The Overdue Rise Of TV’s Female Gangsters

This summer's Animal Kingdom and Queen of the South give us some great female antiheroes

The way Hollywood tells it, a woman’s place in organized crime is six feet under, or, if she's lucky, in a gilded cage. On The Sopranos, for instance, the female characters connected to Tony’s crew were variations on Drea de Matteo’s Adriana (RIP) or Edie Falco’s Carmela. That show’s lone lady goodfella, Lorraine Calluzzo (Patti D'Arbanville), appeared in just three episodes, and, in one, she offers to fellate her assassins in exchange for her life. It wasn’t, shall we say, the brightest moment for women on TV.

But female crime lords have been in charge of their respective territories since the ’70s — a fact television finally caught up with this year. Two cable dramas, Animal Kingdom (TNT) and Queen of the South (USA Network), are compellingly rewriting the mob and cartel genres by putting women at the center of their stories. The results, respectively, are one of the best family dramas of the year and a notable summer treat about female ambition and survival.

One question always arises in my mind when a glass ceiling is broken: What the hell took so long? With the case of female gangsters, I’d argue that anti-heroine protagonists are still a new-ish trend on TV, especially on the dramatic side, and that we remain unused to seeing violent women onscreen. To corral a half-joking Liz Lemon to my side, "Why aren't there more female serial killers? What does that say about society?" Watching women do terrible things is arguably as important as watching them achieve great feats; women are human beings, after all — not saints. Our struggles and stories should be just as interesting for their moral complexity and darker impulses as men’s are. And if the competing biopics about Colombian godmother Griselda Blanco — one starring Jennifer Lopez, the other, erm, Catherine Zeta-Jones — pan out, we might see a couple more madrinas in the near future.

Hopefully, they’ll walk down the same intriguing paths as Animal Kingdom’s Smurf Cody (Ellen Barkin) and Queen of the South’s Teresa (Alice Braga) and Camila (Veronica Falcon). Based on a real-life Australian criminal matriarch (and played by Jacki Weaver in the Animal Kingdom film), Smurf is the creator and the enabler of her family dysfunction. At its heart, the TNT crime series is a story about toxic kinship — in particular, how the insularity of the Codys prevents Smurf’s four thirtysomething sons (three biological and one surrogate) from growing up, making friends, or trusting any other woman but their mother. Though they all live together, they’re lonely and taciturn — hiding romances and misdeeds, pining for each other’s girlfriends, and, for one, staying in the closet out of fear that gayness doesn’t fit in with the brothers’ hypermasculine code.

Outwardly, Smurf is a master of projecting conventional femininity — she’s often seen baking cake or doing the laundry around the house. But the micro-control with which she runs her family and her business — for they can’t ever be pried apart — makes for sweetly suffocating maternity. It’s an untenable situation, which is why Animal Kingdom begins as the Codys start to unravel, with the arrival of Smurf’s grandson (Finn Cole) after her estranged daughter ODs. As the family’s secrets trickle out, we see the warped dynamics that allow Smurf to manipulate her children into doing her bidding — and how they might finally rebel.

While Animal Kingdom depicts the beginning of the end for Smurf, Queen of the South starts with former moll Teresa making her way to the top. In the pilot, she’s placed on a kill list solely for who her boyfriend is: the thieving godson of the Sinaloa cartel head, Don Epifanio (Joaquim de Almeida). After she’s raped by her would-be killers, she considers letting the two men do whatever they want until she sees a vision of herself in the future — wealthy, successful, and (nearly) untouchable — and so she fights back, and aims to grab everything she can reach.

If Smurf just wants her share of the good life after an unstable childhood, Teresa and Epifanio’s wife Camila want both more and less: to control the Dallas-area drug trade, but also simply to survive. In Queen of the South — especially for Camila, who wants a divorce without alienating her teenage daughter — women don’t get to steer the direction of their lives unless they can command the men around them. The stakes are sky-high — Teresa and Camila are caught between death and the slim possibility of millions — but their story lines, about striking out independently to give themselves a second chance at life and to be the best that they can be, are unexpectedly identifiable. The two women know they can’t trust each other, but there’s something oddly comforting about their intuitive sense that they’re safer together than battling their powerful shared enemy alone.