The Good Mothers is the true story of a group of Calabrian (a region in the toe of the Italian peninsula) women — born into the ‘Ndrangheta mafia — who, with the guidance of a new anti-mafia prosecutor, helped bring down the organized crime group from the inside. The limited series is adapted from Alex Perry’s 2018 book of the same name.
The show aptly braids the experience of four women born into the ‘Ndrangheta with that of the prosecution, exploring multi-generational womanhood and the often violent misogyny at the core of the ‘Ndrangheta. The series is compelling and well-adapted; however, American viewers, including myself, will likely find themselves parsing the internet for legal and cultural context outside of our stateside understanding of mafia-esque entertainment. For a summary of the history of organized crime in Calabria and a brief understanding of the legal battle, I suggest Perry’s 2018 New Yorker article “The Women Who Took on the Mafia”.
The series itself offers a nuanced look at what it means to turn against family and community when you are bred to believe loyalty is as important as breathing. Although much of the plot of the series is summarized in Perry’s article, the show is able to frame the story in a way that both honors the bravery of the dissenting women and interrogates the conditions of isolation and violence that make the ‘Ndrangheta so dangerous.
It helps to understand the series in three parts, folding in on each other and revealing dangers and weaknesses that only an omniscient viewer could. Part One is the story of mother-daughter pair Lea Garofalo (Micaela Ramazzotti) and Denise Cosco (Gaia Girace). Lea Garofalo, we soon learn, has been in hiding (witness protection) with her daughter since turning state’s witness in 2002. When the state can no longer guarantee their safety, Garofalo must return to her husband, Carlo Cosco (Francesco Colella), hoping his love for their daughter will be enough to spare her life. We soon learn that is not the case. Garofalo is pronounced missing and Denise Cosco must live with her father, expected to adapt to the standards of ‘Ndrangheta womanhood.
Part Two follows young mothers Giuseppina Pesce (Valentina Bellè) and Concetta Cacciola (Simona Distefano): both in loveless marriages and relentlessly abused by their husbands and fathers. Concetta is held prisoner in her room by her father for creating a Facebook account, as Giuseppina thanklessly fulfills her incarcerated husband’s duties and is treated like a wayward child. The friends confess their desire to be truly loved and appreciated, even properly courted. They want to be treated as equals in life and marriage and want the same for their children.
Part Three concerns Anna Colace (Barbara Chichiarelli), the deputy prosecutor assigned to building a case against the ‘Ndrangheta. She sums up her anti-mafia strategy, and the crux of the series, by exploring the perspective of Lea Garofalo: [Lea Garofalo] knew perfectly well…she wouldn’t ever have a normal life. No freedom, no hope. More than that, she knew her daughter, Denise, would suffer the same fate: Married at 16 and consigned to a life of subservience…She became a witness and we failed her…What if there were other women like Lea Garofalo out there…unhappy with their lives and the fate reserved for their children? Brave women who might be waiting for nothing more than a little encouragement.
“A little encouragement,” we learn, means employing different strategies to get the women (Denise, Giuseppina, and Concetta) alone; then, figuring out what they need in order to turn from the devil they know to the devil they don’t. When the women cooperate, they learn the truth behind Garofalo’s misery as state’s witness and the extent to which the ‘Ndrangheta, their fathers, mothers, friends and even children, will go to keep them silent. The series shows the various forms of control the ‘Ndrangheta wield over women in their communities and includes acts of violence, particularly multiple incidences of domestic violence, which some viewers may find triggering.
Garofalo flashbacks reveal the hellish isolation to which state’s witnesses are subject: always looking over their shoulder, never in one place long enough to make connections, living in one dreary safe house after another. The life Anna Colace waves in front of Giusepina and Concetta, as experienced by Garofalo, is hardly a life at all. Watching Garofalo, pace her near-empty safehouse, constantly checking between Denise, tucked safe in bed, and peeking through the front window for signs of her husband, we come to understand the impossible decision the women are being asked to make. The Good Mothers highlights the bravery and selflessness it took to eventually accept life as state’s witnesses while honoring those unable to escape.
The series does an excellent job showing how ‘Ndrangheta masculinity is cultivated and the ugly ways it spreads poison throughout families and the community. Throughout the series, however, it is always framed by the female perspective: Denise from the backseat as her father and one of his men sing a misogynistic pop-folk tune, Giuseppina watching her brother and son violently throw all of the family’s electronic devices out the window, and Concetta listening to men talk about how they will toughen up her son.
Extravagant parties and ‘Ndrangheta “perks” are not a means of celebration but stages where the women are expected to perform as if puppets on strings. The luxury we see feels more like stage dressing than anything comfortable or at all homey. I appreciate that Disney+/Hulu didn’t include an English dub (only subtitles) because, mistranslations aside, it self-selects viewers who must engage with the material to understand rather than those who might passively consume it or put it on in the background.
The series is thoughtfully shot, somehow making even a vacant pebble-covered beach feel as imposing and claustrophobic as interior shots of domestic life. Viewers often have as little a sense of the outside world as the women trapped within it.
The Good Mothers demands you enter the lives of three women and feel the impossible weight of each of their decisions. It is an excellent show and perfect use of a Limited Series format. Already, The Good Mothers won the inaugural Berlinale Series award for Best TV Drama at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival.
The Good Mothers is available to stream on Hulu (United States) and Disney+ (International)