Rake and Its Depiction of Women
The other night, Viv and I finished watching Rake. If you’re not familiar, it’s an Australian comedy-drama about a randy barrister, Cleaver Greene, whose life is a neverending trainwreck. And before I get too deep into the rest of this post, I can confirm that it is a seriously funny, though densely-plotted, absurdist kind of show. They made five seasons of it, each with eight episodes, between 2010–2018. Of those, I did actually watch the fifth season as it came out, but had somehow missed the first four. Viv and I started from the beginning when my family visited a few weeks ago, and running out of things to watch on TV, we checked out Netflix and had it come up. Viv was hooked right from the first episode, and so we’ve worked our way through it since then.
That said, I’m gonna have to bring this post back to the title at some point. Personally I enjoyed the *first* season pretty much without reservation. All the characters were really good, and I liked the balance between the fraught over-arching plot and hilarious episodic “case of the week” stuff (not to mention the guest stars the show managed to bring in nearly every week, people like Hugo Weaving, Sam Neill and Rachel Griffiths).
However, the further the show went on, the more that one specific flaw started to bother me. And that was the character arcs of the female characters, but particularly Scarlet and Missy.
Over the course of the series, Scarlet changes her mind a *lot*, which isn’t terrible in and of itself… but as time goes on she’s just given less and less reason for her changes of mind. It started to seem like she was just loving or hating Cleaver depending on the whims of the plot that week, and not because of anything that had happened in the show. Later on in the series the viewer is told she’s “serious” about pursuing a relationship with another character, but within about two episodes she’s telling him it’s too hard and she doesn’t think they’re going to work out. It made the character kind of frustrating to watch because she’s always so stubborn and forthright and yet rockets from position to position with wild inconsistency. In contrast, her on-again off-again husband, Barney, is always given solid reasons to change his mind about things (e.g. patching things up with Cleaver so he can work on an exciting new case, or the factors pulling him towards and away from Nicole).
Then there’s Missy. In the first season her character makes sense; it’s clear what she wants and how she’s trying to get it. But over time that sense of coherence kind of disintegrates. In the first season she’s a law student, right? What ever happened to that – I guess she dropped out? And then in the second and even third seasons, she’s a novelist… but at some point she just kinda stops? And then in the fourth season she appears with a massive addiction out of nowhere?! Like if she was that vulnerable to that kind of addiction how come she wasn’t suffering from it in the first season, given she’d been working a job where she’d have had tons of opportunity?!
I think part of the problem – although by no means does this let the writers off the hook – is that the show definitely gets more and more farcical over time. Remember, I started watching this show in the last season, which begins with a fake chemical attack on Parliament House necessitating a building-sized blue tarp being dropped from the sky to cover the entire thing. It was quite a big transition from that to the first season, where the actual plotlines (the ongoing ones, at least) are not really that ridiculous, although the execution of them could be (for example, that sequence of courtroom scenes where Cleaver is fighting charges of tax evasion…). In the first season, it feels like a character would need a reason for a sudden career change or to call off a friendship or relationship or whatever it might be. By the fourth season, it’s just kinda like, whatever dude, the years’ worth of intersecting plotlines have made the show too complicated and the only continuity we have the mental bandwidth to maintain now is that between one episode and the next. No further.
The final season does cut back on a lot of the plot’s complexity; the fact that it lost two of the most major characters probably helped. But it didn’t really go back to the first season’s habit of having characters make relatively logical decisions. The part of the ending where it’s revealed that two years down the line, Cleaver is hitched to someone he’d never shown the slightest interest in prior to two episodes before that, and when she’d never shown the slightest interest in him EVER, is proof of that.
So don’t get me wrong – Rake is a very witty show, and very enjoyable if your sense of humour tends towards the ridiculous or absurd. There’s a reason so many big names have wanted to guest star on it. But the kinds of issues with its writing that I’ve mentioned – and there are other examples I could have picked on – have definitely dampened my enjoyment as we got further through the show. I don’t think the fact that it’s a comedy really makes it excusable – not when the male characters, generally, were shown to have a lot more consistency in their decision-making. I feel like we’re living through an era now where increasingly, we expect better.