I’ve never quite managed to find pop culture that really, truly reminds me of my mother. Granted, if you just look at the action, she resembles just about any wife character from your average American sitcom – Everybody Loves Raymond, King Of Queens, According To Jim. The stuff these women do is usually the kind of thing she did when I was growing up – not just juggling cooking, cleaning, and childrearing but in the particulars of their social lives – but I’ve never seen a sitcom that manages to capture the spirit of her. I think a little bit of it comes down to the traditional nature of the sitcom format, in which everything is wrapped up in twenty minutes and never referred to or developed again, something completely antithetical to who my mother is. Wrapping things up quickly is definitely a part of her – I’ve always thought of her as a solution in search of a problem, and my father has long been exasperated by her constantly wearing herself down by fixing other people’s problems – but her sense of scope far outstrips a mere twenty minutes of narrative time. The notion that some people are better served by one genre over another is funny and true and sad to me – that we can be trapped in circumstances in which our best selves aren’t allowed to flourish and thrive. Mum always wanted to travel Australia and only got to do it in her forties when both me and my sister were off to college and adulthood; she told me much later that she felt like her true self had been unleashed, and she felt sad that my sister and I couldn’t be raised by that person. There are people who thrive in the limitations of a traditional sitcom, and my mother is not one of them.
It’s probably why the closest example I can think of within sitcoms is Beth Smith from Rick & Morty. I’ve gone into the way R&M uses the structure of a sitcom to do messier and more ambitious storytelling, but I only really went into Morty’s development. Beth’s day-to-day personality reminds me a fair bit of Mum – her talent for identifying a problem and zeroing in on a solution is very much familiar, but the way she constantly develops and refines her principles based on new information and then changes her actions moving forward captures the experience of my mother very well. Her little monologue at the end of season three, announcing her new path forward, and the way she actually carries through that in season four reminds me of a lot of things Mum did. On occasion, we also see Beth flat out admit that she’s just not a maternal person and express exasperation at having to fake her way through traditional maternal actions, which is the closest I’ve ever seen to my mother’s emotions onscreen. The problem is the same problem with all Dan Harmon shows – his occasional habit of jumping up in front of the story and waving his hands. Most famously, it’s when he’s feeling utterly depressed and morbid and he twists the story to express his futility, self-loathing, or anger; season three kept tying itself in knots trying to demonstrate how bad Rick is without actually developing the story. This is also expressed in how Rick & Morty often suffers from a show-don’t-tell problem in which we are told in detail about a character’s personality but the details don’t actually demonstrate that; for Beth, this means we’re told she’s really smart but in practice Harmon isn’t able to live up to her intelligence.
(I wonder if Harmon’s fundamental problem as a writer is that he’s not willing to be truly vulnerable. If a character does something stupid, he desperately wants you to know he wrote that character stupid on purpose. He’s not willing to risk a character doing something that might be stupid.)
To see my mother’s talents and skills, I have to go outside the sitcom genre entirely. In terms of personality – not values and certainly not aesthetic – Don Draper of Mad Men is actually just about the closest I’ve ever seen to Mum. I’ve always been struck by a scene where Betty presents a problem to Don and he peppers her with solutions, much to her frustration; I know I’ve always been careful about going to Mum with a problem because I find that shit exhausting even when I’m actually looking for it. I prefer ‘solutions’ to be written down so I can peruse them at my leisure; my Mum and Don are the exact opposite. “Give me more ideas to reject,” as Don would say. Go even further out and look at Walter White in the crime drama Breaking Bad and you get much closer to my Mum’s peculiar kind of intelligence being not just talked about or even just demonstrated but played out. I particularly think of Walt in “Over”, housebound and with nothing to do, obsessively fixing his water heater; it reminds me of how Mum has this driving need to rearrange the house every six months or so to be more efficient. I think of Skyler trying to work out how to flee Walt late in season five, only for him to systematically destroy every plan she comes up with (“How would you do it? Take me through the steps,” sounds very familiar). You see this same intelligence in the schemes Walt makes and the long-form construction of them.
My favourite example is his season five plan to restart his meth empire. By this point, Walt has absorbed the meth industry well enough to understand the fundamental principles of it; a meth cook needs somewhere to work that won’t draw the attention of police. Walt’s destruction comes from his pride, but his power comes from his ability to foresee cause-and-effect, and he’s willing to adapt to whatever he has that works, which is another way of saying he finds creative solutions to his problems (one could refer to Walt as the progressive meth cook). It doesn’t matter that nobody’s ever cooked meth under cover of a bug bomb operation – if that works, it works. His empire was what he wanted, but it’s also a natural side effect of how he operates. People have often remarked at how much of Breaking Bad is actually Walt failing, but failure is a natural part of the learning process. All of these things remind me of watching Mum solve problems; recently, she told me about her plan to take Dad to the mainland to spend time with his brothers, and laid out step-by-step every action she’d end up taking to do that in linear order, compensating for their budget and abilities and Dad’s mental health issues, and it was very much like Walt’s “$737,000” monologue. In a broader sense, her method of dealing with Dad’s dementia has been much like the arc of Breaking Bad – once she took a dementia course to absorb as much of the science and how Dad’s brain now works, she started formulating different methods of dealing with it; design principles for their house and routines that make everyone comfortable. Some of these have worked and some of them haven’t, and the latter was changed.
The thing is, my mother is not a progressive in the way Walt is. I’m not talking politically here – Mum is mostly apolitical – but in that her values have always been about strengthening institutions and archetypes that already exist. My family is a very traditional English family; my grandfather built his home as a place his children and grandchildren could stay at any time, and my family has both a rich sense of tradition (like Christmas holidays) and a strong sense of system (like one of my uncles effectively being groomed as Granddad’s successor as the family patriarch). My mother’s values have always been an extension of that – finding ways to express her particular role as daughter (and later, wife and mother) effectively. This makes me think that the most efficient way to convey who my mother is in a single character is Tywin Lannister. Again, there’s that Walter White intelligence; one of the most interesting observations of Game Of Thrones I’ve ever seen is that the war between Robb Stark and Tywin comes out the way it does because the former is the superior tactician but the latter is the better strategist, because while Tywin loses a lot of battles, he also has the sense tp, for example, not to go back on a political marriage because he found someone he genuinely loves.
But more importantly, Tywin is like my mother in that he believes fully in his family’s values, and his intelligence and creativity is expended trying to find the best expression of those values. In the show, he’s introduced monologuing about his family’s mottos, discussing his desire to continue the family name long after the death of himself, his children, and his grandchildren, and urging his son Jamie to rescue Tyrion from the Starks. Tywin despises both what Tyrion stands for and who he is as a person, but his sense of scope is much larger than one person; to Tywin, the fact that his son is a Lannister is more important than the fact that he’s a layabout playboy dwarf who killed his mother and Tywin’s wife. He looks for the most effective way to both express his family’s values (“A Lannister always repays his debts”) and to position his family into power. I find this resonant with how my mother acts and how she treats our family. Recently, a young family member came out as genderfluid, and Mum was one of the people most passionately arguing in favour of affirming their gender and incorporating it into the family’s life to our other family members. This was partly the result of her having read and learned about gender identity the past couple of years and very strongly tied into her fluid sense of what a family is and can be. It’s the non-evil variant of Tywin’s morality – an expression of idealism that’s more flexible than it looks.