From 'Fleabag' to 'Dickinson': The Rise of the Anti-Heroine

37B_RACEILLO - Illustration by Adam Rosenlund - H 2019
Adam Rosenlund

A new class of complicated female characters are giving lovable bad guys a run for their Emmys: "There's power in watching women get to be likable and villainous simultaneously."

Television's so-called Golden Era could also be labeled "The Age of Bad Men." For the first 15 years of the new millennium, volatile and abusive antiheroes dominated the prestige TV landscape: Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White, Vic Mackey and a handful of imitators fascinated as much as they frightened. These characters flourished when cable was still king, but as the deluge of streaming content continues to flood the entertainment marketplace, there's finally room for more than just charismatic scoundrels to mesmerize us.

It's now the women's turn to breathe fire.

The year 2019 has been a banner one for the antiheroine. Sure, a Nancy Botwin (Weeds), Alicia Florrick (The Good Wife) or Olivia Pope (Scandal) has occasionally penetrated the zeitgeist. But in the past several months alone, female-led shows like Fleabag and Russian Doll have dominated social media discourse and opened a Pandora's box of relatable female imperfection onscreen. Even gender-balanced programs like Succession have elevated the presence of morally compromised women on television. There's power in watching women get to be likable and villainous simultaneously, and the Golden Globes should and will take notice.

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association can be starry-eyed when it comes to the Globes' film nominations, often honoring the biggest names for not-so-special roles or vehicles. But when it comes to TV, they know how to sniff out powerhouse, under-the-radar performances and identify the Next Big Thing. In 2015, the HFPA awarded triple threat Rachel Bloom for her work on cult hit Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a show popular with millennials but only middling in ratings. (Bloom has never received even an Emmy nomination for her outstanding work on the show.) Just last year, the Globes were the first major awards show to recognize Rachel Brosnahan for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, launching a domino effect of trophies for the actress.

So, who are the potential 2020 nomination frontrunners for an awards body that loves fresh meat and has a history of favoring sly and flawed female characters?

For best actress in a comedy, it's likely there will be nods for Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) and Natasha Lyonne (Russian Doll), who each play acerbic city broads vying with death and mommy issues. The effervescent Waller-Bridge, who won a 2019 Emmy for the role she created, plays this century's ultimate millennial antiheroine: a lovable tornado who uses sex to quench her thirst for emotional connection, no matter who it hurts. Unlike grief-stricken Fleabag, however, Lyonne's Nadia is literally confronting mortality: Stuck in a supernatural vortex where she keeps dying and resurrecting, Nadia must excavate her trauma to uncover the mystery of her circumstances. Lyonne is like a craggy old man with the face of a porcelain doll, and her cynical and apathetic character must learn to actually care for another human being in order to free herself.

Also in contention for the comedy category is Kirsten Dunst for Showtime's On Becoming a God in Central Florida, in which she plays a raging young widow who conspires to level the multilevel marketing scam that destroyed her. And don't be surprised to find Hailee Steinfeld among these nominees for her audacious turn as an acidic and rebellious teenage Emily Dickinson in the Apple TV+ anachronistic black comedy Dickinson.

Another young actress who could land a nod for playing a high school-age delinquent is Zendaya for her live-wire lead role on HBO's hallucinogenic teen drama Euphoria. The series is one of the few TV dramas that takes young women's sexuality seriously, and Zendaya's selfish and drug-addicted Rue must battle with grief, recovery and the confusions of first love. Other contenders for best actress in a drama: previous nominee Sandra Oh and recent Emmy winner Jodie Comer for their transcendent work as a bloodthirsty intelligence officer and an international assassin, respectively, on BBC America's Killing Eve.

While I would be remiss to see the lead actresses on HBO's Big Little Lies get nominated again for a so-so sophomore season, there's no doubt we will see Meryl Streep's name on the supporting actress roster this year. Her Mary Louise could have been just another teary-eyed mother reeling from her son's mysterious death, but Streep imbues the character with antisocial menace, especially in scenes where she blames her widowed daughter-in-law (Nicole Kidman) for her own marital abuse. Additionally, the scheming women of HBO's Succession should be part of the conversation, as Sarah Snook and Holly Hunter bring nuance, vulnerability and ferocity to their roles as foils competing to become the next CEO of a multibillion-dollar corporation.

And speaking of veterans, I expect to see Helen Mirren up for best actress in a miniseries or television film for playing the ruthless Russian monarch who overthrew her own husband in Catherine the Great. She will likely compete with Patricia Arquette, who plays a monstrous mother poisoning her own daughter in Hulu's limited series The Act.

Years ago, on 30 Rock, Liz Lemon once made a joke about there being no female equality until there's as many female serial killers as male serial killers. Reveling in damaged and damaging women on TV is one way to get that head start.

This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.