Top ass-kicking actresses on TV that I like lately

Lately, I’ve started to become dimly aware of something. A lot of TV shows I’m currently watching seem to have not only a decent gender balance in general, but also well-written female characters in leading roles. Perhaps this has been the case for a long time, but, somehow, I’ve just noticed it. Maybe these characters have always been present, but perhaps in the past just to serve the journey of the male characters? Sort of mild fridging, or pre-death fridging perhaps? But now, in the golden age of streaming TV with Netflix and Amazon Prime, and in the age of #metoo and #timesup, female characters seem to have more agency. Are we at some sort of turning point? I asked this in a recent post about action women in film, and I think the same applies to TV.

It’s kind of a refreshing and exciting place we find ourselves in, from a storytelling point of view. At the very least, as recipients of said stories.

So with that in mind, below are a selection of characters that have entered my TV watching world in various guises, from women that plot and scheme, through to those that straight up fight, to those that code and those that build. TV people take note, more of these characters please. Modern storyelling needs them, now more than ever.

Thandie Newton
As Maeve in Westworld

As one of the AI ‘hosts’ of Westworld, Maeve starts out as a madam in a brothel, but quickly becomes one of the show’s key characters, breaking her programming and fighting back against her creators. She evolves to the point where she controls other hosts and has them do her bidding in a mission to rescue her daughter.

Hannah New
As Eleanor Guthrie in Black Sails

Eleanor, following in the footsteps of her father, runs a black market operation out of Nassau, dealing with cut-throat pirates day in day out. And, in an environment where the only other female characters of note are prostitutes, she cuts her own path as a canny businesswoman, striking unsavoury deals with dangerous pirates to keep her enterprise going.

Kathryn Winnick
As Lagertha in Vikings

Married to a farmer with big ambition and King-in-waiting, Ragnar Lodbrok, Lagertha starts the show as a shield maiden, but makes her dismay clear when Ragnor leaves her behind during his first raids on England. She’s firmly part of the team on the next raid and remains a key figure throughout the show, growing in power to become the Earl of a nearby area, as well as a key figure in the viking raids on Paris. Whilst she’s a fierce warrior on the outside, she’s really an emotionally complex and thoroughly interesting character. Her fractious relationship with Ragnor is one of the most compelling and watchable things in the show.

Lindsey Morgan
As Raven Reyes in The 100

As the youngest zero-G mechanic to come through the ranks of humanity’s last survivors in space, Raven is clearly smart as hell, highly capable and about as tenacious as you can get. Not only does she launches herself in a tiny rocket to get to Earth, she builds homemade bombs to fight the ‘grounders’, and bests a homicidal AI through a combination of frantic coding, no sleep and a lot of coffee. And she does most of this after being shot in the spine and having to relearn how to walk.

Mackenzie Davis
As Cameron Howe in Halt and Catch Fire

Cameron enters the show early, being recruited by Lee Pace’s stuffed shirt ex-IBM sales guy to build a PC that’ll blow the big boys out the water. She acts as a good foil to the show’s buttoned-up, tightly wound male characters, in that she dresses like a geek, listens to punk rock and heavy metal whilst coding and does things very much her own way, to the chagrin of the men.

Maggie Siff
As Wendy Rhoades in Billions

Maggie is a psychiatrist tasked with ensuring the traders of Bobby Axelrod’s (Damien Lewis) hedge fund remain ruthless and committed when it comes to their work. She’s equally close to Bobby as well as his arch nemesis, Chuck, the District Attorney hellbent on destroying him – who also happens to be her husband. Oh, and on the side she’s a Dominatrix in the bedroom, giving Chuck a spanking when he gets out of line.

Westworld: season one review

Now I’ve called this post a season one review because, as we all know, Westworld has been renewed for a second go round. Hardly a surprise, given it’s a flagship show on Sky Atlantic, it’s got a sickeningly talented cast (Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood etc), clever, tricksy writers (Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy), strong concept (sci-fi meets Western) and has been a storming hit with audiences (89% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes).

It’s also fresh because it bucks the modern trend of drowning us in nudity and violence (Game of Thrones we’re looking at you) and doesn’t serve up that much story in one go. That’s not to say it’s light on story and character. In fact it’s quite the opposite. This is a slow burn, but one that’s worth your time. And it’s also somewhat rare for a show to start with the number of characters that it does. In that at least four or five of them have key storylines. (So maybe it’s a little like Game of Thrones.)

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For the uninitiated though, at its basic level, Westworld is a theme park, albeit a giant one, where the population are made up of ‘hosts’ (synthetic robots) that are so lifelike that you cannot tell them apart from humans. The park’s purpose is for humans to visit to get away from the world, to fight and have sex and enjoy the wild west. And the series starts with The Man in Black (Ed Harris), who’s been coming to the park for years. He’s no longer interested in the park’s base attractions, but is searching for its centre, the centre of the maze, as he calls it. To give his life meaning and purpose.

We also have various hosts who evolve throughout the story, becoming more human as they go. In particular both Thandie Newton and Evan Rachel Wood’s characters are searching for who they really are. Their purpose.

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In fact, most characters are searching for meaning, trying to discover who they really are and why they’re here. Why are they a part of this world? What makes them who they truly are? What makes humans real and hosts not? Tugging the strings and playing God with barely concealed glee is Dr Ford (Anthony Hopkins), who’s treading a fine line between villian and a mysteriously benevolent creator. It would be easy to play him as a straight up bad guy, but Hopkins gives us more, adding layers and nuance to Ford. And by the end of the season you’re still not sure of his motives and whether he’s playing a trick on everyone, as all the best magicians do.

So this show has laid down a big and bold marker; in that it’s fairly different from a lot out there. A bit more thinky thinky and less smashy smashy. But it gets the balance right and answers enough questions to keep season one satisfying, but holds enough back so that season two promises to be worth waiting for.