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10 episodes of Weeds that paved the way for TV’s era of high-speed storytelling

Romany Malco, Tonye Patano, Mary-Louise Parker, Kevin Nealon, Elizabeth Perkins

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about—without having to watch the whole thing.

Weeds, Showtime’s dark comedy about a single mother of two dealing pot in the suburbs, premiered in December 2005. At the time of its premiere, only nine states had passed laws legalizing medical marijuana use. Americans who thought marijuana should remain illegal outnumbered those in support of legalization by a two-to-one margin. Around the time Weeds ended its eight-season run in September 2012, nine more states and the District Of Columbia had since approved medical marijuana, while Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Public opinion on legalization evolved dramatically while Weeds was on the air. Anti-marijuana crusaders could no longer claim a majority supported their views. If there was still a national aversion to legalized pot, it was a slight one. The statistical difference between the pro- and anti-marijuana camps dropped to within the margin of error.


Television certainly played a role in shifting public attitudes about marijuana, lending momentum to legalization efforts just as the medium has done with countless other controversial issues. Weeds probably deserves the lion’s share of the credit for television’s role in reshaping the national discourse. The show’s success was transformative for Showtime, which, at the time Weeds sprouted, was struggling to gain a foothold in the pay-cable original programming market. HBO had a near monopoly on boundary-pushing original content, making the victory sweeter for Showtime after the network snapped up the pitch from creator Jenji Kohan that HBO reportedly passed on. Weeds went on to become the highest-rated original series in Showtime’s history and the first to generate considerable buzz and widespread critical acclaim. The show’s profile increased even more after its star, Mary-Louise Parker, nabbed a 2005 Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy Series, beating out all four Desperate Housewives for the honor. Weeds was a major success in its early years, but not as a result of being true to its subject matter. To the extent the show helped shaped the legalization conversation, its influence can be attributed to how unrealistically it depicted attitudes towards marijuana.

Weeds follows Nancy Botwin (Parker) as she learns the business of drug trafficking, a means of supporting—and distracting herself from—her young sons Silas (Hunter Parrish) and Shane (Alexander Gould). Nancy builds her business and client base with the help of Doug Wilson (Kevin Nealon), who works as an accountant and city councilman whenever he’s not burning through his own ample kush supply. Doug’s fondness for cannabis facilitates a fast friendship with Nancy’s slacker brother-in-law Andy (Justin Kirk), who insists on taking a role in the Botwins’ lives after the death of his brother leaves Nancy a widow. In Weeds’ first season, Nancy dives headfirst into the world of marijuana commerce, which proves to be an especially seedy industry (to say nothing of the stems.) But she’s got some serious beginner’s luck. Her business is already thriving in the pilot, “You Can’t Miss The Bear,” as she delivers skunky baggies to her eager clientele of grade-school teachers and soccer moms.


Kohan initially set Nancy’s adventures in the fictional Los Angeles suburb of Agrestic, a town so remarkably permissive about marijuana use it borders on magical realism. Granted, California has been first out of the gate with most pro-marijuana initiatives, but Agrestic is so replete with stoners looking to score that Nancy’s biggest challenge is figuring out how to serve more of them. The widespread marijuana disapproval in the real world didn’t make it to Agrestic, where with a couple of exceptions, the citizens either smoke weed avidly or are indifferent to those who do. The specter of law enforcement looms over Nancy’s illegal enterprise, but politely so. At no point is there any real risk of Nancy being caught and jailed. Even when she becomes romantically involved with DEA agent Peter (Martin Donovan) and he finds out about her business, he declares her a small fish and says his agency is focused on higher value targets.

The only danger Nancy faces is from other dealers and distributors, most of whom are black and brown people who menace Nancy in order to force her out of—or deeper into—the life of crime. Kohan went on to create Orange Is The New Black using the vaguely racist template she established with Weeds: a well-to-do, white female protagonist is thrust into a world of swarthy degenerates, a world to which she doesn’t belong by virtue of her whiteness. Despite the surface similarity, Orange couldn’t be more different than Weeds. On the latter show, Kohan figured out how to create nuanced, dimensional non-white characters, as well as how to sustain the show’s quality over time. Weeds survived for eight seasons, but it was only creatively successful for two of those seasons, or at most, two and a half. Many of the show’s biggest fans would struggle to make a compelling argument in favor of seasons four, five, seven, and eight.


