Thirteen years ago, “Breaking Bad” changed the game for serial dramas and became the defining example of TV’s golden era. The premise was irresistible: when Walter White, a suburban dad and mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher, learns he has terminal cancer, he decides to make as much money as possible for his family by taking on the crystal meth business. But the real draw of the show is Walter’s unthinkable transformation over its five seasons, which looks something like Ned Flanders to Tony Montana. Now picture a female, Russian version of Walter White, who runs an illegal empire of her own. If you miss following Walter on his journey in crime, you’ll want to meet Marina, “an ordinary woman.”
Let’s be honest: the dichotomy of ordinary suburbanite and kingpin of the criminal underworld existing in one person will never cease to fascinate and captivate. And it’s even more alluring—and comforting—to know that these characters live beyond American TV.
“An Ordinary Woman” follows Marina, who lives a seemingly normal, perfectly manicured suburban life in Moscow. She’s a loving wife and mother who runs a flower shop, or so her husband and daughters think. In reality, she’s using her shop as a front for a lucrative high-end escort business she’s built from the ground up. Like Walter, Marina never intended to enter a life of crime, but was pushed into it by difficult circumstances. Her husband’s a surgeon, her daughters go to decent schools—she’s an upstanding citizen. Until she isn’t. And, like Walter, she discovers an inherent knack for criminal enterprise.
In fact, the strength of “An Ordinary Woman” is watching Marina, who is also many months pregnant, use her instincts and innate cunningness to get out of precarious situations. Reminiscent of Walter in the earlier seasons, she’s clearly still learning the ropes and her navigation of her double life can be described as fumbling at best. When one of her sex workers is found dead, her criminal instincts will be tested again and again as she’s met with a flood of never-ending predicaments, starting with getting rid of the body. (You think you’ve seen it all until you watch a very pregnant woman try to move a corpse-stuffed mattress.) We know what she’s doing is objectively wrong, but we root for Marina nonetheless.
That’s the appeal of both “Breaking Bad” and “An Ordinary Woman”—we may not be able to relate with their criminal activities, but we relate to why they’ve resorted to them. We relate to their struggles. Walter works a low-paying job as a high school teacher, his wife is expecting, and now he’s got inoperable lung cancer. Can you really blame him for mutinying against his own life?
Marina was similarly at the end of her rope, and she’s also driven by desperation to help her family when she turns to extreme measures. After witnessing their friends get struck and killed by a driver, Marina and her husband, Artyom, are coerced into a police cover-up that strips him of his job and pushes them to the brink of financial ruin. As the series begins, we learn right away that her husband is unfaithful. Her mother-in-law is overbearing. Her daughters are criminals in the making. We feel for her. So if she wants to make an illegal fortune as a madam, we don’t judge; we cheer.
By the end of season one, Marina’s transformation from suburban mom and wife into criminal mastermind brings her to her most difficult predicament yet. By this point, you will be fully behind her—you might even hope she surpasses Heisenberg in ruthlessness. If Walter White left a void in the TV landscape for morally compromised, but relatable antiheroes, then Marina picks up the torch deservingly. Plus, we love seeing more women inhabit this particular throne (à la “Good Girls” and “Weeds”), even if it’s an ordinary one.