Mothers, both dead and alive, propel much of the plot in Amazon Prime's dramedy series FLACK, contesting the binaries of “good” and “bad” mothers..
The streaming series Flack got its first outing in 2017 on Pop but has been picked up more recently by Prime Video to become a rather binge-worthy dramedy aimed at millennial women viewers. Anna Paquin portrays Robyn, the American lead publicist at a cut-throat PR firm in London that specializes in “fixing” the blunders of its solipsistic, often detestable celebrity clients. The firm’s browbeating boss, portrayed by the incomparable Sophie Okenoku, urges tactics that almost always involve telling and staging outlandish untruths, no matter how destructive. This female-centric setting features complex 30ish women who work 24-7. They embrace sex positivity yet also seem somewhat bored. They love to party--with a particular weakness for cocaine--as a release valve and excuse for their own transgressions. Robyn, along with colleagues Eve and Melody, are unmarried and childless. At first glance, they appear to be privileged White, self-absorbed women. So why am I writing about this pop culture text on a motherhood site?
Because both dead and alive flawed mothers actually propel much of this show’s story arc. Each episode runs on two narrative tracks that frequently, if briefly, intertwine: the current PR disaster storyline that Robyn has to manage successfully; and the intricacies of her personal life, which often emerge at the work narrative’s edges and expose her more chaotic intimate relationships that are at times as deceitful as her clients.’ That alternate story slowly comes into view over the season’s six episodes, constructing maternal subplots via: Robyn’s dedicated partner Sam, with whom she is ostensibly trying to get pregnant while secretly downing the Pill, ingesting drugs, and drinking profusely; her younger sister Ruth, who is a reluctant stay-at-home mother of young kids; and most importantly, Robyn and Ruth’s dead mother, who committed suicide by jumping off of the Brooklyn Bridge and was, as Robyn tells it, “nuts.”
Season One’s first episode illustrates this entangled, fast-moving structure. It begins with a client’s crisis (a television chef’s rampant infidelity) but swiftly shifts to Robyn and Ruth at a nearby bridge to commemorate their mother’s suicide. The chef is seen as a “family man” who enjoys making “family dinners” and hopes to write a children’s book. Robyn asks why he hasn’t tried to have sex with her, and they end up doing so in his hotel room. A short while later, she succeeds at getting his wife to postpone her divorce threats while concocting a secret scheme so that the wife can eventually fleece him for all he’s worth. At the end of that day, Robyn walks through a park and encounters a young mother with her infant. They strike up a conversation and reveal to each other their private fears and failures. The exhausted mother confesses, “I haven’t slept in three days ...all she does is eat, shit, and cry.” Robyn asks, “Are you happy?” She responds, “I don’t know, I’m just really tired.” Robyn tells of her mother’s suicide and shares, “I feel like now she’s gone, I’ll take her place … it’s like looking at your reflection in a dirty pond.” Robyn goes home and Sam alerts her that her “fertile period is ending” soon. She goes into the bathroom, takes a contraceptive pill, has a hit of coke, and violently smashes her toothbrush. In the final image, she stares at her reflection in the mirror--a recurring “dirty pond” trope that heightens her fears of becoming her mother.
More than one female cultural critic has noted that the series was created and written by a man (Oliver Lansley), a fact which I found surprising, rather than predictable. Sophie Gilbert, for instance, argues in The Atlantic that Flack promotes “the most exasperating kinds of storylines about women written by men, namely those involving fertility and reproduction. Pregnancy, babies, and the anxieties around both make up the single most repetitive theme in the series.” While I’m also clearly demarcating a similar presence in the series, this particular critique of a maternal narrative thread misses the mark. Eve, a rail-thin British blonde spouting smutty patter, can barely tolerate ‘romance’ and would certainly disdain the idea of motherhood for herself (if nothing else, it would destroy her prized model figure). Melody, the naive intern, is quite young and inexperienced with dating, much less considering motherhood. This “theme” indeed surfaces in each episode but almost always concerns Robyn and Ruth--both traumatized by their mother’s situation. More significantly, the motherhood subplots work to expose these “anxieties” continually reinforced by dominant culture, even as they are largely addressed to White professional class women. The work-life balance problem remains a vital issue, and Robyn, Ruth, as well as that anonymous mother in the park continue to weigh their priorities. Refreshingly, Flack suggests that women can be genuinely ambivalent about this dramatic life change.
