Starz Network’s Power has proved that, to borrow from Simone de Beauvoir’s theory of gender, one is not born a prestige drama, but rather, becomes one. This isn’t exactly how we’ve come to understand la crème de la crème of this Golden Age of TV. Shows like Mad Men, True Detective and Breaking Bad had powerful first seasons with all of the fixings for critically acclaimed TV. Our expectations for television is so heightened now, that a few weak lines or character clichés (for the male characters, at least), and we’re ready to dismiss a series altogether. Power was guilty of more than a few moments like this in its first season—moments that made it difficult to ascertain if Courtney Kemp Agboh was presenting us with a gangster-style guilty pleasure or a high-octane drama with big themes and big characters. On Saturday night the show premiered its highly-anticipated finale “Ghost is Dead,” capping off a sophomore season that solidified the latter. Although it wasn’t a perfect episode (nor was this a perfect season), the finale had all the goods—betrayal, confrontation (James/Ghost vs. Kanan vs. lighter fluid), an immense win for our anti-hero (James/Ghost finally taking down Stern, and getting his beloved club back) and a new evil (Lobos, who is also working with federal agent Mike Sandoval). This season the tragedies were Shakespearean, the dialogue was biting and the music—although leaned on a bit too heavily at times—was dope. And if all that wasn’t enough, this helpful checklist from Vulture further confirms our suspicions. Congratulations, Power, you’re officially a prestige drama.
So, that’s the good news. The bad news is that now we critics get to break down your every, minute flaw, raise the bar unfairly and demand that you improve by Season Three, episode one. It’s a tough job, but dammit, we studied literary theory and somebody’s gotta do this.
As is the case with many prestige dramas, Power has a woman problem. This may surprise viewers who have fallen in love with Tasha St. Patrick (played by Naturi Naughton), the fierce and fearsome wife to Omari Hardwick’s James/Ghost. In the first episode she climbs into the back of her husband’s car and doesn’t ask the driver to roll up the partition, please, exposing and pleasuring herself in front of him. Sure, it may sound like a cheap thrill, but it gave me high hopes for a unique storyline with a sexually empowered character. If that didn’t do it for you, perhaps you’ve been drawn in by James/Ghost’s mistress, Angela Valdes (actor Lela Loren), an AUSA with the coolness of Alicia Florrick and the fashion sensibility of a New York-style Olivia Pope, who eats, sleeps and breathes her career. And then there’s Lucy Walters as Holly. Oh, Holly. With her incredible dye job, healthy sexual appetite and all of that coke sniffing, you might have mistaken her for a True Detective character, but on Power she plays the unpredictably wild girlfriend to Tommy, James/Ghost’s right-hand man. Holly seemed especially trope-ish at first, but went on to become an integral and fascinating part of the show’s narrative.
And this is true for all of the women on Power. They may not have Omari Hardwick’s lead role, but in many ways Power suggests that this tale is as much Ghost’s as it is Angela’s or even Tasha’s. The women get ample screen time and although we are bombarded with an awful lot of cleavage (or straight-forward topless shots… and, no, I’m not necessarily complaining), it’s clear that we are meant to take the women as seriously as their male counterparts. But here’s why we can’t.
Angela, Tasha and Holly are the most visible women on Power, but their characters’ narratives are heavily overshadowed by their relationships to a male character with whom they’re in love. We get the sense that, with or without Angela and Tasha, Ghost would be considered an interesting enough fella to build a series around. His gangster life is exciting, his best friend is exciting, his legitimate business is exciting—the women troubles (and to be clear, although there are Don Draper comparisons to be made, his women troubles consist of exactly two women—his first love and his wife) are just icing on the dramatic cake. But Angela, Tasha and Holly are presented first as belonging to one of the two lead men on the show, and then as having their own unique personalities, which are secondary.
Every person who has watched this show has let out a groan of annoyance over Angela’s incredible gullibility as mistress to James. This isn’t to say that educated and intelligent women aren’t also human beings, who are also, sometimes, blind to the truth when it’s romantically convenient. But we spent much of Season Two wondering at how both she and Tasha could be so easily deceived by this guy. Angela’s saving grace has been her work ethic. It takes a unique character to say, as she often does to James/Ghost, “I love you, and I’m going to arrest your lifelong friend and put him away for many, many years.” And it was fascinating watching Angela work a case somewhat clueless as to how all the crimes were directly linked to her lover. But these direct connections to James ultimately made it so that even her work was about James. And in the end she does make a choice to keep his involvement away from her bosses, resulting in her own suspension, and also in a difficult decision to destroy the career of her former lover and co-worker, Greg.
At the beginning of this season, showrunner Kemp Agboh told Paste she had to fight with others working on the show for one character in particular—Angela’s sister Paz. Paz stood out in part because one of the first season’s most beautifully directed and honest scenes featured Angela and Paz together. Although they were, indeed, preparing a meal for James/Ghost, it was a great moment of bonding that helped round out Angela’s character. It would appear that, in Season Two, Kemp Agboh may have lost the fight for Paz, because she never appeared, and we only saw Angela on the job or with Ghost. Was it great to see her working like hell on her case and on her relationship? Sure, but it’s not necessarily the definition of multi-dimensional.
