‘Lizzie Borden’ is Godawful (and You Should Watch it Anyway)

Hello, naughty children—it’s murder time.

I know, I know: “But Katie, you promised you’d only talk about the written word and publishing and superheroes and stuff!” Well, I broke that promise with my second post about a certain hawk-eyed actor, so there you go. (“But Katie, that was at least vaguely related to comic books!” Hush, now, children.)

I don’t watch a lot of current TV. I have a tendency to obsess over my shows and love them with every fiber of my being, only to get into later seasons and have them fail me (looking real hard at you, Walking Dead–redeem yourself, damn it!). Of course, there are exceptions. I largely disliked American Horror Story: Freak Show, but I’ll probably check into Hotel. And the renewal of Agent Carter had me turning cartwheels. Which is no small feat. Because I can’t do a cartwheel.

Anyway, my lack of gymnastic ability aside, one of the shows that has truly made me shut up and listen on Sunday nights at 10pm has been, against all odds, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles. Guys, it’s bad. Like, it’s so bad. It’s ridiculously melodramatic and any semblance of historical accuracy has gone out the window. (To be fair to Lizzie, we were all basically warned about both of those drawbacks with the advent of the TV movie last year, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax.) The characters are largely one-dimensional and the plot isn’t really…well-plotted.

But I adore it. I love it because Christina Ricci is tiny and terrifying and plays bloodthirsty so well and I love it because of my unhealthy obsession with Clea DuVall and I love it because it’s so easy to accept Lizbeth Andrew Borden as my patron saint, Her Holy Lady of the Perpetual Guilty Pleasure. And I love this stupid show because, whether it means to or not, and whether it knows it or not, it has something to say, and it’s screaming it in all our ears, while also splashing us all with synthetic blood.

So, what’s so good about The Lizzie Borden Chronicles? For starters, the show focuses on two middle-aged(ish) women, the Borden sisters, Lizzie and Emma, who live on their own and make their own way, without seeking only husbands to marry. Okay, so…yes, they’re alone because Lizzie murdered their parents and no one will talk to them, because most townsfolk suspect Lizzie is guilty as sin and most of the kids in town think she’ll boil them alive and eat them if they get too close. But we’re accentuating the positive right now, so let’s just put a stopper in the bad and the ugly for the moment.

The Borden sisters don’t have many prospects. They’re social pariahs, and they can only afford a beautiful new house in a swanky neighborhood thanks to their father’s inheritance. And at first, Lizzie seems like the only one of the two who genuinely gives no shits about this. Emma is quiet and modest, the perfect woman of her time, but Lizzie, it seems, has always been boisterous and outspoken, and she makes it very clear that she don’t need no man, no community, and certainly no newspapers.

Lizzie kicks ass. That’s all there is to it. Whether she’s lighting porn photographers on fire, taking down underworld kingpins with her late father’s straight razor, or staging a suicide to save a young boy (who is…also a murderer…hush), Lizzie is systematically making Fall River her proverbial bitch. She puts men in their places, refusing to fall into the submissive role, whether at home, on the street, or in court.

Emma Borden might be a tougher case to argue. She’s very much her sister’s enabler, and she can’t bring herself to leave Lizzie to fend for herself, even when she suspects (or knows) what her baby sister is up to. She was fully prepared to live life as a spinster. She was obedient and calm, even to the point of (apparently) being assaulted by one of her father’s business associates and having the baby out of wedlock with apparently little argument. Though the recent penultimate episode of the miniseries had Emma, at first, in an insane asylum after hacking a man to death (it runs in the family!), she fully embraced the Borden name, tied a gross doctor to a chair, and let the criminally insane have at him.

I would argue that Emma is far stronger than her sister. Clea DuVall is taller than Christina Ricci, but that’s not what I mean. The Emma we see in the Chronicles may only have killed one man with her own hands, but she has known enough tragedy for a lifetime. She has spent decades suffering in silence, following the death of her mother, her father’s remarriage, her father’s and stepmother’s deaths, her sister’s trial, social ostracization, and the loss of the first man to ever love her the way she deserved to be loved–and by her sister’s hand, no less. (God, I hope that becomes a plot point in the finale!)

