2006 has been good to Helen Mirren. It’s been one of the best years of her career. She won an Emmy for portraying the first Queen Elizabeth, won raves for her portrayal of the second Queen Elizabeth and this past week began closing out her role as Jane Tennison in the incomparable Prime Suspect series on PBS. Part Two airs Sunday, November 19, and finally puts an end to a character many of us have known for nearly fifteen years.
The last installment has Tennison chasing down the death of a young girl, dealing with her father’s death from cancer, losing her only friend in the world and battling an addiction to alcohol all while facing retirement. To a woman like Tennison, who has built a life on her career, retirement is probably the most difficult of the bunch.
The episode opens on a passed out Tennison, bruised from having hit her head on the sink in the bathroom the night before (she imagines). She must steady herself with a glass of vodka as her only breakfast. She has come a long way since the days when her glasses of whisky were just part of her hardened charm.
It’s clear the job has not been kind to her over the years, even though she’s sacrificed everything for it – pregnancies, boyfriends, a social life. She was messed up in every other part of her life except when it came time to hunting down bad guys. She has always been so tough she pushes everyone who wants to get close to her away.
She vows the moment she finds this last killer she will quit the job on the job, no matter how many days until her retirement.
Here in America, only male characters are allowed to be so complex – to grow old and still manage to be sexy and complicated. Here, if you don’t “test well” with the 14-21 set, you’re done for. As a result, we seem to be searching for the next hot babe who can at least deliver a line. But a richly drawn, fully fleshed-out human being like Jane Tennison as the star of her own TV series? The closest thing we have is Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer) and Patricia Arquette (Medium), and even they’re “hot” by most anyone’s standards.
Mirren as Tennison makes television better. Full stop. It’s a shame it has to come to an end, but she’s given us a good run. Mirren said in the interview following the airing of Part One that she needed to put some distance between herself and Tennison because she didn’t want to be known only as Jane. But she was right; her portrayal felt so real, her connection to the character seemed so strong, it was difficult to see her as anyone else.
But nonetheless, she has gone on to become many different people as brilliantly as she has created Tennison. She transcends even her own gender as one never feels, while watching her play Tennison, that this tough cop lady couldn’t do the job. Couldn’t it be that the reason we have trouble imagining a female president is because we’re not used to seeing a woman kick so much ass?
Here’s to hoping Mirren’s success paves the way for other women growing old gracefully, as fierce as ever.