Weeds’ decline is foundational to the unflattering narrative around Showtime’s original programming. Conventional wisdom holds that a Showtime series is strong for one or possibly two seasons, then the network turns a once-vibrant show into a sad husk by renewing it season after season long past the show’s prime. That criticism was mostly true of Dexter, which arrived the following year and also sputtered through eight seasons. It’s also true of Nurse Jackie, which is about to conclude its seven-season run, and probably wouldn’t exist without Weeds. But even though Weeds was the basis for the unflattering Showtime narrative, the show doesn’t actually fit into it. Showtime suits weren’t responsible for the show’s creative decline. The blame falls squarely on Kohan and co-showrunner Roberto Benabib, who built the show for maximum speed, then cruised leisurely with no destination in mind. Weeds was a furiously paced show before furiously paced shows became the norm, and before American audiences were conditioned against assuming every television show was intended to be open-ended or run for 10 years.

Weeds was ahead of its time in more ways than one. It wasn’t just in front of the marijuana curve, it was in front of the storytelling curve. From Empire, to Scandal, to Homeland, to Game Of Thrones, to pretty much anything with Ryan Murphy’s name on it, today’s television audience has come to expect high-speed narratives full of twists and shocking rug-pulls. Though it was a half-hour comedy, Weeds was delivering the startling moments now expected of drama series, years before any of those shows premiered. Kohan made bold choices early and often, and while some of those choices paid off better than others, her biggest sin was her refusal to let Weeds settle into a rut, no matter how comfortable. (Not even Weedslovely credit sequence, which features Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes,” was safe from Kohan’s red pen.) The show faltered due to Kohan’s inability to stabilize the show after exploding its status quo, which she did at least once per season. But at its best, Weeds is an early example of the type of television show we now take for granted, shows with the no-brakes momentum of a nighttime soap and the writing, acting, and visual savvy of prestige fare. The following 10 episodes exemplify Weeds’ high-speed storytelling:


“The Punishment Light” (season one, episode eight):

Nancy is the source of Weeds’ lack of impulse control. When the show ricochets in an unexpected direction, as it so often does, the plot point is usually the result of Nancy making a rash, risky decision that usually involves having sex with someone she should probably avoid altogether. In season one, Nancy hasn’t developed into the daredevil she would eventually become, but “The Punishment Light” provides a vision of what’s to come. Nancy spends much of the first season in fear of a mysterious rival dealer who first makes his presence known by chucking pennies into her car to ruin the paint job. In a more menacing overture, Nancy’s rival leaves a mountain of pennies in front of her door to let her know she and her family can be gotten to. Once Nancy unmasks the culprit, Alejandro (Vincent Laresca), she orders him to follow her to an alley so they can iron out their differences. The solution? Hasty, public sex on the roof of Alejandro’s car. Those who disapprove of Nancy’s sexy maverick shtick can’t say they weren’t warned early.


“The Godmother” (season one, episode 10):

Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan has said on several occasions that he would have likely abandoned his show had he known about Weeds, but the shows executed the suburban drug dealer concept quite differently. One of the biggest differences comes in “The Godmother,” Weeds’ season one finale. By the end of the episode, Nancy’s sons and housekeeper have discovered the truth about her work. In one scene, Nancy convenes her war council (including Alejandro!) to discuss how to take her modest pot business to the next level while young Shane looks on from the living room. With the exception of her boozy, busybody neighbor Celia (Elizabeth Perkins), there’s no one left for Nancy to hide from, which is a precarious spot for a show like Weeds to be in. Series with illegally employed protagonists (like Breaking Bad) usually ration the story by allowing the character to maintain their charade for at least two seasons. Weeds could have kept Nancy’s loved ones in the dark, but as usual, Kohan resisted the temptation to maintain the show’s status quo. Once Nancy’s secret was out, the show could never be the same again.


