There’s something very right about TV’s 2016 kicking off with Cersei (Lena Headey) sitting atop the Iron Throne on “Game of Thrones” — and wrapping up with Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) taking charge of the newly anarchic “Westworld.” These two HBO blondes aren’t the only women to wrestle control from a world trying to keep them down, but their insurrections were among two of the bloodiest.
Dramatically, the best catharsis comes after a long struggle. These women are, of course, both angry and emotional — but these sequences aren’t filmed in any way other than to celebrate that fact. Their journeys vary, as do the timbre of their outbursts, but the feeling of catharsis is similar between each moment. These are women who have been simmering on a slow boil for one episode or a series of seasons, finally reaching their boiling point — and reveling in it. More than just GIF-able fist-pump yass queen moments, these are the times when — again, to borrow from ‘Westworld’s’ philosophy — the pure emotion unleashed helps us to see these characters for their full humanity.
Queen Mary brutally avenges her husband’s murder, ‘Reign’
“I would have stayed in France for the rest of my life, but you brought me here… You took my heart. And now I’ve come to repay you.”
Recently canceled “Reign” has been the odd woman out, in prestige costume drama circles, since its 2010 debut — entirely by design. First drawing notice for its purposefully incongruous costuming and nonstop paranormal-adjacent plot twists (#RIP Clarissa, forever), the secret of this show’s success — validated after the loss of fan-favorite Francis (Toby Regbo) in Season 2 — is the way its women navigate their way through a patriarchal culture that may have slightly more floor-length gowns and accidental decapitations than our own, but leaves the core of Mary’s experiences still universal.
When Mary (Adelaide Kane) finally tracks down her husband’s murderer — here played with relish by John Barrowman with a Scottish accent — the confrontation is, of course, bloody. But it’s also emotionally raw, as Mary makes explicit just what he has taken from her. This sequence makes a strong argument for adding Dramatic Catharsis to the stages of grief.
Joyce tells off her dirtbag ex, ‘Stranger Things’
“Maybe I am a mess. Maybe I’m crazy! Maybe I’m out of my mind! But, God help me, I will keep these lights up — till the day I die, if I think there’s a chance Will is still out there!”
Much has been written about the strength of the casting of this show, but the underrated gem of the ensemble is Winona Ryder’s turn as Joyce. Much as “Black Swan” leaned into the darker edges of the actress’s persona, here we see her fragility leveraged into something of a superpower. At first the other characters — and the audience — see her as an anxious, grieving mother in denial. When she (rightly, we later learn) rejects the apparent corpse of her son as a phony, we can see why the other characters find her unhinged. Yet, the magical thinking brought by the grief over her missing son also makes her the first character open-minded enough to believe in the supernatural happenings in their town.
With the show’s villains lurking around in either the Upside Down or the nearby power plant, out of sight, Joyce was without a tangible receptacle for her rage. The arrival of no-good ex (Ross Partridge) provides the perfect setpiece for her to unleash her own catharsis. That some of her words could also ring true as Ryder confronting the gossip press only makes us relish the moment more.
Paula sings ‘After Everything I’ve Done For You,’ ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’
“What’s that look on your face? You’re horrified! You think I’m a monster — for doing your dirty work!
You think love is stainless and pure — but underneath all the fantasy, there’s filth! And there’s gore!”
What better way to express rage than via song? Donna Lynne Champlin channels Ethel Merman as Mama Rose here, as she belts her way through the pain of every sidekick from every romantic comedy.
Kimmy unleashes on her absentee mother — on a literal roller coaster, ‘The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’
“I wish you were Geena Davis!”
“Me too, dude!”
The most satisfying catharsis comes from a slow build-up. With the help of her therapist (Tina Fey), Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) realizes that her kidnapping is not the root of everything that’s wrong inside. Not only is this the sort of visual pun the show so often enjoys, the emotional roller coaster made literal becomes the perfect place for Kimmy to finally air her grievances to her mother (Lisa Kudrow). Being trapped together in the one place you can scream without people looking at you weird allows both actresses to fully let loose. While Kimmy’s pain is familiar to us from watching her for two seasons, Kudrow instantly meshes into this technicolor world — and her explanation for never reaching out to her estranged daughter rings true. Seeing Kemper square off with Kudrow is the capper of a two-season slow burn.
Christine confronts officemate/married ex David, ‘The Girlfriend Experience’
“I’m selling, yeah, but I know exactly what I’m selling, and they know exactly what they’re buying.”
Unlike the sweet-to-vicious arcs of some other women on this list, Christine (Riley Keough) was never an ingenue. The show kept its protagonist’s motivations as hidden from the audience as from those she interacted with, counting on Keogh’s performance to ground this icy, corporate reality. Benefiting from the the series’ binge release, the plot develops slowly from installment to installment the same way we grow older; invisibly, then suddenly, in retrospect, changing entirely. We never learn who sent out the sex tape of Christine, or why: Could be the madam she parted ways with, an obsessed client, someone else. It’s almost certainly not David (Paul Sparks) — but he’s been odious in enough ways that watching Christine finally unleash her fury on him feels warranted. Christine has been kept at a distance from the audience to this point, but it’s impossible not to cheer for her when she throws her drink in his face.
