You’ve seen this family before. Mom is blonde, a bit tense—probably a Type A—loves her family, lives in terror anything bad will ever happen to them. Dad is more laid back, with the scruffy beard and the hair he maybe washed yesterday, got the definite “I’m in control, sweetie, just trust me” vibe going on. Three kids: youngest is sweet, vulnerable, easily damaged. Middle kid, only daughter, she barely exists yet, although she’s into art, and she’s starting to ask difficult questions. Oldest son, still in high school, resents the dad for reasons that remain elusive, still basically a decent guy, and rises to the occasion when Mom needs help in a crisis. And Mom’s family, with the saintly sister, the sleazy brother, the divorced parents, the tension that comes in trying to arrange family gatherings without making anyone upset. Oh, and Mom’s dad’s involved with organized crime, as is her brother—and, unfortunately, her husband. But ignore that for a second, that’s just the hook. Look at the family. It’s the same upper middle class folks, with the same basic relationships, that’ve been done dozens, if not hundreds, of times before. Very white, very casually affluent, with all the angst built in like the pre-programmed radio stations in a new car.
Then the husband gets shot, and Mom has to step up to defend her family, and things actually get kind of interesting. Eventually.
Before interesting happens, though, Red Widow has some out-of-the-box problems. Pilots are often clunky, racing to introduce the players, many of whose importance won’t become clear until weeks or months into the show. (If the show is lucky enough to get those weeks.) The first hour of Red Widow’s two hour première is mostly concerned with arranging the life of Marta Walraven (Radha Mitchell) into the necessary contortions to justify the series’ main premise. So we start with a drug robbery that turns into a minor massacre, and then pile on domestic drama amidst the intimations of malfeasance and mob violence and so forth. Marta’s sister, Kat (Jaime Ray Newman) is getting married, there’s a wedding to plan for, and, oops, looks like Boris, Marta’s younger son (Jakob Salvati), found daddy’s gun, brought it to school, and threatened a bully with it. Boris is maybe 8 years old, and it’s an intensely unsettling scene to see him draw down on some older kid, given the unavoidable echoes of the last few years. I’m not sure if the writers quite realize what they’re playing with, given how much the kid’s vulnerability and suffering is used as a plot motivator in both these episodes (which basically means he’s receiving psychological trauma which could scar him for life primarily to make sure Marta behaves in certain ways), but Salvati does a good job of making his screentime as haunting as possible. Plus, there’s a great scene two-thirds through the first episode that really nails the way adults can use children under the guise of protecting them, so here’s hoping there are some solid long term plans for this stuff.
Like I said, though, problems. It’s all a bit cluttered, but really, the biggest issue with the pilot is that its most interesting character dies halfway through. As Evan Wulraven, Anson Mount is tasked with being the handsome, balancing center of Marta’s life for about 20 minutes, and he does a good job with it; Mount has a laid-back, lived-in charisma that didn’t get a lot of chances to surface on Hell On Wheels (at least, not in the few episodes I saw), and his compromised position as someone who wants to do stay within the law, but also understands the demands of situation, automatically makes him more compelling than his wife. Marta’s problem is that it’s hard to know exactly what she knows about anything, and Mitchell isn’t at her best when she’s trying to convey self-righteous desperation. At first, this isn’t a huge issue, but as soon as Evan shuffles off the mortal coil, Marta has to fill the gap, and things look pretty dire. The death of a seemingly major character (even one as pre-warned as this one is; it’s even in the title) can provide a shot in the arm at the start of a story, or it can squander a potentially interesting relationship for the sake the narrative the writer really wants to tell. The latter seemed to be the case here.
The set-up, then, is that Marta has to go to great lengths (including—gasp—breaking the law) to protect her kids, now that Evan has gone and left them in a world of various hurts. There is, of course, a single bad guy who controls Marta’s most pressing debt, and that bad guy (played by Goran Visnjic in a kind of variation on his role in The Deep End) turns out to be also handsome and seemingly friendly, so you just know there will be some kind of romance in a season or two, forcing Marta to decide between a law-abiding life and the far sexier one with bullets and fast cash. But that’s still in the future. For these first two episodes, we get the setup, and the show’s first attempt to translate that setup into a valid dramatic storyline. The setup is shaky: With Evan gone, Boris is the only truly likeable character left, and it’s hard to know why Marta doesn’t just go to the cops with her troubles. (They pay some lip service to the bad guy being really, really bad, but still.) And Marta herself, the character who’s transformation from pampered house-wife to criminal mastermind should be the show’s engine, is poorly defined, generic, like a variable plugged into an equation—she could be anybody, really, which makes it harder to care.
The second episode, though, is a big step forward; the show doesn’t suddenly fix all its problems, but it seems much easier to imagine this as a weekly drama which would be worth giving a damn about, something soapy, occasionally violent, kinda sexy, and fun. It’s impossible to get too much into it without spoilers, but suffice to say, Marta finds herself in a position where she has to actually start making good on her determination to pay off her husband’s debts. That means learning how to commit some crime, and its pretty well-handled; there’s a fantasy aspect to what happens, no question, but it’s also fascinating to see someone have to learn how to be the bad guy manages to balance Marta’s soul-searching with her willingness to do whatever’s necessary so that neither side comes off as shortchanged. Just as important, Radha Mitchell starts to open up and have some fun with the part, and you get more of a sense of Marta as a person, which makes her someone you can root for. A couple of the other characters start to develop as well (Luke Goss, as Marta’s father’s maybe bodyguard, gets a couple of excellent scenes). It’s not quite worth a blanket recommendation yet, but there’s a promising focus to the show by the end of these two episodes, a sense that writers and cast have ideas worth exploring. Fingers crossed they'll get their chance.