Ruth, a seeming run-of-the-mill “good mother,” has a supportive husband and a lovely London home but yearns for more agency, more texture, in her life. In episode 3, she wants to celebrate her 29th birthday at a club and intends on getting “effed up!” When she learns that Robyn still hasn’t gotten pregnant, Ruth quips, “honestly, that’s for the best. I’m not kidding.” At the episode’s end, when Ruth is high on drugs and alcohol and has to be helped to the bathroom, her daughter asks for her and she moans, “Jesus, I’m only 29!” In her efforts to rewrite her family’s past by embracing motherhood, she has accepted certain sacrifices that are now coming to light. When Robyn discovers that her period is seven days late, she consults with a nurse about whether one can be pregnant while on the pill. She talks a bit about her mother and asks the nurse, “where do you stand on the nature vs. nurture thing?” Robyn concludes, “I mess everything up … I’m trying to be better but what if I don’t have better in me?” She vows to try, throws away her pills, but late in the night goes out to the garbage bin and retrieves them, telling herself, “it’s in my nature.” (She’s also supposed to be attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings but frequently bails.) Episode 4 opens at an awards show, with a female winner hollowly thanking her mother and all mothers “for their inspiration!” Robyn sneers. She picks a fight with Sam over eating healthily (to make a receptive womb) and tells a client’s husband, “lies make a successful relationship.” The next morning, Robyn again appears at the bridge. She calls her mother’s phone number and listens to her recorded voice message over and over. After work, she returns. She balances on the bridge railing, her feet off the ground, then comes back down. She both longs for her mother and fears that she has (genetically, psychically) become her.
Viewers might detect a whiff of the “bad mother” meme in Flack, and they wouldn’t be wrong. One of Robyn’s clients is an entitled female celebrity who is supposed to be pregnant but has secretly hired a surrogate. She informs us that she has “a hostile womb,” “a very busy schedule,” and is paying to have “the surrogate’s vagina ripped,” rather than her own. Another, a classic “stage mom,” bullies her teen daughter into making a sex tape to be taken more ‘seriously’. But Robyn’s dead mother clearly functions as this text’s central antagonist, and she’s much more complicated than a one-off joke. While we never ‘see’ her, Robyn divulges tiny pieces of their relationship when pressed to talk about her mother’s death: “my mother was a difficult woman and made life difficult for many other people, including me”; “I haven’t talked to my dad in 13 years because he had an affair, but now I see it differently: he put up with her shit for years”; “she never had a job and my dad had to work all the time to support us.” Robyn is both seriously reflecting on her mother’s behavior and curating memories that show her in the worst light. But it is these latter memories that ironically implicate herself as well, as she also emulates her father: she has sex with other people while in a committed relationship and is never home because she works all the time. One male client asks Robyn, “do you ever think you’re two people? One is supposed to be ‘normal’—chat with people you don’t really like, and so on; then there’s this other thing, a goblin that just hovers behind; it doesn’t care, just wants to destroy everything. The first one smiles and performs so that the other one can keep doing terrible things over and over; it’s in his nature.” Robyn stares at him but deflects to schemes that will patch up his particular misdeeds. Yet in the next and final episode of season one, she circles back to this question, telling a male confidante, “I love Sam generally but sometimes I’m just awful to him. I don’t know why; maybe because his presence makes me feel like a horrible bitch; because he’s NOT doing anything wrong. I can be a fucking monster and wish he’d just stop me and scream at me.” She then proceeds to blow up her relationship with him as well as with Ruth, who says out loud what Robyn has feared all along: “THIS is when I see her … when I see her in you--constantly spinning tales, plans … none of it is real except the mess that you leave behind.”
We’ll have to wait for Season Two to see how the series’ producers “spin” this maternal motif for a second round. Robyn has not yet made a definitive decision to embrace or reject motherhood; Ruth may go back to work and her spouse may become a stay-at-home dad. For now, I appreciate the effort to infuse some nuances--and realities--into the formulaic narrative around “choosing” to be a parent and contesting the binaries of “good” and “bad” mothers.
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