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At second glance, Why Women Kill is an addictive feminist serial

Photo: CBS All Access
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Sometimes reviewing a new TV show based just on one or two episodes can be an iffy proposition. On one hand, we really can’t judge on any more than when the networks et al. decide to send us. But it’s a tall order trying to suck in a viewer for good just based on a pilot or so; we all know debut episodes (like 30 Rock or the American version of The Office) that barely hinted at what these shows would eventually accomplish.

When I reviewed Why Women Kill before its debut in August, I was dumbfounded that Marc Cherry, creator of tight female bonds in shows like Golden Girls, Desperate Housewives, and Devious Maids, chose to separate his three vibrant, engaging heroines—Ginnifer Goodwin, Lucy Liu, and Kirby Howell-Baptiste—into distinct timelines. Goodwin is BethAnn, the picture perfect 1960s housewife whose husband is cheating on her; Liu is Simone, an over-the-top diva socialite whose finds out her husband is gay; and Howell-Baptiste is Taylor, who’s in a modern-day open marriage but decides to bring in her friend Jade into her home to make a throuple. At first glance, while I was intrigued by the 10-week murder buildup premise—you start out finding out that someone in each timeline ends up dying, but have no idea who—the whole exercise seemed like a case of splashy style over substance. Each timeline is meticulously detailed down to the most minute furnishings and accessories, and the cast is stellar. But besides numerous jokes about killing your husband, what was Why Women Kill really trying to say?

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And yet… I have to watch a lot of TV (it’s my job, okay?) so the things that I actually watch for pleasure, on my own time, are few and far between. (I spent a lot of time this fall frantically trying to get caught up on Succession, for example.) But curiosity about Why Women Kill kept gnawing at me. How was BethAnn’s plan to secretly befriend her husband’s mistress April panning out? Would Simone still able to keep her affair with her best friend’s son Tommy a secret? How long was it going to take Taylor to realize that bringing a third party into your marriage will likely upend your whole life? As the weeks went on, I found Why Women Kill even more suspenseful, moving, and thoroughly enjoyable.

As I waited anxiously each week for each episode to unfurl, I was reminded that Cherry has made his whole career writing for women, because he gets it. Each of these women is trapped in the stereotypes of the era. Each of them transcends the patterns that she’s caught in to become a better version of herself. Goodwin basically has to carry her whole storyline on her narrow shoulders, but she’s absolutely up to the task. Her sunshiny BethAnn rarely breaks her steely June Cleaver exterior, even as various cracks devastate the falsely perfect homelife she’s created. Refusing to surrender to unhappiness, she weaves a web of domestic deception that mobsters would envy, crafting a path to a happier life for herself and her abused neighbor.

The appeal of Why Women Kill transcends the hairpin plot turns that would make a soap opera dizzy (although those are also fun as well). I should have had more faith in Marc Cherry’s ability to imbue actual heart into outlandish plot. When Simone finds out that Karl has AIDS, their relationship instantly shifts from bitchily contentious to sentimentally engrossing. She discards her superficial obsessions and becomes an actual caretaker to Karl, so that the two become the most heartwarming relationship on the show, with the best chemistry. Pros like Liu and the ceaselessly charming Jack Davenport make it look easy, but when the pair prepares for their farewell in the finale, I doubt there was a dry eye on the set.

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Howell-Baptiste’s segment portrays the danger of open marriage: the ultimate vulnerability you have by opening up your home to another person. As Jade, Alexandra Daddario effortlessly shifts from seductively guileless lust object into the malevolent stranger in the house: She unearths all the worst parts of Taylor and Eli’s marriage, like his addiction, and her workaholic tendencies. As Eli, a post-Veep Reid Scott wisely lets the women take front stage, playing the perfect patsy in Jade’s plan for dominance. So it’s Taylor who has to figure out how to defend her home from this interloper, becoming the the hero in her own story. Ultimately, all three women are, making Why Women Kill a feminist force in whatever decade it’s depicting: No one is coming to save these three, so they figure out how to save themselves.

Without even a Mary Alice voiceover to guide us, Cherry utilizes a string of other narrative devices that change with each episode: from a girl group that transforms with the decades to commentary from the neighbors to explanations from the women themselves. They help frame each episode as careful chapters, preventing these whirlwind plots from spinning out of control completely, even as BethAnn collapses in the middle of the street and Simone again throws a drink in someone’s face and Taylor wrestles with her feelings for Jade, wondering if there’s any way a throuple could actually work long-term.

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I found myself not just looking forward to future episodes, but outright jonesing for them, pouncing on them almost the minute they became available—especially the finale. Fortunately, it answered all the questions raised in the pilot in a thoroughly satisfying manner, weaving these disparate timelines together. Yes, at the end there are three dead bodies, and yes, some of those might even be the ones you expected, but how and why manages to surprise, even stun. Why Women Kill depicts how women often have a tougher road to hoe, in terms of everyday labor (whether at home or at work), attention to appearance and reputation, offering truckloads of support often while not receiving any themselves. The decades may change, but the abiding strength of these women does not.

Now that these three storylines are wrapped up, and CBS has just announced a second Why Women Kill season, Cherry has said that another season would involve all-new characters and cast. Which is exciting, but it’s also sad to see this lineup depart; fortunately they leave behind a tidy, highly enjoyable 10-episode package. If you’re looking for a soapy weekend binge-watch, I recommend checking out Why Women Kill—and if you haven’t seen it yet, you’re luckier than I was, because you probably won’t be able to stop yourself from watching the whole thing at once.

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About the author

Gwen Ihnat

Gwen Ihnat is the Editorial Coordinator for The A.V. Club.