In the standard cultural and popular nomenclature, widows are black. But it is likely appropriate that ABC’s newest drama, which premiered its first two episodes Sunday night, is entitled Red Widow. For the show deliberately eschews black-and-white dichotomies, in its overall execution and particularly in its scrutiny upon the eponymous widow, who enters the business of drug smuggling as a means of attempting to extricate her children from a mess created by her extended family.
Radha Mitchell plays the central character, Marta Walraven, a suburban housewife with three children who has been content to accept tacitly the illegally acquired funds provided by her husband Evan (Anson Mount), himself a small piece of a larger operation presided over by her father Andrei Petrov (Rade Šerbedžija). As the series starts, Marta pressures Evan to back away from their tenuous illegal way of life, but just as he is about to do so, he is mysteriously gunned down in front of their home. Seeking an escape for her children from these dangers, Marta comes to believe that the only way to extricate herself fully is to finish the job Evan and her family had started; she thus places herself in the employ of the cold-hearted drug boss Schiller (Goran Visjnic), a man even her father fears.
With an early March premiere, Red Widow is obviously a mid-season replacement show (farewell, 666 Park Avenue), and with mixed reviews, its future is uncertain. What I find intriguing about the series initially is the ways in which it explores the theme of generational sin. In the Torah, God claims, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exodus 20:5, ESV. Cf. also Exodus 34:7, Leviticus 26:39-40, Numbers 14:18, Deuteronomy 5:9, Psalm 109:14). Yet in the exilic prophets, that emphasis changes; Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 18 both depict a setting in which each person is accountable for his or her own iniquities. While the theological details of this shift in understanding are myriad, the two polarities in part likely represent a reality that we all intuit instinctively: that while every person is an individual agent who bears individual responsibility, family and cultural contexts can create conditions under which choosing the just or righteous course of action is made disproportionately difficult. For an individual trapped in this setting, moral and ethical decisions can become increasingly complex and unclear.
Red Widow’s strength lies in its depiction of those complexities. Before she began penning Twilight movies, series creator Melissa Rosenberg was a regular writer for Dexter, a show that glories its moral ambivalences. Network television does not allow for quite such edginess, but even within its inherent limitations, Red Widow places Marta in situations where the “right” answer is not immediately evident. And these situations themselves are largely generated by the iniquities of her father, which Marta and her siblings have allowed to be passed down to them and which, she (justifiably) fears are now being transmitted to her own children. Of course, any person, regardless of upbringing, may encounter situations that appear to confound easy moral resolution; and I certainly would concur with Scripture in maintaining that there must be some way out without sinning (1 Corinthians 10:13). Yet we are undeniably shaped by our nurture, and those nurtured into cozy complacency and complicity with wrongdoing may find the process of disentangling themselves to be trickier than those without set patterns in place. In Red Widow, it remains to be seen how Marta plans to escape, how many moral compromises she may feel she needs to make, and how (or if) she will be able to keep her own generation’s iniquities from entrapping her children. But if the series explores this theme thoughtfully over its run, it could be worth watching.