Upon closer examination, The Duchess does something, episode after episode, that quietly turns out to be revolutionary. Its main character Katherine (who shares Ryan’s first name, yes) is a single mother to 9-year-old Olive (Katy Byrne). Because she loves her daughter and thinks her offspring is pretty awesome, she wants Olive to have a sibling. As a single mother, Katherine must understand the logistics of conceiving a baby on her own. Among her options are her ex Shep (Rory Keenan), who was in a boy group and pushing her away, her current sweetheart Evan (Steen Raskopoulos), a nice dentist with whom she is not ready to have a child. with, and adoption.
This premise puts Katherine in an interesting position. One way to describe her predicament would be to say that she needs a man, if only for biological purposes, but nothing would be more inaccurate. More than any television heroine in recent memory, Katherine doesn’t need a man. This becomes clear as we progress through the series and watch her raise her daughter (which she really loves, besides loving her), run a pottery business with her friend Bev (Michelle de Swarte) and make your way through the world. in a way that makes it clear that she has absolutely no more sex to give.
Katherine might have the idea of a man. She might even like one (her affection for Evan feels genuine). She might be sad for one. She might want one or dream of one. But need? Nope. It’s not in his repertoire. What’s innovative about the show is its unwavering commitment to this central idea: Katherine will be fine, but if she doesn’t do well, it won’t be because of a man.
This quality does not mean The Duchess always sticks the landing. A scene in which an adoption agent visits Katherine’s house definitely hits the wrong mark. And Katherine’s antics – her lack of a filter, her foul mouth – haven’t really been a universal hit with critics. Some saw them as boring rather than entertaining, too aware of their own perceived daring to feel daring. I can see this. But The Duchess succeeds where so many other programs have failed, in giving us a heroine who treats the opposite sex like so many fictional men have treated their female counterparts: as a means to an end.
The Duchess does not fall into the same category as some of the small group programs led by women in recent years, nor does it attempt to do so. It’s not as powerful as I can destroy you, not as bittersweet as Chip bag. Katherine, however, brings something new to the “imperfect heroine” genre. She is really happy with herself. Happy, even. It might sound trite, but it’s a rare thing to see a female character who hardly ever cares about a love interest (or only briefly) and has no problem keeping them out of her life. Even outside of the world of romance, think about how many female protagonists are running around with something missing, something inside that needs to be fixed.
Katherine doesn’t wait to be fixed. She wants a second child, yes, but not because she doesn’t feel whole without one. She wants a second child because she does. Because she thinks it would be nice to have one. Because she thinks it would make life better for her and her daughter. But The Duchess never gives the impression that she will consider herself hopelessly broken if her quest fails.
The Duchess is an imperfect game, sometimes absolutely wild. More importantly, it is the portrayal of a woman who knows what she wants and pursues what she wants without questioning her worth. In 2020, it is still radical.