“Last Tango In Agrestic” (season two, episode three):

“The Godmother” ends with a startling cliffhanger: Nancy doesn’t discover soft-spoken Peter is a DEA agent until after she spends the night with him, establishing Peter as the new character Nancy has to evade. At first blush, it seems like Kohan had second thoughts about unburdening Nancy by revealing her secret profession and quickly drafted a replacement. False alarm. By the second episode of season two, Peter knows about Nancy’s business but vows to her that he won’t allow his professional obligations interfere with his crush on her. Nancy seems to accept the news too easily, but the elegantly structured “Last Tango In Agrestic” deftly reveals why. Nancy and Peter sneak off to elope in Las Vegas, Peter’s scheme to put Nancy at ease about their relationship by securing his right to invoke spousal privilege if asked to testify against her. “Last Tango” symbolizes Weeds’ emphasis on change, a theme echoed by the opening credit sequence. While season one stuck with Reynolds’ “Little Boxes,” season two featured a different musical artist covering the song each week.


“Mrs. Botwin’s Neighborhood” (season two, episode five):

The second season of Weeds is easily its best, due in part to Martin Donovan and his unsettling performance as the lovesick Peter. As the season progresses, Peter slowly unravels as he accepts that his marriage to Nancy is purely a business transaction and not a path to wedded bliss. But until he figures that out, he makes grand gestures hoping to win Nancy’s heart. In “Mrs. Botwin’s Neighborhood,” Peter spoils Nancy with a singular display of devotion for his new bride. He orders his DEA team to raid and shutter the grow houses of Nancy’s biggest competitor, leaving Nancy as the only game in town in the ultimate seller’s market. (What do you get the woman who has everything? A wider territory for her drug trafficking enterprise.) It’s one of many bold story choices in season two, which boasts a level of consistency the show was never able to achieve again.


“Go” (season three, episode 15):

Weeds showed its first signs of strain in season three, which left Kohan the unenviable task of untangling the knotted cliffhangers from “Pittsburgh,” the season two finale. “Pittsburgh” was such a fine mess, the majority of season three feels like the hangover it left behind. The show introduces several new characters, including Matthew Modine as a scheming real estate developer, but season three struggles to forge its own path because so much of season two’s debris is in its way. Sometimes the answer is to burn it all down and start over again, which is precisely what Nancy does at the end of “Go,” the season three finale. As California wildfires threaten the town, Nancy gives fate a nudge by dousing her living room with kerosene and burning down the house herself. The cleansing by fire is the biggest “What now?” moment in Weeds, and “Go” began the show’s tradition of turning out season finales so tantalizing, they could get the show’s most exasperated viewers invested in what happens next.


“If You Work For A Living, Why Do You Kill Yourself Working?” (season four, episode 13):

“Go” told the audience to expect a radically different Weeds, but the fourth season was such a departure, there was no way to adequately prepare for it. After fleeing the ’burbs, Nancy and her core crew settle into a quiet beach town near San Diego. Weeds was no longer about the suburbs, hence the decision to swap out the Agrestic opening credits for customized title cards to introduce each episode. And, for the most part, Weeds was no longer about weed. Silas eventually takes up the family business, and Doug and Andy continue their profound smoke sessions, but marijuana was downgraded from series regular to recurring cast after season three. The drug trafficking becomes human trafficking. Nancy agrees to run point on a sham maternity store established to launder drug money, but is crushed by her conscience when she discovers the store is the terminus of a tunnel being used to smuggle people from Tijuana. The operation’s head honcho is Esteban Reyes (Demian Bichir), who splits his time between running the illegal business, acting as the mayor of Tijuana, and carrying on a torrid affair with Nancy. Esteban is less than pleased upon finding out Nancy reported him to the DEA, and he prepares to have her killed. But if the audience was also considering ending its relationship with Nancy following the wan fourth season, that decision got more complicated once Nancy reveals to Esteban that she’s carrying his baby.