Similarly, Tasha has been presented primarily in two lights—as a lover (sometimes to her husband, sometimes to his driver and would-be-mentee, Shawn), and as a mother. Her conflicts exist primarily within her marriage and concerning the childrens’ [very expensive] schooling. Is there plenty of drama to be experienced within these two places? Absolutely. But it makes it difficult to ascertain who Tasha truly is. Unlike Angela, she is at least shown alongside other women this season, like her mother Estelle (played brutally and powerfully by Debbi Morgan) and her best friend LaKeisha (played by LaLa Anthony). But these relationships also revolve around men. Tasha’s mother is shown almost exclusively chastising her daughter for not holding on to James/Ghost (and, most importantly, the financial security that comes along with their marriage). And while it’s true that girlfriends do love to talk about their man troubles, we never really hear LaKeisha and Tasha talking about much else. And then of course, there’s the awkward cliché of their shared sexual partner, in Shawn the driver.
All of this means that when we see these women at their emotional highs and lows, their feelings are almost always a result of their romantic entanglements. This became abundantly clear with Holly’s character. Holly, who—out of the entire group of women—seemed the least likely to sacrifice herself for a guy, became a point of interest once Angela realized she could use her to get closer to Tommy and his criminal dealings. In one of the most heavy-handed lines of the season, Angela stands behind the mirror in the interrogation room where Holly is being questioned and says, almost breathlessly, “When you really love a guy, you stand by him.” In that moment, Holly—a character who, though interesting, had fewer effs to give than Rihanna at Carnival—gets reduced to one of those women-in-love-willing-to-risk-it-all-for-their-men. And so, in a way, she fits right in with Angela and Tasha.
All of these women we come to admire eventually get put in similar positions, where a man’s future is dangled in front of them, and they have to make a difficult decision. Holly has to save Tommy. But she also knows that Angela loves James/Ghost and uses that knowledge to make a deal with Angela (attempting to save Tommy and herself in the process). Tasha’s fighting for her man at every moment, except for when she’s sleeping with Shawn. She receives one of the biggest emotional blows when she has to (SPOILER ALERT, wait this whole essay is a SPOILER, but this is probably the biggest SPOILER) identify his dead body in the finale. And even Mrs. Stern, who has a small but significant role, becomes the key to Ghost winning back Truth, as her divorce from the great and powerful Mr. Stern (who we’ve seen cheating on her throughout the series) provides him with knowledge about his hidden assets. Another, admittedly, much simpler way to put this is to say that all of these women, except for maybe Holly’s crazy ass, look rather stupid for more time than I’m comfortable with. Yes, they are cool, and admirable, and fashionable and also smart—which is why it’s even more confusing that they are all so often being played in some of the most clichéd ways imaginable. Holly is the only female character not getting cheated on, another reason why her character seems to have the most autonomy on this show. But in the end, she too can’t quite resist making bad decisions for a guy who’s… kinda sweet… but also called her a “bitch,” like 72 times. Granted, she’d handcuffed him to a bed and told him that she’d been talking to the feds (and the outburst felt completely appropriate for Tommy’s character), but it was still hard to watch that scene and be pleased with the overall presentation of women on this show.
It’s important to stress that all of these characters are still exciting because they have within them the potential to be more and do more in the coming seasons. Angela could easily break the mold, as a character whose work often comes first. It was because so much of that narrative was also James/Ghost’s narrative, that she wasn’t allowed to stand apart from her lover. Had we actually seen Angela put some handcuffs on Ghost—something she seemed prepared to do, it would have been different. Holly and Tasha, too, have plenty more story within their characters. And if the writers see fit to leave their man-troubles to the side, if only for a scene or two, who knows what kind of show Power could become.
One is not always born a prestige drama, with perfectly-written women characters, but one might become such a thing over time. Those who aren’t sold on the series yet might say it’s too soon, or the series is too hip-hop, or too flashy, or that there’s way too much 50 Cent (who, by the way, is often incredible as the villainous and utterly monstrous Kanan). But I’m of the opinion that Power (which has other kinks to work out, aside from its woman problem) could join the ranks of great shows like The Good Wife, Orange is the New Black, The Americans and Mad Men (yeah, I said it). In spite of (or, as revealed by) all of this feminist finger-wagging, it’s my excitement about the series and my faith in its creator and writers that tells me it can offer more. With a second season that was far more compelling than a certain other prestige drama that also completed its second season run, whose name might rhyme with Schmrue Schmetective, it’s clear that Power has all the fixings to become must-watch prestige TV for all you fine fancy folks who like your love triangles and murder scenes with a side of mid-to-high theory. In addition to joining the ranks of these aforementioned shows, Power has, within its framework and foundation, the ability to bring something new to the table, to transcend stereotypes, tropes and accepted boundaries, especially where women are concerned.
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Salon, Pink is the New Blog and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.