Television

Good Girls Isn’t Breaking Bad for Women. It’s Better.

The NBC dark comedy is the perfect drug for lovers of both romance and crime dramas.

Three women face the camera. One with brown hair is holding a mug, one with red hair is knitting, and one with bleached blonde hair is smirking.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by NBC.

Before NBC’s Good Girls began in 2018, its promotion made it seem like it would be nothing more than “Breaking Bad, but for women.” As someone who could barely make it through the first season of the hit AMC series, that kind of sell didn’t do much for me. Breaking Bad is a highly acclaimed show, but it’s also an incredibly anxiety-inducing one. At the same time, I was skeptical that a network prime-time show about three suburban moms could capture the same kind of escalating, often graphic, tension Breaking Bad was renowned for.

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Luckily, the marketing was misleading. Now on its fourth season, Good Girls is less Breaking Bad, more Guy Ritchie–style heist–meets–The Good Wife; it is rich with farcical comedy while also exposing some of the dark realities of American motherhood. It was also the perfect vehicle to see its leads in roles unlike what they were best known for.

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Good Girls stars Christina Hendricks (Mad Men), Retta (Parks and Recreation), and Mae Whitman (Parenthood) as three best friends who, one day, decide to rob a suburban Detroit grocery store when all of their financial situations become desperate. Beth (Hendricks), a stay-at-home mom of four, is about to lose her home, because her unfaithful husband has mortgaged it to the point of near foreclosure. Annie (Whitman) is Beth’s younger sister and a single mother, who makes minimum wage at the grocery store they eventually rob, but her ex-husband threatens to sue her for full custody of their only child ; she needs money for a lawyer to fight back. And Ruby (Retta) works as a waitress, struggling to earn enough money for her daughter’s expensive medical treatments. The trio thinks they’ve committed their crime without a hitch and while evading the law, and they each use some of the money to take care of immediate concerns. But their peace of mind shatters when they are visited by Rio (Manny Montana), a heavily tattooed criminal claiming the money they stole from the grocery story is actually his … and now, he wants it back.

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The women hit all sorts of snags in their various plans to get Rio his money back from a botched kidnapping of the man that figured out they were behind the original grocery store heist to fumbling an attempt to rob an old lady of her carefully guarded cash. It’s all so comically bumbling that, by the end of the second episode, the show seems like its biggest inspiration might actually be The Three Stooges. But it’s the third episode of the first season, “Borderline,” where things start to get really interesting—and the show starts striking a balance between its dramatic stakes and its comic timing.

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In “Borderline,” Rio agrees to let the women off the hook for the cash if they agree to take a quick trip to Canada for him to pick up some boxes. Beth steals a car from her husband’s dealership, and the three tremble and blunder through the assignment; Ruby even accidentally shoots a man in the foot. The first two episodes had plenty of funny moments, but Retta absolutely shines as well-intentioned, trigger-happy Ruby. Watching her wound a guy by mistake was the first time I had laughed out loud watching the show. In this episode, we also get a good look at who Ruby is outside of her friendship with Beth and Annie, fleshing out the character on her own moving terms and giving me a reason to become invested in her. I had been worried that the show might pay less attention to Ruby, the only Black woman in the group, than it would to the other two (white) leads, but this particular episode reassured me that Good Girls was interested in all three of its good girls equally.

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This episode also marks a turning point for Beth, as a complicated relationship between her and Rio (hashtag Brio) begins to form. After the women complete their mission and feel like they can breathe again, Beth realizes she still has more to say to the man who has terrorized them into being a part of his underhanded business. She goes back to their last meeting place at a strange warehouse and finds it abandoned, but she leaves her pearl necklace hanging from the doorknob to let him know she was there. Back at her house, she sips from a glass of bourbon and stares into the eyes of Rio, who has somehow found his way inside.

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When Rio first confronted the women about his missing cash, it was Beth’s quick thinking that kept them alive … and earned Rio’s grudging respect. From that moment on, she became the group’s de facto leader and the one Rio managed to stand too close to each time he appeared out of thin air. Rio is strikingly handsome, and in part thanks to that tattoo of a dangerous-looking eagle spread across his neck, he is the epitome of the sultry bad boy you’re not supposed to want but absolutely do. In the first two episodes, he invades Beth’s space to intimidate her; the show is, in turn, trying to sell us on him as a credible villain. His up-and-down assessments of her are threatening, but you also can’t help but notice how long and thick his lashes are. When Beth refuses to back away or answers his half-hearted innuendos with her own cutting retorts, Rio seems impressed. His smiles shift from menacing to begrudgingly proud, but in the last two minutes of “Borderline,” his mouth curves with understanding, and I found myself leaning toward the television.

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Rio sees something in Beth that perhaps reminds him of himself, and in Rio, Beth sees the thrill of a life away from packing school lunches and a cheating, irresponsible husband. Rio knows Beth is becoming addicted to the rush of criminal life—she’s turned on by the routine of facing danger, outsmarting enemies, and overcoming obstacles.

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When Rio appears in Beth’s kitchen at the end of this episode, Beth is practically vibrating with excitement. The two stare at each other for a bit longer than necessary, before Rio smirks, “So what did you want to talk to me about?” His jaw flexes like that of a stern hero straight out of a romance novel. The episode ends just as Beth opens her mouth to answer, one solid, sexy cliffhanger.

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SOLD. INJECT IT. POUR IT OVER MY PANCAKES.

As early as Episode 3, the show gives viewers the OK to hoist those ’shipping sails. Just as Ruby becomes more well-rounded here, Beth too reveals another side of herself beyond the roles of wife, mother, and friend: She’s a woman with womanly needs, too. The needle of unresolved sexual tension between the two, which started off as barely moving if not nonexistent in the pilot, jumps immediately into the red zone as Episode 3 closes out, and that’s when I knew I was definitely coming back for more.

From that point on, the show has plenty more fun, silly moments and deeply moving glimpses into the lives of these women as they try to provide for their families. Ruby struggles with the boundaries of American health care as a working parent. Annie battles with her carefree nature against the discipline and structure her child needs. And Beth must remove the rose-colored glasses of the American dream to see that she is more than her husband’s expectations. All of that is plenty enough reason to watch Good Girls—but it’s the explosive chemistry between Beth and Rio that makes it so undeniable and thrilling to watch. Even if those first two episodes suggest a show with little more than mismatched heroes and silly antics, Good Girls’ third episode establishes that it’s far more than that. It’s a dark comedy with an emotional core, and its sexual tension brings plenty of heat. Maybe that’s why NBC thought the Breaking Bad comparison made sense; Good Girls just replaces the tense crime drama with some obsession-worthy romance instead.

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