Emma Borden may have had more “traditional” values and desires (husband, home, children, etc.) than her sister, and she would undoubtedly carried out those duties admirably. But with the sad loss of those hopes, she is able to adapt. She is able to embrace what it means to be a Borden: to use her wits (and her homicidal streak) to escape imprisonment in the asylum and forge her own trail through the remains of the nineteenth century.

It is in both Borden sisters that we can see what I think is an overarching theme of Chronicles: identity. These women forge their own identities, rejecting the duties and labels their time would have placed upon them in favor of their own. Murder is an extreme way to embrace some late-life teenage-style rebellion, no doubt, but, hey–it’s a Lifetime melodrama.

Despite the gallons of spurting crimson and the deliciously varied weaponry in Lizzie’s arsenal as she takes down her seemingly unending list of victims with her usual devilish glee, I’d hazard that this is a truly feminist show. Women are celebrated on The Lizzie Borden Chronicles. No matter what the men around them say, the women are shown to the audience as worthy members of society, capable of anything (yes, including murder). The women of the show are clever, delving into mysteries and mayhem for a variety of reasons (family, duty, honor, etc.); they aren’t hysterical creatures to be shamed, mocked, and set aside. They embrace the agency they have over the direction of their own lives, and they steer themselves onto their freely chosen courses. (Well, until Lizzie decides they have to die and something awful happens to them.)

At its heart, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles is all about female friendship, sisterhood, and empowerment. Lizzie is a serial killer, after all, supposedly a male-dominated niche. (Okay, maybe that isn’t something to be proud of.) But she and her sister are sometimes cast in the action hero role, wielding hatchets in dark rooms and slinking down alleys to meet with cop contacts. They’re both badasses. How often do women–and especially women in 1880s Massachusetts–get to do that?

On a small, but important, note: for a show with so many women, there isn’t actually very much portrayal of violence against women. Nance (Lizzie’s actress friend/definitely lesbian lover IRL) has a near-sexual-assault moment, maybe, but she holds a knife to the man’s throat and demands information about her missing brother–she had been in control of the exchange the whole time. And Emma’s past assault is alluded to, but mercifully not shown. We know what we must, and then we move on.

Yes, Lizzie murders women (a woman? I can’t remember how many it’s been; it’s been a helluva last seven weeks). But the women who die don’t die because they’re women. They die because they know something they shouldn’t, or because they got in Lizzie’s way, and those are the exact same motivations for men to die. If anything, Emma’s suitor, Leslie (d’aww), gets fridged (via Lizzie’s intervention) to set her on her descent(?) into anti-hero-dom. At least, after this week’s asylum escape, I’m hoping Emma shows up as a total BAMF next week and destroys Lizzie (verbally, or otherwise).

So where can Lizzie improve? I mean…guys, it’s so bad. I’ve never had a moment where I felt like I couldn’t go on, and I genuinely believe both Ricci and DuVall are fantastic actors well-suited for their roles. But it’s just. so. ridiculous.

And on a more serious note, Chronicles suffers from a distinct lack of diversity (another victim of the “Black People Didn’t Exist Yet” syndrome that has afflicted Hollywood for decades). Yes, it’s wonderful to see a show headlined by two women–and two older women, no less–but there is absolutely no racial diversity on this show. None. And while a show like Agent Carter was able to be criticized for a lack of diversity in hopes of seeing things changed and expanded and bettered for season two, Lizzie doesn’t quite have the same fanbase (to put it mildly).

I think one of the biggest issues with The Lizzie Borden Chronicles might just be a lack of audience. Without people watching, there aren’t people to comment on it. Without the numbers to suggest a desire for another season, or another movie, or whatever we might get, there’s no power given to the fans who do speak out. More exposure for this silly, murder-y show means a fanbase that can be more vocal, and means show runners might just listen–if not now, and if not with Lizzie, then maybe in future Lifetime programming. If more people are watching, are talking back, maybe they’ll want to try harder and do better.

And besides, Lizzie won’t like it if she finds out you aren’t watching.


2 thoughts on “‘Lizzie Borden’ is Godawful (and You Should Watch it Anyway)

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