the world.” The show maintains a viewer base that’s strong enough and brand visibility that’s high enough to anchor Showtime’s Monday night, but I so often see others call their viewership “hate-watching” on Twitter; have friends stare blankly at me when I admit my continued loyalty; and read professional columnists asserting that Nancy’s mothering skills make the show unwatchable, spewing obtuse, pretentious criticism, or pronouncing a short-lived “return to form” that I wonder annually if I’ll get to make the only pleasant call I ever put in to the cable company the following summer.
I get why people might dislike seeing changes made to television serials, but in essence, the show has not changed a bit. It still revolves around a cliffhanger structure, and it’s still premised on Nancy gaining empowerment and fulfillment through her dealing – and her sex appeal (this is pay cable, after all). Just look at the last few two seasons: Nancy escaped (literally and figuratively patriarchal) entrapment – and almost certain death – at the hands of Mexican mob boss and Tijuana mayor Esteban Reyes by dealing enough drugs to flee California and send her family off to Denmark before turning herself, and Esteban, into the FBI to protect her murderous offspring (if this sounds far-fetched, deal with it; we’re talking about a show during which, in the beloved second season, Nancy married a DEA agent to ensure that he couldn’t be forced to testify against her in court – the show was never a paragon of gritty realism). In the most recent season, which made a three year time jump, Nancy is released from jail and sent to a halfway house in New York, where she learns that Esteban has been killed by fellow inmates. Her family returns from Denmark for a reunion, and with the help of her brother-in-law and two sons (and the SEC – don’t ask), Nancy returns to dealing and makes enough money to gain full freedom – only to run into more trouble, of course.
Thus, we see Nancy use her dealing, and the new identity she uses it to cultivate, time and time again to save herself from (in the first season) sudden poverty; (in the second season) rival dealers and a shady cop; (in the third season) a violent drug dealer who rips her off; (in the fourth season) boredom after being handed a cushy job as manager of a maternity store/front operation for the Mexican mafia and, later, from an ethical quandary stemming from her position as manager of the front; (in the fifth and sixth seasons) certain or probable death at the hands of that same Mexican mafia; and (in the seventh season) losing the son she had with Esteban to her hateful sister and having to give up the very freedom and sense of self she’s attained through dealing, at first because she lives in a halfway house with the threat of returning to prison hanging over her head, and by season’s end, because a former supplier and her oldest son have turned on her and a rival dealer and the NYPD are gunning for her. In the fifth season, Nancy wrestles precisely with the disempowerment and lack of identity she feels when she is not dealing drugs – when she is carrying Esteban’s baby and bristling under his domestic and quite literally patriarchal oppression and macho political ambitions. Perhaps the series lost viewers there, but those are some shallow, uncritical viewers considering the elite, sophisticated audience to which pay cable ostensibly caters.
It's Not TV, It's...Showtime?
So, what are we to make of all this? Weeds subverts the generic conventions of an at least superficially subversive genre on a network that bases its brand on defying convention. And the more it does so – the more Nancy “tr[ies] again, fail[s] better,” as she puts it in a Season 7 episode – the more alienated critics and viewers seem to feel; they like her less, they like the show less, and they certainly don’t see dealing drugs as empowering. Maybe I’m just wrong. Perhaps Weeds isn’t about empowerment at all and drug dealing is just another “edgy” conceit, like vampires, lesbians, and serial killers, utilized by Showtime to reel in trend-setting viewers and make good on its current slogan: “Brace Yourself.” (Its slogan when Weeds‘ launched was “No Limits.”) Perhaps drug dealing as a premise is wearing thin. But assuming there’s some kernel of truth or, better, insight in my analysis, perhaps viewers actually do want to see drug dealers punished.
The Wire, adored by critics and audiences alike, did punish its primary dealing protagonists, even if it didn’t really ascribe a moral lesson to their actions or the consequences. I don’t think The Onion‘s “A.V. Club” intended to celebrate Nancy’s punishment when reviewer Myles McNutt proclaimed, in his analysis of the sixth season’s finale, that “Nancy’s predicament has gained meaning it once lacked, meaning which is evident in this tense conclusion,” but the conclusion of which he speaks is our dealing protagonists’ capture by the FBI. Perhaps most telling, fans and critics have panned Nancy as a character and as a mother. It seems plausible that we have trouble seeing women, especially those tasked with caring for children, in transgressive roles and even more plausible that we have trouble seeing them rewarded for their transgressions with autonomy – particularly a kind of rewarding autonomy that doesn’t look familiar to and isn’t sanctioned by society. Viewers could applaud Nancy’s autonomy if she gave up drug dealing for, say, a high-pressure corporate job or recognize retiring to an offbeat, but still settled, life at home as rewarding. But for Nancy, that’s not autonomy, and it’s no kind of reward.
There’s a lot of grist for the academic mill in Weeds, and I’ve only touched on a tiny margin here (the glaring – and hugely problematic – issues of race and class are, like The Wire‘s more nuanced representations of those subjects, way beyond the scope of this post). But Weeds tends to get passed over for more “serious” fare, like The Wire, which has been subject to rigorous academic scholarship – conferences, books, and classes have all been devoted to the show over the last five years. But Weeds – a 30-minute dramedy created by a woman, centered on a female dealer, and structured around her empowerment – has received no such academic attention that I can find. Anthropologists have studied female drug addicts and, to a lesser extent, dealers; many in the humanities and social sciences have looked at drug and addiction issues through a feminist lens or one that takes issues of gender, race, class, and/or socioeconomics into account. Scholarly critique of one of my favorite television shows may not guarantee that I get to make that phone call next year, but it would fill a gap in academic literature about drug dealers in pop culture: dealing with women.