As the antihero took over our screens in the early 2000s with iconic leads like The Sopranos’ Tony Soprano, Mad Men’s Don Draper and Breaking Bad’s Walter White, their wives Carmela, Betty and Skyler didn’t just add complexity to their husbands’ characters; they were complex, fascinating women in their own right. So who she is as a mother, and how is our culture updating this trope so she can take center stage?
Who is the TV antihero, underneath the layers of lies and pretending? His wife can tell us — she’s an extension of his self-image, a physical manifestation of his desires, and a mirror of him in the home. As the antihero took over our screens in the early 2000s with iconic leads like The Sopranos’s Tony Soprano, Mad Men’s Don Draper, and Breaking Bad’s Walter White, their wives Carmela, Betty, and Skyler didn’t just add complexity to their husbands’ characters; they were complex, fascinating women in their own right.
As an emblem of domesticity, the antihero’s wife enables him to self-identify as a “family man,” and pretend that all his misdeeds are for the good of his wife and kids. But they also serve to highlight that — however much these men claim that their wrongdoing is separate from their unviolated, pure family home — it’s impossible to cleanly close the door on dirty business and retreat into the realm of pure domesticity. Rather, the antihero’s life is a complicated, interconnecting web, and his wife and children are inextricably caught — sometimes even actors — in it.
Carmela Soprano: “I have forsaken what is right for what is easy… allowing my children to be a part of it because I wanted things for them.” - The Sopranos
Ultimately, this figure demonstrates that what we do out in the world is part of our home life, and vice versa. Here’s our Take on how the antihero wife’s internal conflicts play out in the domestic sphere, who she is as a mother, and how our culture is updating this trope so she can take center stage.
What does an Antihero Look for in a Wife?
The antihero’s wife often throws his villainy into sharp relief. Sometimes, she’s an extension of him; the thing that legitimizes him. Other times, she’s his unwelcome conscience. Occasionally, she’s more of an antagonist: the anti- to an antihero. To better understand her, we’re going to take a closer look at three of TV’s best-loved (and hated) wives from the peak prestige-antihero era.
Carmela Soprano: The Mini Mobster at Home
Carmela Soprano marked new territory for onscreen mob wives in her understanding of and complicity with the shady world of gangsterism.
Prior to Carmela, the mob wife was often a symbol of purity, an opposing force to her husband, and — because she often knows little of the details of his business — a shield between his evil and the innocence of his children.
In the Godfather series, Michael Corleone’s wife Kay is not Italian (and therefore an outsider) and depicted as a morally upright obstacle to his sinister business. Carmela postures as pure in a similar way, making a dramatic show of her Catholicism, immaculate house, and manners; but her responsibility to her faith rarely goes deep enough to challenge the immorality on which she knows her financial security depends.
Carmela Soprano: “I’d go to my priest and I would cry and say how bad I felt about how my husband made his money, but that was bullshit.” - The Sopranos
In fact, Carmela goes so far as to twist her religion into an excuse to stay with Tony. Ultimately, her devotion to God is revealed to be a hollow part of a façade she creates to imply she is morally superior to Tony when really, she loves the benefits being his wife brings and is (in her core choices) the same as him.
Tony goes to lengths to keep his wife and home life separate and unsoiled by his business dealings or his numerous affairs, and we can see how livid Carmela is at the violation when he fails to.
Even though she knows what he’s up to, being openly confronted with the fact of it is too much for her — because her whole life depends on layers of denial, an act of purity and respectability that allows her to pretend the underlying foundation of violence (and “sin”) isn’t there.
But all that messy overlap — the fact that Tony’s home is not protected from his immoral and dangerous life outside of it— is representative of the stain Tony’s dealings inflict on the entire family.
Carmela does have a genuine desire to be virtuous inside of her; sometimes has periods where she doubts her life choices, considers leaving Tony, or is capable of a deeper reflectiveness on life and death. But ultimately, her bursts of flirting with being good (or better) also make her like Tony. Both spend a lot of time in the show weighing up psychological, emotional, or moral improvement —but in the end commit to the path of being corrupted, ruthless and selfish.
And while it’s easy to say we’d never do what Tony does, it might be easier for viewers to see parts of themselves in Carmela. If we had her house and her money and comforts, with occasional pangs of guilt, would we really take the leap to change our situation or do the right thing?
Ultimately, through Carmela, the show paints a portrait of how American materialist, consumerist culture relies on overlooking a lot of details of where wealth comes from. Carmela counters the assumption made by many an antihero (and if we’re honest, many of us) that work can be kept separate from the home life — that what we do out in the world doesn’t have to be part of who we are in private with our families.
