Nancy Botwin is in trouble again. Actually trouble is a place she never left, her new story arc opening with her carrying the child of a Mexican politician-gangster who wants to kill her. “Why” she asks in an early episode of the new season “is Armageddon always coming down on me?” The cover art for season five of Weeds addresses the same theme. An airbrushed Mary-Louise Parker in grass-green lingerie is suspended in a web; maybe of her own making or maybe one she has been caught in or maybe a bit of both.
Season four of the Emmy-nominated show took the series in a radically new direction in terms of setting and to some degree theme. The first three seasons dwelt on the idea of an underground America of crime and corruption clashing with bourgeois mores and suburban conformity. This is almost what could be called the Adams Family conceit, the idea of bringing the odd and extreme in contact with the unbearably normal that has worked in series ranging from the Sopranos to Breaking Bad. This idea is still present in the last two seasons of Weeds, except that, by season five, the straights and normals are almost entirely absent. Nancy’s trips to the mall to drink a slushy offer one of the few moments she leaves the American underground she inhabits. Even here violence, literally, shadows her.
Although continuing to be brilliant at every turn, season five is not without its flaws. Plenty of narrative messiness grows lush and verdant. The narrative that took Nancy from her suburban pot dealing to trying to save herself (and then trying to live with) the head of the Mexican mafia swims pretty freely in shark-jumping infested waters. Series creator Jenji Kohan more or less admits in an audio commentary that she wrote herself into a corner by making Nancy pregnant last season. The new narrative arc sometimes feels like frustrated attempts to get out of that corner.
Nevertheless, Weeds may be a premier example of how brilliant writing can save poor plotting. The writers are, for example, pitch perfect when Nancy Botwin tells frenemy Celia that if she were to cut her she would “bleed a fucking rain cloud”. Its not only a striking, clever and muscular line, its also exactly what that character would say at that moment.
Mary-Louise Parker, it can’t be forgotten, delivered that line and it’s her scary skill of switching back and forth between comedy and horrific drama that often carries the series. Parker fully inhabits Nancy Botwin, a character that, like Tony Soprano, seems increasingly soulless and erratic. It’s hard to pull this off and be funny at the same time but MLP does it again and again.
She doesn’t do it alone, of course. The regular cast continues their amazing work and this season is a special highpoint for Justin Kirk and his character, stoner extraordinaire Andy Botwin. Andy changes in some interesting ways this season (while always staying essentially Andy) and this enables Kirk to show off his range. Meanwhile, Jennifer Jason Leigh turns in a perfect performance as Nancy’s allegedly uptight sister with perfect, creepy twins. Alanis Morrisette appears as Nancy’s gynecologist and Andy’s love interest (other than Nancy, of course). Morrisette shows some serious chops, standing her ground with Justin Kirk in an unforgettable scene that does for dating what Jaws did for a day at the beach.
More than any other season, season five asks big questions about the meaning of the web Nancy has spun. I could begin apologizing here for continuing and possibly annoying references to the Sopranos and promise not to do it again. But instead, I’ve decided to just go with it. This season kept me thinking about both the penultimate and the final season of HBO’s mafia parable.
Like Tony during his last two seasons, Nancy’s bad, indeed fairly pathological, decisions seem to be catching up with her. Also like the boss of north Jersey, she becomes more sympathetic even as she becomes more monstrous. Too many reviewers have missed one of the central truths of the series; Nancy is really a bad person, so morally compromised that, like the spider at the center of the web, she has poisoned more or less everyone around her (an image that Andy uses for her at one point as well). What impresses me about this as a narrative is that Kohan has not told a story of “moral decline” from suburban widow to gangster. It’s not Nancy’s tunneling through the underworld that has shaped who she is. She was actually pretty awful to begin with.
When we met her in season one, Nancy had decided to enter an incredibly violent world, not to fend off utter privation, but in order to preserve her SUV driving, latte fueled planned community lifestyle. By season five, everyone is suffering and the show makes us care about them, and about the person who caused it all.
The theme of ill consequences extends to perhaps my favorite character on the show, Shane Botwin. Alexander Gould’s superb performance opened a window on an odd little kid emerging into an emo butterfly who critiqued his own family’s moral compromises as well as the allegedly safe world of gated Agrestic. Season five takes him into a troubled adolescence where mom’s lack of attention and entrepreneurial activities have made him more or less as fucked up as everybody else.
Episode 5 illustrates this with fairly shocking animal abuse. Through a series of plot points not necessary to unpack here, Shane blows apart an exotic bird with a Glock (and, yes, the episode does contain a quick reference to an albatross). In other words, much as the ending of season three suggested, Nancy’s decisions have left everything wrecked, everything burned. The wtf?!?! ending to season five underscores just what has happened to Mrs. Botwin’s sad-eyed boy.
Weeds DVD sets have always made their special features actually special features and this season does not disappoint. Along with audio commentary and a blooper reel, we get plenty of extra content. Kevin Nealon does another behind-the-scenes tour of the set while we also get to see “university of Andy” webisodes. If you haven’t caught Andy Botwin giving classes on everything from surviving a bear attack to internet dating, you need to skip the rest of this review and go immediately to universityofandy.com. Including this makes me feel like I’ve probably made your day a lot better…make sure to watch the webisodes on “Christmakuh” and “Surviving the Apocalypse”.
Weeds returns in the summer of 2010 for what will apparently be its final season. There is reason to worry if the series has new places to go other than a mounting body count. Nevertheless, I think it is possible to predict a classic ending, where all of Nancy’s Armageddons finally catch up with her.