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Weeds: Season Eight

Nancy turns over a new leaf in season eight of Weeds. [Photo: Michael Desmond/Showtime]

Weeds: Season Eight 3 out of 4

star3-0

There's something unsettling about the opening sequence of Weeds's season-eight premiere, and it has little to do with the fact that the main character, Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), has just been shot in the head. Rather, we're suddenly forced to see the world through the eyes of this pot-dealing widow and mother of three, whose dealings have threatened her family's stability and safety, by way of a tilt-a-whirl POV shot. It appears to signal a willingness on the part of the writers to finally explore the question viewers have been grappling with all along: What actually goes on inside this woman's mind? Nancy is one of television's most incomprehensibly selfish and self-sabotaging protagonists, so it isn't surprising that the writers still seem to be figuring her out.

Chances are that those who plainly hate Nancy gave up on Weeds sometime between her decision to burn down an entire suburb and her choice to birth the son of a corrupt Mexican politician and drug lord. But those who crave a little justice may want to take another look, if only for the litany of jokes that come at her expense: Her friend, Doug (Kevin Nealon), looks down her blouse while she's lying in a coma, while her sister, Jill (Jennifer Jason Leigh), tells Nancy's dead husband's brother, Andy (Justin Kirk), that the criminal mom won't die "because there is no God," after which the two proceed to have sex in Nancy's hospital room, banging into and brushing up against her limp, sedated body. Once you're able to overcome everyone's tasteless behavior, it begins to feel increasingly well-deserved.

The larger reason why those who aren't on Team Nancy might want to revisit Weeds is that she feels almost entirely absent. Even after her coma, which serves as a surefire way to limit her screen time, the Nancy that we knew so well is nowhere to be found. She's been replaced with a generous, charitable ray of sunshine who refuses to profit from pain and spreads the joys of marijuana throughout her hospital without earning a dime. It's a wonder no one mentions the possibility that the bullet to her head likely caused brain damage (after all, she is forgetting some of her vocabulary words). Either way, the personality change proves more enlivening than the makeovers of previous seasons, which largely relied on the characters' changing environment (suburbia, the Mexican border, the Big Apple, etc.). The Botwins' problems are no longer falsely imposed by way of a risk-addicted drama queen, who sometimes seemed to cause trouble just to give the writers new material.

Instead, the family is grappling with its past and the role Nancy has played in it, prompting Andy to ponder, "If I've been defining myself by her all this time, who am I going to be?" The other characters never manage to articulate the same question, but it's one that nonetheless features prominently in their story arcs. One of Nancy's sons, Silas (Hunter Parish), seems intent on making peace with his mother after years of resentment, while the younger one, Shane (Alexander Gould), takes his loyal devotion to new extremes by going after the man who tried to kill her. This places Nancy in the heretofore unprecedented role of arbiter and peacemaker as she rushes to protect the perpetrator from what she assumes to be her son's violent and vengeful plan. When, instead, the police come to arrest the man responsible for putting the bullet in her head, she actually goes so far as to tell them she isn't pressing charges.

When Andy testifies to the efficacy of Jill's Kegel exercise weight, one wonders if the apparatus might serve as a metaphor for Nancy herself: Her dour mishaps may, at times, have been a bit tiring, but they've given the story its shape. Either way, there's certainly a downside to her "absence." Whether or not Nancy is actually brain damaged, the resulting kind-heartedness feels almost barren of free will. Back when she was selfish and calculating, she was still making clear choices each step of the way, and she often surprised viewers by temporarily redeeming herself. Her refusal to allow the trade of underaged sex slaves through her pot-smuggling tunnel to Mexico showed that even she had limits. Her willingness to sacrifice herself by taking the blame for her son's homicide wasn't treated as merely an act of heroism; it was a much deeper expression of maternal instinct. And yet, through it all, she was still ruthlessly eliminating her competition and abandoning anyone she had no use for. She was unpredictable, a quality that the series only manages to regain as the writers test Nancy's newfound altruism, tempting her with old enemies and dubious allies. If season eight serves as a kind of purgatory in which Nancy must reap what she's sown for the past seven seasons, then a typical infestation of weeds won't cut it; we'll need a welter of poison hemlocks.

Weeds does manage to maintain the dry humor that made it a hit to begin with, and this isn't the brand of listless cynicism we get from lesser comedy writers content to appear savvy and hip. It's cynicism with a critical curiosity about human nature. When Jill meets her ex-husband for dinner, he reads a speech about his past regrets and subsequent spiritual evolution, telling her to "toss out the calcified remains of the past and embrace our vital energy." Behind him, Andy proceeds to pick a roasted goose off a tray and sodomize it with what looks like an ear of corn. Jill is torn, glancing back and forth between the two performances, each equally absurd in its own right, while attempting an appropriate reaction to both. Season eight presents viewers with a similar dilemma, portraying on the one hand a character who seems to have become a saint overnight while simultaneously mocking those who believe in man's capacity for self-betterment. The result is sometimes baffling, but oddly compelling, proving that it can be more important to pose an original question than to answer it articulately. Even if we never find out what really goes on in Nancy's head, the mystery of her sociopathic behavior is likely just another one of TV's great red herrings; the real stars of the series are the misfits who circle her erratic orbit.

Cast: Mary-Louise Parker, Hunter Parrish, Alexander Gould, Justin Kirk, Kevin Nealon, Jennifer Jason Leigh Airtime: Showtime, Sundays at 10 p.m.

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