But the evil we do out in the world follows us home and shapes who we (and our family) are, everywhere.
Betty Draper: The Picture-Perfect Housewife
Outwardly, Don and Betty are the perfect pair and it makes sense that a guy as slick as Don would pick a wife like Betty — a former model from a wealthy WASP family who puts infinite energy into appearing the seemingly perfect housewife. Having a woman like Betty on his arm is Don’s ultimate legitimization, an announcement that he belongs in the upper echelons of American society — somewhere he’s always felt he couldn’t fit in.
But even though Betty’s WASP-y eliteness is Don’s means of assimilating, she also reflects his internal struggle of feeling like a fraud. Don is a fraud in the literal sense — after all, Don Draper is a stolen identity —and Betty is an emotional fraud. She creates a perfect façade but underneath, she is deeply unhappy and feels out of control.
Betty’s form of domestic antiheroism, then, is the way in which she chooses appearance over deeper, more meaningful connection, something we’re always told is corruptive. Betty also appreciates Don for surface-deep beauty and the way she knows their joint aesthetic is enviable to the world, yet he’s a caricature of a Casanova, and can’t ever make her happy.
Betty Draper: “You never say you love me.” - Mad Men
She’s also so preoccupied with what she looks like to others that she is incapable of expressing herself or truly understanding her own emotions. Though she remains passive-aggressive to the end, after divorcing Don and giving up this pursuit of perfect imagery, she becomes a little more able to call him on his behavior, express her desires, and indulge in her fantasies.
In season six, she actually becomes his other woman. With her second husband Henry, Betty experiences being loved for more than her appearance. We actually see her eating, something she never seemed to do with Don. And when she puts on weight (mostly due to a tumor on her thyroid), Henry is just as accepting of how she looks.
Still, to her, her weight gain feels to her like a loss of self. Once she loses the weight, she regains confidence, as if feeling like her own person again. Whereas Don does make some strides in self-acceptance by the finale, Betty remains still so wrapped up in her beauty as her identity, that she continues to represent that choice of living for appearance until her tragic early death.
Skyler White: The Good Girl We ♥ to Hate
Where Carmela and Betty reflect and mirror their husbands, Skyler is an example of how the wives of antiheroes can oppose their husbands.
Show creator Vince Gilligan was actually shocked at the level of vitriol that Skyler, and Anna Gunn, the actress who played her, received from some viewers, but (while the show’s writing is critical of Walt) it’s also built into the show’s structure that morally upright Skyler (not unlike Kaye in the Godfather series) is anti- the high-octane drama Walt creates. She wants the good man she married back; but if she gets him, there’s no show.
At the beginning of the show, Walt works hard to protect Skyler’s innocence and her personality is a great illustration of how out-of-character Walt’s business interests initially are for him. It’s unfathomable to Skyler, for example, that Walt could even be smoking marijuana — let alone anything more sinister. The scene when he finally reveals the truth highlights their fundamentally different approaches to ethics. Walt sees his meth production as a complicated decision he’s had to make due to intelligently weighing a number of factors, but Skyler, acting as a much more rigid moral compass, sees it as a matter of right and wrong.
After he uses intimidation to prevent her from divorcing him, she eventually (due to a combination of Stockholm syndrome and her natural instincts to fix messes) becomes enmeshed in his business; she directs her detail-oriented intelligence toward legitimizing the money he earns; using the car wash to money launder is her idea.
Skyler White: “You took the seed money you won gambling, invested it in the car wash you worked at for four years, you hired your wife as a bookkeeper because guess what? She’s actually a bookkeeper.” - Breaking Bad
But in these later seasons, Skyler is increasingly fragile, lost, and emotionally underwater. Despite Walt’s fake justifications of cooking meth to provide for Skyler and the kids, in the end, Skyler doesn’t even want the money and ends up with worse than nothing, fighting public shame and legal threats.
All she ever wanted was a loving, safe, suburban life with her family — the thing Walt said he cared about but actually actively destroyed. So her ravaged, broken state in the end is all the more devastating, forcing Walt to stare at the choice he made: to sacrifice his family in his quest for power.
Mom’s a Gangster
The antihero wife is also typically an antihero mom. And it’s often when it comes to their children that these women tend to most imitate their husbands’ ruthless, gangster tactics. Carmela, the gangster-mom, is the prime example of this. Just as Tony (or any mafioso) uses force, or the threat of fear and violence, to muscle others into doing what he wants, when someone doesn’t want to write a college letter of recommendation for Meadow, Carmela makes it known she’s not “asking.”