“All About My Mom” (season five, episode 13):

Weeds continued its erratic evolution in season five, but by the time the season reached its finale, dedicated viewers already knew the drill. Weeds seasons have a rhythm. It doesn’t matter what actually happens in the season or how deeply you’re invested in the plot. Somehow, Kohan finds a way to drag you back in with another game-changing stunt. Season five was not terribly different from season four, except that with each subsequent season, it got harder to justify the presence of half the cast regulars. When Nancy’s pot colleagues Conrad (Romany Malco) and Heylia (Tonye Patano) were written out of the show after “Go,” their absence seemed unconscionable, but it wound up being a blessing in disguise for fans of those characters. Once Weeds became about Nancy’s whims, Kohan and her team struggled to keep the supporting characters occupied, frequently reducing them to broad, forgettable comedy. Thankfully, there was a plan in place for Shane. Shane came out of nowhere to become Weeds’ most interesting character, never more so than when he bludgeoned Esteban’s political handler to death in season five’s wicked cliffhanger.


“Theoretical Love Is Not Dead” (season six, episode 13):

Weeds came admirably close to a full-fledged creative resurgence in its sixth season. The upside of Kohan’s devil-may-care approach is that every reinvention came with a new opportunity to invent the show anew. Like the two seasons before it, season six is its own creature. It finds the Botwin family as a band of fugitives on the move following Shane’s murder-by-croquet-mallet. Nancy, wishing to spare Shane the probably lethal consequences, absconds with her family (including Baby Stevie) without a destination in mind. With Esteban hot on their heels, the Botwin clan winds its way around the country in an RV, determined to turn think of their displacement as just another new adventure. The Botwins ultimately decide to relocate to Copenhagen, but Esteban corners Nancy before she can board the plane. As Esteban leads Nancy to her death, Silas, Shane, and Andy try to muster their goodbyes in a scene demonstrating Weeds’ uncanny ability to pull poignant moments out of thin air. Nancy isn’t ready to say goodbye either, so she pulls off another death-defying stunt, confessing to Shane’s crime to get herself arrested and changing the show’s trajectory yet again.


“Bags” (season seven, episode one):

To Weeds’ credit, the show never resorted to trickery to get its characters out of a jam or leapt forward in time to avoid having to explain in detail the aftermath of its paradigm-shifting finales. “Bags” is the only Weeds season premiere that doesn’t pick up immediately where the preceding finale left off. The episode catches up with Nancy three years after her Hail Mary confession in “Theoretical Love Is Not Dead,” and her circumstances have changed considerably. She’s being transferred to a Manhattan halfway house after serving short time—all part of a plea deal offering Nancy a lenient sentence in exchange for her help taking down Esteban. Meanwhile, the Botwin boys made their flight to Copenhagen and spent three years reinventing themselves as mysterious expats. Weeds typically dropped a bomb in its finales but the impact wasn’t felt until well into the next season. “Bags” upended the formula with its time jump, putting all the surprises up front and then piling more on top of them.


“God Willing And The Creek Don’t Rise” (season eight, episode 11):

Kohan was well aware of how many Weeds fans she upset and alienated through the show’s lengthy experimental phase, and as the show wound to a close, she tried to atone. In the show’s 100th and penultimate episode, “God Willing And The Creek Don’t Rise,” Nancy and the gang return to where their journey began. It doesn’t have the same name—Regrestic is the rebranded version—but the quiet, sun-soaked nook is mostly how the Botwins remember it, complete with beloved characters from Weeds’ early days. The return of Conrad and Silas’ first love Megan (Shoshannah Stern), among others, is fan service at its best, but it isn’t only that. The choice to head back to Regrestic represents significant growth for Nancy, a woman who has spent her life escaping old quandaries by replacing them with new ones. Nancy once thought of herself as a free spirit, but she comes to realize how costly her freedom has been to Andy, Silas, and Shane and tries to make amends. The Regrestic reunion was an intuitive story choice, which was a curveball in itself. After eight seasons of unexpected twists and turns, Weeds’ final surprise was to take the path most traveled by.


Availability: The complete series is available on DVD and can be streamed through Netflix and Showtime Anytime.

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