“Pregnancy is not a disease.”
This is a line repeated by Beverly Mantle as played by Rachel Weisz in the new series version of Dead Ringers. She’s right; it’s not a disease. But it is one hell of a liability, particularly if you are a character in what we’ll broadly refer to as prestige TV dramas. Shiv on Succession, Shauna on Yellowjackets, and Beverly Mantle on the previously mentioned Dead Ringers have all gone through pregnancies on their respective shows this spring.
(Warning: spoilers for Succession, Yellowjackets, and Dead Ringers as well as discussion of pregnancy complications, infant loss, and death.)
Pregnancy is, in one way, a universal experience; everyone on earth has spent about 6 months in a uterus. However, being pregnant is a deeply personal, individual experience and one of the things that is common to the characters who have been pregnant on TV this season is an attempt to control the circumstances of their pregnancies and/or births. Alas, pregnancy and childbirth resist control due to the cold reality of biology. What’s more terrifying is when even the small amount of control we feel we should have is taken away from us.
Shauna in Yellowjackets, a starving teenager deep in the Canadian wilderness, has no options when it comes to her labor and delivery. It’s going to happen in a cabin full of other teenagers and a gym teacher with no medical supplies. Yet her focus leading up to the birth is that the event will somehow be hijacked by the charismatic Lottie. If she were back in her home in New Jersey, it’s unlikely Shauna would even have to think about how she would want labor to go; her attempt at self-terminating early in her pregnancy indicates that she would have aborted if she had the option available to her. But it wasn’t, and the longer she stayed pregnant the more it became HER pregnancy, HER baby, even as others in the cabin tried to make it a group project for the survivors to bond over. It’s also a ticking time bomb. Despite Natalie’s assurances that women have been having babies for millions of years, Shauna is in a situation that can allow for no complications. Sadly, she has placenta previa, and despite a vivid hallucination to the contrary, her son is stillborn. Shauna comes close to death (if the show were a bit more honest about the likely health of the survivors, probably should have died) and is bereft and furious at the loss of her baby. It’s a loss that affects the relationships she has with people, including her daughter, for the rest of her life. Perhaps some might be cynical about her reaction given that she tried to abort early in the pregnancy, but all this does is underline that a lack of options (in this case, the option to terminate or to have medical intervention to save her baby) is traumatic no matter when it happens.
Shiv’s pregnancy on Succession is, at this point, the least fraught example of the condition. We know that she’s being attended to by the best doctors available, she’s obviously in a very financially stable position to care for a child, and she appears to be managing her early pregnancy with hardly any side effects. While this is an enviable situation in more than one way, her emotional state is the problem; she’s going through a divorce, her father just died, and she’s flailing while trying to secure herself a position in a high-stakes business deal. Shiv’s reluctance to reveal her pregnancy is her way of keeping control in the one area she still feels like she can, but she will lose that control in the near future as she starts to show. She tried to use it against Tom, but given her previous attempts at manipulation, that punch failed to land. Succession will end before Shiv really starts to show, so the tension here is whether Shiv opens up to anyone else, or ultimately decides to exercise her remaining control over her own body and terminate.
In some ways, Dead Ringers is both the most and least about the pregnancy at the center of it, because it’s also about lots of other pregnancies. We see some horrific pregnancy outcomes and some excellent ones. The focus of the show, though, is sisters Beverly and Elliot Mantle who are incredibly talented OB-GYNs. Beverly has tried to become pregnant for years with no success. Despite all her ability and desire, she has not been able to make herself pregnant. We tend to focus on the inability to control negative outcomes of pregnancies or pregnancies that are not wanted, but it can also be incredibly upsetting and even traumatic to realize how little control we have over starting wanted pregnancies. Equally shocking to Beverly, however, is probably that once she is successfully pregnant it still isn’t what she needs to make her happy. Like Shauna, she is likely surprised by her own feelings about the pregnancy as it progresses. In the end, both Beverly and Elliot make surprising choices about their own identities and what will fulfill them.
Watching these shows in the second trimester of my second pregnancy has been a mixed experience. I appreciated that Shiv was never shown vomiting into a random trash can; not everyone experiences morning sickness. Dead Ringers was frequently terrifying, and Shauna’s situation on Yellowjackets has been making me nervous since last season because we all knew there was no happy ending for her and her baby. Pregnancy is not a disease, but it is complex, and attempts by TV shows or politicians to act otherwise are an insult. One thing I can appreciate about all these shows and how they portray pregnancy is that they do show complexities and nuances that can be absent in other pop culture offerings.