Why Good Girls Is Such a Rewarding Show

The series, which wraps its second season on Sunday, has blossomed into a uniquely flavored, daring drama of the sort found more frequently on cable.

Chris Haston / NBC

When Christina Hendricks first read the script for Good Girls, she was certain the gutsy story—about three Detroit moms who turn to crime to make ends meet—would get neutered by NBC. A broadcast network, the actor explained at a panel, meant constraints, constraints that could dull daring programming. “My big fear was that it was on network television,” she said. “I was terrified that they were just not going to allow the real rawness of it.”

Good Girls, which wraps its second season on Sunday, was indeed a rather bold choice for a network that prefers dramas such as the wholesome This Is Us and procedurals set in Chicago. The story follows three women—Beth (Hendricks), a steely mother of four; Annie (Mae Whitman), Beth’s little sister and a single mom; and Ruby (Retta), their happily married best friend with two kids—who, at a loss over how else to solve their various crippling financial troubles, decide to rob a supermarket in a heist that attracts the attention of a local gang.

It’s a log line that didn’t seem like it would yield multiple seasons, let alone one. But over the past two years, Good Girls has kept the story wheel turning while also quietly challenging the network-TV status quo. (Though it has struggled with low ratings, the series reportedly does well on Netflix, which helped it earn a third-season renewal last month.) Complicated antiheroes, audacious plotting, and inventive camerawork don’t often live outside of cable and streaming, and yet Good Girls makes it work.

When the show began in early 2018, its premise led critics to call it a “gentler” and feminist version of Breaking Bad. Those comparisons worked decently back then: Season 1 treated the women’s plight breezily—as breezily as a show introducing a trigger-happy neighborhood crime boss named Rio (Manny Montana) could, at least. There were zingers (“Aw, you guys didn’t hit me up to do brunch?” Rio teases when the women ask him for some face time), mommy jokes (criminal activities are basically bake sales, no?), and the occasional wig.

Season 2, however? Not really gentle anymore—and much less network TV–friendly. The series is interested in showing not just the messy consequences of the women’s criminal actions, but also the difficulties they face trying to hold on to their moral center. This year, they nearly committed murder—and their decision not to kill Boomer (David Hornsby), the slimy supermarket manager who threatened to rat them out to the FBI, comes back to haunt them. In last weekend’s penultimate episode, the women realized that they had accidentally disposed of an innocent stranger’s body—a task they performed in the first place because of their failure to kill Boomer. (In Breaking Bad terms, they’d chosen a half measure.) Now they have an extra corpse, the still-alive Boomer to take care of, and the feds on their tail anyway. The show leans in to the challenge of being good: The more the women try to maintain normal lives—Annie has started calling their criminal activity “extracurriculars” to downplay it—the worse things get.

If Good Girls has become a more fascinating show by digging into and raising questions about morality, it has also, this season, more deeply probed the costs of female ambition. Since discovering her talent for crime, Beth has developed an appetite for a more thrilling existence. She seduces Rio and takes control of her husband Dean’s business. But her drive doesn’t go unpunished: The neighborhood moms become threatened by her self-assuredness. Dean (Matthew Lillard), feeling emasculated by his wife’s success, lashes out and takes the kids away. By the back half of the season, Beth feels trapped: She craves more than the life she thought she wanted, but wanting more hurts the life she built. Looks like women just can’t ever, you know, have it all—the kids, the career, and the crime ring.

Ruby and Annie, too, have had deeper, meatier arcs this year. Ruby comes close to betraying her friends, while her husband, Stan (Reno Wilson), compromises his job as a cop by tampering with evidence to protect her. Toward the end of the season, he gets arrested and handcuffed in front of his and Ruby’s daughter, who now no longer looks up to him. Annie, meanwhile, gets romantically involved with her ex-husband and loses her child Sadie’s trust. She wins it back just in time: Sadie (Isaiah Stannard), in a tender scene, comes out as a transgender boy—a groundbreaking moment for trans representation, especially for network TV.

That’s not to say the show has stopped being comedic. If anything, it’s amped up its gallows humor, supplementing it with visually striking sequences. During a job Ruby and Annie try to pull off on their own, the camera lingers on them as they sit in the front of a school bus—yes, they attempt it while chaperoning a Girl Scouts trip—capturing the tension in a nerve-racking shot that ends only when Ruby blurts out a confession. When Beth, after angering Rio, starts receiving a severed body part in the mail each morning, the show makes a brilliant scene of her reaction: Her daily destruction of the package in the kitchen sink’s trash compactor is edited to become more unnerving each time, underlining Beth’s frustration and horror at having to dispose of an appendage before her kids are awake.

In a way, Good Girls has created a genre all its own. Led by the showrunner Jenna Bans (Scandal), the series is neither crime drama nor black comedy, but something in between. It’s a strong character study of three flawed women challenging what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s good and what’s bad. Beth, Ruby, and Annie are being recognized—and rewarded, via mounds of cash—for their resourcefulness, and they like it. It’s like a twisted notion of self-care: By moonlighting as criminals, they scratch an itch they can’t in their daily lives. It’s not like Beth’s four kids thank her every morning for making breakfast, packing their lunch, and baking hundreds of cupcakes for their classroom social.

Maybe a clue to the show’s casual rebellion was in the pitch process to NBC, which was apparently quite easy. It probably helped that Bans met with women executives who could presumably grasp the characters’ tricky motivations. (“I think I got three sentences in before [the then–NBC exec] Jen Salke screamed, ‘We have to do this!’” Bans told Variety.) Maybe they understood Beth, Ruby, and Annie’s urge to defer to their id. Maybe they saw the show as a guilty pleasure, and didn’t see it becoming something a little more subversive than that. Whatever the reason, Good Girls is, so far, proving its worth.