'Red Widow': Russian Mobsters in the California Burbs

Even though we know that someone's husband has to die in a show called Red Widow, we might still be surprised at how it happens.

Red Widow

Airtime: Sundays, 10pm ET
Cast: Radha Mitchell, Anson Mount, Goran Visnjic, Lee Tergesen, Jaime Ray Newman, Clifton Collins Jr., Erin Moriarty, Rade Serbedzija, Luke Goss
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: ABC
Creator: Melissa Rosenberg
Air date: 2013-03-03

Even though we know that someone's husband has to die in a show called Red Widow, we might still be surprised at how it happens. The first episode, airing 3 March, creates a sense of unexpected pathos, even as we anticipate that Evan Walraven (Anson Mount) serves as a plot catalyst. He and his widow-to-be, Marta (Radha Mitchell), share a convincing relationship and he's developed, in his few minutes on screen, enough that we share her shock and loss.

At least part of this loss has to do with the change in fortune triggered by is death. Their initially good life is attributable to the family business, namely, is a charter boat company that covers for a marijuana smuggling operation. While Evan has been working with his partner Mike (Lee Tergesen), Marta has kept her distance, legally, anyway. She has reaped benefits, including new SUVs to drive and a huge, Bay Area suburban home where she's raising their three children.

That's not to say that Marta's own background is not complex or that she's completely unprepared for a criminal husband, as we learn early on that her father is a Russian mobster. Still, losing Evan initiates a journey. She starts out as a concerned, if naïve, mom who wants her children's father to get out of the drug business. The murder -- he's shot down in their driveway -- pushes her into terrified depression and a new stage of determination and realization.

Marta doesn't choose to enter the marijuana business to maintain her suburban lifestyle, but is instead forced into taking Evan's place in the company, both to protect her family and to pay the debts he owes. As she adapts to her new life, Marta is less like Nancy Botwin than Walter White. Reluctantly picking up where Evan left off, she faces a set of non-choices that recalls the first season of Breaking Bad, back when he was well-intentioned and mild-mannered, and not at all familiar with the brutalities of dealing drugs.

Like Walter's, Marta's slide into darkness appears inevitable, if a bit swift. At first, she tries to appease the Russian mobster Nicholae Schiller (Goran Visnjic), kingpin of a much larger trade in harder drugs (cocaine), who inexplicably insists she repay her husband's debt by becoming a mobster too. By the second episode, Marta is already prepared to manipulate potential business partners and fight rivals to keep her position. And yes, she's willing to resort to violence.

Red Widow isn't Breaking Bad, of course. Inspired by the Dutch crime drama, Penoza, it's most obviously another network effort to tap into the audience for edgier cable shows. Like The Following, it adopts a long form storyline, introducing characters and situations more or less gradually (Schiller doesn’t show up until the last third of the pilot) and leaving plotlines to fester (Marta’s restructuring of the business opens up a dozen potential directions).

The show's deliberate unfolding and Marta's slippery morality aren't precisely innovations, but they may lead somewhere we don't yet anticipate. As the networks continue to lose audience share to cable's riskier programming, we might expect more shows like this one, focused on bad behavior and moral dilemmas, even if the shows press those behaviors and dilemmas into less than credible narrative frameworks.

Red Widow's first episodes do present basic questions to be sorted out over time, like who killed Evan and why, who really stole from Schiller, and how Marta might ever be able to run both a front company and a clandestine one, with absolutely no experience in either. Even if the premise is plain in Red Widow's title, what might come next is less clear.

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