Weeds at 15: In Defense of Nancy Botwin

There’s a lot to hate about Mary-Louise Parker’s Weeds anti-heroine, but she was ahead of her time in more ways than one.

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<I>Weeds</i> at 15: In Defense of Nancy Botwin

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Editor’s Note: This piece reveals extensive plot details about the Showtime series Weeds, which is now available on Netflix because licensing is quirky like that. Bookmark it for later if you never got around to finishing the show the first time around.

Here’s a take you probably weren’t expecting: It’s hard for me to think about Nancy Botwin, Mary-Louise Parker’s doe-eyed, scrappy mother on the Showtime dramedy Weeds, without thinking about my grandmother.

Like Nancy’s husband, Judah (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), my grandfather died unexpectedly of a heart attack off screen and before my time (Judah’s already dead when we meet Nancy at a PTA meeting when Weeds premiered in August 2005; I was in utero when my grandfather passed. Both are, therefore, only known to me through archival footage). And, while my dad and his siblings were adults at that point in my grandmother’s life— as opposed to Nancy, who suddenly found herself the single parent of horny teen Silas (Hunter Parrish) and awkward elementary schooler Shane (Alexander Gould)—the two stories always make me think of how a woman who was unprepared for anything besides raising kids (if that) persevered and managed to figure out life on her own.

For my grandmother, this involved extensive penny pinching and (thankfully) a life insurance policy. But what if she hadn’t had those options? Because, for Nancy, it meant selling weed.

Look, there is a lot of privilege to unpack in the plot of Weeds. After all, it starts with a caffeine-addicted pretty white lady in a Land Rover who is mostly welcomed by her suburban yuppie neighbors to hook them up with a drug that has sent legions of people of color to prison (a fact creator Jenji Kohan more-or-less acknowledges in her follow-up series, Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black). Its opening credit sequence and infamous theme song, folk singer Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes,” mocks the idea of this safe, formulaic and conforming world where no real danger persists and everyone’s happy with the superficial and the routine.

In actuality, there are so, so many times in Weeds’ eight seasons where Nancy’s complete inexperience in the criminal underworld, lack of planning or utter brazenness in acting almost as if her looks will get her out of anything should have gotten her shot in the head (and one time where she actually was; although she somehow survives).

There’s also a shocking amount of the (dark, dark, very, very, very dark) comedy that may not read as well just a mere 15 years since its premiere. In one early episode, Nancy’s brother-in-law Andy (Justin Kirk) masturbates while masquerading as Silas during an instant message sex chat with his young nephew’s girlfriend (Shoshannah Stern). In another, he takes Shane to a massage parlor. Eventually, he’ll become a benevolent coyote known as El Andy, and Shane will bludgeon a female drug lord with a croquet mallet (I promise I’m not insinuating any direct correlation between these facts).

But, much like ABC’s Desperate Housewives, which premiered a year before Weeds, as well as the litany of those that followed after it like Netflix’s Jessica Jones, FX’s The Americans, BBC America’s Killing Eve—and especially FXX’s You’re the Worst from Weeds writer Stephen Falk—Nancy was an anti-heroine who worked both because of her relatability and our fascination with her.

Nancy serves as a reminder to anyone who may have gotten too comfortable to think about what we would do if, suddenly and through no fault of our own, any sense of security we might have was ripped away, and we had to think fast before the bank took that little box away from over our kids’ heads.(Note the symbolism in the first episode when Shane falls through the skylight in the roof; the house is literally crumbling around Nancy).

As the series goes on—and there are lots of arguments to be made that it could have easily ended with the third season, when Nancy takes advantage of a nearby fire to torch her own house as she quietly says goodbye to Judah and the life they’d made there—the stakes get higher and more insane (and so do Nancy’s wardrobe choices). But her need to protect her children is a constant.

“I think people generally reassure themselves that they are the good guy, even when they are not,” Kohan told journalist Joy Press in the latter’s book, Stealing the Show: How Women Are Revolutionizing Television. She also says that she likes when those in morally compromised situations “create codes, lines you won’t cross so you can keep telling yourself you are a good person.”

There’s also the sheer entrepreneurship of Nancy. The series ended in 2012, so it didn’t exactly take a lot of reading of the marijuana leaves for the finale to foretell a time in the not-so-distant future when weed would be legal (it now is, in some form or fashion, in most U.S. states). But Nancy herself? Four dead husbands, one prison stint and one additional kid later, she—again, largely because of privilege—stuck it out and became prosperous; going into business with the now-adult Silas to market marijuana cigarettes and then cashing in and selling their 50 stores to Starbucks (last year, it was reported that the coffee giant could be the first big chain to sell cannabis-infused drinks. I imagine that made Kohan smirk).

This pressure to pivot and persevere every time life threw a new curveball at her—yes, oftentimes as a result of her own actions—was an admirable quality of Nancy’s. She started the series being underestimated by everybody and nearly destitute because she relied solely on a man to provide for her, yet went on to become more than even she thought she could. She’s an immensely fallible anti-heroine, but also a bit of a feminist success story.

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Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.

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