New CBC Series ‘Essex County’ Explores the Emotional Terrain of a Woman in Midlife
Actress Molly Parker plays Anne, a rural nurse and caregiver to her unhappy uncle — and someone who is struggling to come to grips with major changes in her own life — in the new CBC series 'Essex County.' Photo: Peter H Stranks
There’s an essential scene early in the new CBC series Essex County, which arrives March 19: Anne (Molly Parker), a rural nurse and caregiver to her unhappy uncle, stands in her driveway with her husband Doug (Rossif Sutherland), saying goodbye to their daughter, who’s driving off to university. Just before the daughter pulls away, Doug whispers something in her ear. Then he tells Anne, “I told her to call you every week.”
Instantly, Anne’s face drains of its pride and sadness, and hardens into anger. “You didn’t need to do that,” she says. “It’s condescending.”
There is so much middle-age life in that one moment! How an unintended insult is just the tip of an iceberg of wounds accumulated during a long marriage. Or the complex jumble of emotions that a parent — especially a mother — feels when children leave: you know they must grow up, so you’re straining to be positive; yet a phase of your life is abruptly over, so you’re feeling bereft, a little pathetic and embarrassed about that. Then your partner — who, let’s face it, can infuriate you like no one else — does something clumsy that points out your pathetic-ness and devalues everything legitimate you’re feeling? You default to anger, and hate yourself for that, too.
Welcome to Essex County, where deceptively small moments are as big as the sky in North Bay, Ont., where the series was shot. Based on Jeff Lemire’s subtly powerful graphic novel of the same name, the five-episode drama follows four interconnected people coping with grief, guilt, mistakes they can’t fix, imperfect love, the persistence of hope and the possibility of redemptive new beginnings.
There are no zombies or squid games to hide behind. It’s just life, ordinary and unvarnished. Though all the characters are terrific, three of the women behind the series — producer Christina Piovesan (The Nest, French Exit), writer Eilis Kirwan (Nurses), and star Parker (Deadwood, Pieces of a Woman) — saw themselves in Anne, and were keen to mine the rich but under-explored emotional terrain of a woman in midlife.
“I have that same memory, my mother standing in the driveway as I drove away,” says Parker, 50, who grew up on a “hippie farm” in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley, and decamped right after high school for an acting career in Vancouver. “I felt only joy at my own beginning. Now I’m going through it with my 16-year-old son — I’m the one experiencing that wounded-ness I now remember seeing in my mother’s face. For the woman who’s standing there, what is her next move?”
That story is challenging to dramatize, however, “because a lot of the growth that’s happening is not external — it’s internal,” Parker continues. “It’s not an archetypical hero quest. It’s just a woman making a decision to keep living. To keep growing. To do something for herself. It sounds like nothing, but it’s kind of everything.”
“In most stories, a man gets the existential crisis, and a woman gets to have a relationship with that crisis,” Kirwan agrees. “But I wanted to centre Anne’s challenge: ‘Who am I now, and what am I going to do?’”
We’ve all seen the comedic version of that — the “Grandma takes a road trip” trope. But Kirwan treats Anne seriously, with poetry and consequence, in a way that’s open-hearted and helpful.
Kirwan recently turned 50, “and like Anne, I’m addressing the stories I’ve used to make sense of my life — the people-pleasing; the playing by the script provided by our families and our culture,” she says. “Anne’s realizing she’s been giving things up for other people her whole life. She’s challenging herself to figure out what the story of the second half of her life is going to be.”
For many women, who’ve been focused for most of their lives on other people’s needs, it’s head spinning to go from, “Who wants a snack?” to “What do I want?” But, Piovesan says, “just because people have said for half of your life that you can’t do something, that doesn’t mean that for the rest of your life you can’t.”
She should know: After producing films for 20 years and starting her own company, First Generation Films, in 2017, Essex County is the 47-year-old’s first live-action television series.
“I felt so disconnected after the pandemic,” Piovesan says, “and here was Jeff’s book, talking about how I felt. It also gave me the hug I needed at the end.”
So many stories focus on young people coming of age. “But this second coming of age is in its way much more interesting, much more complex,” Kirwan says. “It’s looking back, dealing with memory; it’s looking forward, dealing with mortality. It’s old friends, older parents, letting go and hanging on. What you don’t realize when you’re younger, is that when you’re middle-aged, you feel the same age you’ve always felt. There’s an ineffable spark to each person that’s always the same. And we’re still just figuring out life all the time, sometimes knowing what we’re doing, sometimes having no clue.”
“I have a real sense of life being finite now that I didn’t before,” Parker adds. “I’m okay with that. Because I’m cherishing more the time that I have. I really value straightforward people and conversations. I don’t have time for, or interest, in drama.” She laughs. “I just don’t give a shit about it anymore. I can see what’s important.”
For 30 years, Parker has enjoyed a creatively fulfilling career, but her vocation is not unlike any long-term relationship: “There are days I absolutely love it and days when I can’t stand it. And everything in between,” she says. “At different times, I’ve had to recommit to it: ‘I’m not in love with you right now but I think I will be again, so I’ll stick around.’ But I also recognize I’m interested in a lot of other things.” She’s currently taking political science courses, for example, on her way to a BA.
“We really have some work to do around how we think about middle age,” Parker says. “There’s still this idea that a woman, post-baby-making, is useless. It takes a ton of creativity to parent, to keep a house and relationship together. But on the other side of that — when you get past the wounded part of not being needed in the same way anymore — you can create space in your mind for other things to come in. I’m doing that. I’m thinking about new things, I’m reading things I’m interested in, that don’t have anything to do with acting or childrearing or the man I’m with. They’re just for me. For my spirit and my intellect. That feels great.”
In many ways, Anne has had a wonderful life, Parker says. “But she’s done with that part now. And I’m excited for her. I feel she has something great ahead of her.”
Essex County, a five-part limited series, premieres on CBC and CBC Gem on March 19 at 9 p.m. EDT. Click here for more information.