Mrs Mandela, BBC4<br/>The Good Wife, Channel 4<br/>Mad Men, BBC4

Confused chronology and crass exposition are overcome by Sophie Okonedo's central performance as Winnie Mandela
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

If I were an actress, I imagine "long suffering wife" would rank somewhere below "Paris Hilton's Siamese twin" on the list of roles I'd take care to avoid.

The most thankless of archetypes, it more often than not requires the over-talented and under-used to simper stoically at the sidelines, as their flawed but fascinating hubby steals the grand emotional arc and all the best lines. Thank heavens, then, for this week's clutch of TV dramas, which served as a reminder that standing by your man need not mean standing behind them, dramatically at least.

Wives certainly don't come longer or more complexly suffering than Winnie Mandela, anti-apartheid revolutionary, Nelson's ex, and the latest recipient of a BBC4 biopic. And about time too, since, while Nelson's life-story has naturally been better-documented, Winnie's exerts a horrifyingly tragic pull. Here, after all, was a woman compelled to keep her husband's cause alive as he served 27 years in prison, only to become infected by the very same brutality and corruption as her oppressors. And then, just as Nelson became a national hero, so she became a national monster, after ordering the murder of 14-year-old alleged police informant Stompie Moeketsi.

Rich raw material, then, though not always effectively shaped here: with a narrative spanning 40 years, from the time Winnie first encountered Nelson as a social worker to Nelson's 1990 release, Mrs Mandela matched a confusingly fragmented chronology with clunky shorthand. Haunting as were the scenes of Winnie being abused by David Morrissey's police interrogator, to interweave them with Winnie's own abuse of Moeketsi was a crass concluding trick, overstepping the line between explaining her actions and explaining them away. Equally crass were the expository lines that dotted the script. When a young Winnie observed that "the problem of being married to Mandela is that you marry into the struggle; you end up living in his shadow", she sounded like she was flagging up a "key message" for a BBC pitch meeting.

Still, such flaws were easily forgiven thanks to Okonedo's superbly modulated performance. Self-confessedly someone who has too often languished in "victim" roles, here she effected Winnie's assorted transitions – from victim to perpetrator, high-minded activist to power-hungry politico, fresh-faced coquette to puffy-faced sociopath – with chilling aplomb. And if David Harewood's Nelson was a blank by comparison, then that seemed only fitting for a film that played better as a psycho-drama than it did as a historical one.

The Good Wife's Alicia Florrick was also dealing with a husband behind bars, though her plight was altogether more Hillary Clinton than Winnie Mandela. With her politician husband banged up for a fraud-and-prostitution scandal, Alicia swaps her Chanel suits for power suits and takes over the breadwinner's role as she resuscitates her long-dormant legal career. Naturally, as this pilot episode signals, she will have to battle chauvinistic male colleagues and bond with spunky female ones. Naturally, she will soothe troubled clients, spar with eccentric judges, and use her killer instinct to earn last-minute courtroom victories. And, naturally, everything will coast along in forgettably watchable fashion, plugging a gap somewhere between Law & Order and Ally McBeal.

And so to long-suffering wife No 3: Betty Draper, Queen of the Mad Men, which returned with a double bill. If this suburban china doll had been groping her way towards empowerment after kicking out the philandering Don, the revelation of her pregnancy at the end of series two has now nipped that trajectory in the bud.

Six months on, it is business as usual between the now-reunited couple, Don bedding stewardesses and casting inscrutable looks, while Betty fell back into petulance and self-delusion. Elsewhere, closeted art director Sal's belated first gay encounter is stymied by a hotel fire alarm, while sole female copywriter Peggy struggles to earn new respect to match her new office.

In fact, just forget wives for a moment: "long-suffering" remains the key principle for this entire, exquisitely unhurried show, where change is only ever hard-won and three steps forward are usually followed by two steps back.