The Not-So-Helpless Widow
You can't judge a book by it's cover... nor can you discern much about a television show from it's description. Think about the short blurb describing TWIN PEAKS as simply the story of an unconventional FBI detective investigating the murder of a homecoming queen in the pacific northwest. While that description is not inaccurate, it is far from sufficient in conveying the true content of the series. The brief plot description of RED WIDOW convinced me to give it a try (a widowed mother trying to pay off her murdered husband's debt to the mob), but I really had very little idea what to expect from the show's pilot. Some of the promotional spots airing on ABC had me a little concerned, implying that this would be just another overly melodramatic soap opera where all of the female characters wear designer clothes while making catty comments about the other women, with all of the men as either beefcake window dressing fashion accessories or weak-willed spineless jellyfish (sound familiar?). Fortunately, RED WIDOW is not that show. In fact, the two-hour premiere was much more subtle and complex than I had any right to expect, and set the potential for some very good television writing. Whether or not RW will actually live up to the promise of it's debut remains to be seen, which is always the problem with reviewing the earliest episodes of a new series; however, WIDOW couldn't be off to a better start.
Rhada Mitchell stars as Marta Walraven, who comes from a Russian mob family led by the charasmatic Andrei Petrov (recognizeable Croatian character actor Rade Šerbedžija). While the pilot does not give us much information about the background of this family, Most of them come off as sympathetic - if flawed - individuals. As a lower-ranking mob family, it's members are involved in certain criminal activities, but this seems to be mostly contained to smuggling and drugs and not so much murder and extortion. The more violent crime appears to be reserved for the enigmatic and malevolent rival crime boss Christian Schiller, whom - we are told in the beginning - no one dares to cross. Marta's husband, Evan (played by HELL ON WHEELS star Anson Mount) engages with Marta's brothers in the family business of illegal smuggling, until one of the brothers, Irwin, becomes too greedy for his own good and steals a large shipment of drugs from the dangerous Schiller. Soon afterward, Marta's husband is murdered in front of their young son, and Irwin is arrested on a felony weapons charge by the FBI. He subsequently tries to cover his guilt by claiming that it was Evan who was behind the theft. When Marta attempts to make restitution to Schiller by returning the drugs, she finds them missing. Matters are further complicated by Schiller's insistence that he did not murder Evan, and cites as his rationale that he cannot recoup his money if Evan is dead. Instead, Schiller conscripts Marta into service as recompense for the stolen drugs and the damage to his reputation and "trust" (as he puts it). He implies that Marta will be released from service after facilitating the import of some "merchandise" which Schiller refers to as a "consignment" through the port, but we all know that this will not be the end of her ordeal; otherwise this would be a stand-alone film and not a series.
If Schiller did not have Evan killed, then who did and why? What happened to the missing cache of drugs? These are just two of the questions left to us at the end of the two-hour premiere; and I do not expect that these questions will be definitively answered any time soon. However, the mysteries of the series are really secondary to it's more interesting thematic questions, such as "how far will Marta go to protect herself and her family, and can she maintain any kind of moral standards in doing so?". In the pilot, we see her navigate her way around a precarious situation to the best possible moral solution, but will she be able to keep this up? And what will be the consequences to her family? It appears that the writers have set up a loose metaphor for the plight of the single mother who must fill both roles in lieu of the absent father (bread-winner, protector, disciplinarian, etc.) while keeping her children on a righteous path, in spite of her own necessary moral compromises. If this remains to be the thematic thrust of the series, then this may prove to be something special.
RED WIDOW airs Sunday nights at 9:00 PM CST on ABC.