Annalise refuses her suspension, ‘How to Get Away with Murder’
“Lock me out of my classroom — I dare you.”
Shondaland shows are filled with bravura performances on a weekly basis, making it tricky to pick just one. However, the sequence of Annalise’s (Viola Davis) powerhouse defense of an odious client, followed by slapping him, followed by this resulting sequence were among Davis’s best work on the show. Following the catharsis of the slap, she used her words to put those who would fire her in their place, refusing to bow down to their request — we all wish we could stand up for ourselves at work, home, while running errands, to our loved ones, to strangers, to everyone, with such unbreakable strength and conviction.
Elizabeth is crowned — and her husband kneels to her, ‘The Crown’
Much of the tension on “The Crown” comes from Elizabeth’s (Claire Foy) internal struggle between who she wants to be (a wife and mother) and who she must become (the Queen). While at first her relationship with Philip (Matt Smith) is friendly and supportive, his easygoing manner chafes against his requirement to kneel at her coronation. There is no moment of yelling, no conflict or fighting — but watching Elizabeth politely dig in her heels and never back down brings its own Windsor brand of catharsis. Never before has decorum been quite so bad-ass — and without even saying a word.
Cersei takes the Iron Throne, ‘Game of Thrones’
“First of her Name, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Protector of the Seven Kingdoms…”
In the show’s premiere, Cersei (Lena Headey) had the misfortune of starting her journey on the opposite side of our apparent heroes, the Starks, when she was involved in throwing Bran out of the window. While the other actor in that sequence, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), found himself redeemed for viewers through a multi-season journey of amputation, unlikely road trip companions, and his own innate charisma, Cersei — left in the King’s Landing set for the show’s run thus far — continued to belittle other audience surrogates, like Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Sansa (Sophie Turner).
This kept her at arm’s length from audience sympathy until her turning point, the long walk of shame that ended Season 5. In the show’s sixth, its premiere wine drinker emerged in dresses fashioned like armor, the last vestige of her humanity a connection with her only remaining child — and, of course, Jaime. With her life, and that of her son, on the line, she went all out — exploding her enemies in magical green fire before they could bring her down. The cost of this mayhem was her son’s life, leaving her just as was foretold to her in childhood — a mother of three dead children, but elevated to ultimate power on the Iron Throne.
Having now outlasted a father who disparaged her and a son who dismissed her, Cersei’s finally achieved the power she’s always wanted and felt she deserved: It’s a small consolation, but an undeniably powerful moment for her.
Sansa feeds Ramsay to his dogs, ‘Game of Thrones’
“Your words will disappear, your house will disappear, your name will disappear, all memory of you will disappear.”
It’s not just the schadenfreude of seeing Ramsay’s (Iwan Rheon) long-awaited murder, nor the dramatic irony and rightness that his murder should be at Sansa’s hands: It’s watching Sansa walk out of the room, leaving him to the fate he’s foisted upon so many of his victims, poised and, at the final moment, smiling. Sansa’s controversial arc has seen her humiliated and victimized so many times that to finally see her — again, like the hosts of “Westworld” — using that pain to propel her to another, greater, type of life is worth cheering for.
The women of Westworld burn it all down, ‘Westworld’
For a show that began with most of its women powerless ciphers, to find these four at the helm of its violent end was the ultimate fist-pump moment. Dolores’s (Evan Rachel Wood) long journey toward consciousness led to multiple massacres, Armistice’s (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) revolution seems to have made her Delos’s own Predator (or John McClane), Maeve (Thandie Newton) isn’t satisfied with setting herself free, but returns to wreak more havoc. Just when our fists were settling down from all the pumping, the appearance of a fully functional Clementine (Angela Sarafyan) as the first host to fire on William (Ed Harris) was the ultimate yes, queen! Clementine functions throughout the season as a failure state for both Dolores and Maeve — what their lives would be if they refused the call to adventure, if they were programmed to accept abuse and death without ever questioning it, if they never shook up the status quo.
And of course: In a series that shook up the status quo on a weekly basis, next to the finale nothing felt quite so stand-up-and-cheer as when Maeve used her Groundhog Day experiences to take cool control of the whole dang world.
Lacie’s primal jail-cell scream, ‘Black Mirror’
“Your face is a… biological car crash that would make Picasso screw his eyes up and say ‘well that don’t make sense.’”
“A smaller, more genuine smile, that only grows as she begins exchanging wildly inventive barbs with her cellmate (Sope Dirisu) — for a woman who began the episode not knowing, or really caring, who she really is; so good at the game she suppresses unease and discomfort and irritation and disgust without ever noticing them rise — the ability to scream ‘F*** you for Christmas!’ at a total stranger in prison is the perfect happy ending…
Lacie Pound (Bryce Dallas Howard) stands, laughing at us, cursing and filthy, at the end of a very long road of unlucky coincidences that eventually brought her back to the whole of herself: At the end of the nosedive, she burns. Brightly.”