And Anthony Jr.’s teacher accuses her of sleeping with him to help Anthony at school and improve his college prospects. Even though she starts seeing him due to (seemingly) genuine feelings, she thinks nothing of pressing him for increasingly demanding favors to benefit her son.
Carmela Soprano: “Do you think Union College is a good place for AJ?”
Mr. Wegler: “I don’t know. It could be.”
Carmela: “You know, maybe you could tell them how he’s a lot like you were when you were his age.” - The Sopranos
And it’s telling that Carmela is so used to her mafia world that she just thinks this is the normal way people operate.
In Ozark, the first hints we see of Wendy Byrde’s ruthless descent into antiheroism also come when her children are threatened.
Wendy Byrde: “You fuck with my daughter, you come near my house again, it’ll be you the vultures are pickin’ at.” - Ozark
This scene, where Wendy threatens the Langmore boys over their intimidation of her kids, comes after she’s gone to absurdly extreme lengths to find a particular ice cream flavor her daughter likes, and even lashes out at a supermarket employee over it. It’s an illustration of the double standards of both antihero parents’ personalities — they can justify all kinds of bad behavior if they’re acting for their families.
But for the antihero mom, that ferocity can be especially strong when linked to a primal urge to protect her kids. In The Kitchen, after Kathy’s husband endangers their children as part of a power grab, this marks a turning point in her transition into a full cold-blooded gangster herself; the reason is maternal, rather than business.
Of course, not all antihero mothers are animated by the desire to protect their kids. For example, The Americans’ antihero matriarch, Russian spy Elizabeth, uses her all-American kids as part of her seamless assimilation into life in the U.S. Elizabeth is shown to be more committed to Russia than her husband is; she’s an ideologue, eternally returning to her mission, and as her marriage is part of her espionage, her motherhood — although biological — often seems like a furthering of her disguise.
Behind some antiheroes is The antihero Mom-as-Villain. Mad Men made a joke of how terrible a mother Betty Draper was (and some viewers vilified her for it, even though Don was just absent and not even trying). But perhaps the best example of this trope is:
Livia Soprano: The Antihero Mom-as-Villain
Arguably the ultimate antihero’s wife in the Sopranos is Tony’s father’s wife — his mother, Livia. His psychologist Dr. Melfi proffers that Tony seeks relationships with women who remind him of his mother; and in the prequel movie The Many Saints of Newark, many viewers noticed the younger incarnation of Livia in the movie looks a lot like Carmela. Livia is fearsome, but her means of violence are psychological. She manipulates her children, and resents being confined to the domestic sphere.
Despite perhaps resembling Livia and also having those gangster instincts, in some ways Carmela is Tony trying to get away from his childhood life. The beautiful, manicured wife with a lavish lifestyle in a palatial home is both a symbol of how well he’s done for himself, and a stable, reliable presence unlike his mother.
Tony has spent years trying to get his mother to love him the way he wants her to, and she repays him by almost getting him whacked. So while Tony is the antihero of the piece, it’s Livia who’s the bad guy, to the point that the audience is almost rooting for Tony when he goes to smother her in hospital.
The Wife as Antihero
In recent antihero shows, we’re being treated to an ever more nuanced portrayal of the home as a microcosm of the wider world. While the complex antihero wives of the early 2000s began to articulate the ways in which criminality enters the domestic sphere, shows like Ozark give us a full-blown nuclear family (crime) business.
Arguably, Wendy Byrde is not an antihero’s wife but her show’s lead antihero; she’s even deeper in and more natural at the mob mentality than her numbers-man husband Marty, and way more likely to get her hands dirty.
She even engages her kids in the family’s criminal activity. Her descent from stay-at-home mom into the cartel also highlights the way that power can become intoxicating, especially for women who’ve felt impotent in or unsuited to a more traditional housewife role.
Elsewhere, in Kevin Can F**k Himself, the ‘Kevin’ character (who has emerged in different incarnations, since the advent of the sitcom) isn’t the hero but the villain of the piece. He’s a boorish, selfish, controlling misogynist with very little care for his wife.
Alison McRoberts: “He didn’t like something that was my own so he took it away from me… like my friends, like any shred of life that is my own.” - Kevin can F**k Himself
As she slowly realizes how terrible he is and makes her own plan to kill him, Allison becomes an unlikely antihero, getting us to actively root for her to kill this man who has kept her down. Each antihero is of their time; Tony Soprano symbolized the richness and excess of the late 90s, Walter White represented a post-crash antihero. Allison is an antihero for the post #MeToo era. No longer does the antihero’s wife have to be a reflection of him, or limit her transgressions to the domestic realm.
When a wife or mother is centered in the antiheroic family story, we uncover different motivations and different modus operandi — yielding new insights about the ways we all might break bad.