Near the end of its third-season premiere, a sequence of delirious high fantasy encapsulates the pleasures of Claws. The nail artisans turned criminals in this TNT drama are in the mood to celebrate: Led by Desna, the sharply intelligent broad played by Niecy Nash, they’ve just forcefully negotiated a big payday with a local casino. Decked out in their finest wares of glitter and gold, they break into a sly dance sequence set to “Free Your Mind” by En Vogue. It’s glorious, arch, and keenly focused on female desire at its most ostentatious.
Put simply, Claws, created by Eliot Laurence and headed by showrunner Janine Sherman-Barrois, is the perfect summer show. A breezily toned, darkly comedic celebration of South Floridian decadence and criminality makes it akin to a meaty paperback thriller you lazily read on the beach. Summer is a season for fleshy excess, drinks lazily sipped near bodies of water, laughter that flutters to the heavens, and the sheen of sweat from a hot day that reminds us of our bodies in all their humanity. Claws understands and leans into the tactile nature of the season, with the click of perfectly polished nails becoming an omen and the sweatiness of characters speaking to the lengths they’ll go to find a sliver of peace. It’s at once breezy enough to easily fall for and emotionally hefty enough to linger. But what’s proven most fascinating about Claws, especially in its third season, is how the show accomplishes that mood by taking typical noir traits and archetypes — the dogged lead, the lecherous casino owner, the mob boss, the consideration of money as both power and a prison — then putting them in a blender to create an uproarious, emotionally moving ode to women’s quests for autonomy.
Claws has been steeped in noir since the very beginning, as it has charted Desna’s quest for power and riches not just for herself, but the friends who work alongside her in her nail salon. The femme fatales, mob molls, and low-level workers take center stage, allowing the show to lightly consider the gender and racial implications of Desna’s hunger for autonomy through criminality. From money laundering for Uncle Daddy (Dean Norris) and the Dixie Mafia in the show’s fledgling season to her dealings with the Bayside Casino (and their involvement with the governor taking bribes to approve for-profit prisons), this is essentially a show about the making of a queenpin. Yet, Claws isn’t a heavy show. Far from it. Claws trades the shadows we’ve come to associate with noir for a sun-drenched, candy-coated fantasy. Its core of female characters are tender-hearted ride-or-dies, not hardened criminals. When choosing between darkness and joy — whether aesthetically or narratively — the show always goes for the latter. Its visual dimensions aren’t just bright but garishly so, and it’s rooted in the fantasy of unfettered feminine excess with towering heels, pearl-encrusted jumpsuits, and dance sequences as crucial to the narrative as double-crosses. Its self-awareness, darkly spun comedy, and wide spectrum of pop-culture references (episode five sees a critique of blackfishing and has a Katharine Hepburn-circa-On Golden Pond impression from star Carrie Preston) make it a delectable cocktail.
In her groundbreaking book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, Molly Haskell takes a somewhat dim view on noir’s treatment of women. Haskell writes of the femme fatale, “Angel or devil, good-bad or bad-good girl, she was a change from the either/or — heroine or villainess — of the twenties and thirties. But for all her guts and valor and for all her unredeemable venality, she hasn’t a soul she could call her own. She was, in fact, a male fantasy.” I’ve always seen the femme fatale not as a male fantasy, but a female one. She’s a venue for the darkened desires of her audience where we can track the ways women must navigate male violence and seek autonomy in a world built to keep it forever out of reach. You can see this in everything from 1945’s Gothic-tinged noir My Name Is Julia Ross to more modern fare like the indelible Killing Eve, and especially in Claws.
Claws finds its potency in its celebration of feminine desire and the importance of found families, which for Desna is her guiding light. As Nash noted in an interview with the Chicago Tribune last year, “There’s a line that Denzel Washington’s character says in Devil in a Blue Dress: ‘Everybody is mixed up in it, but some people are mixed up to the top.’ And I want her to be mixed up to the top! I want her to see what happens when she really steps into this lane, because power will cost you something. So I want to see what chances and risks and decisions she makes when she has all that power. But I also believe that Desna is a character who is not selfish, so if she rises, her girls rise. If she shines, they shine. She wouldn’t leave them by the wayside. She needs them.” In Claws, women are butch and ultra femme, former addicts and businesswomen, queenpins on the make and common women just trying to get by — the series revels in the breadth of different forms of femininity, which brings further heft to its consideration of female autonomy. We’re all in this struggle for power, the show suggests. Carrie Preston’s chipper, mentally unstable Polly is a particular standout this season, as she tries to remain on top of her schizophrenia even as she falls into a torrid love affair and side hustle that is bound to cause a rift between her and Desna. But the show wouldn’t work without Niecy Nash’s lead performance, as she walks a tightrope between various tones without losing sight of the anger and sorrow within her character.
This season of Claws has put Desna in impossible situations romantically, personally, and professionally. Like all great noir, Desna has to face both the mistakes of her past and come to terms with the price of chasing power. “Zaddy Was A Rolling Stone,” which aired Sunday and was directed by Nash herself, provides the best portrait of her considerable abilities as an actor. In it, Desna faces one of the greatest wounds of her life: the absence of her father, Calvin Sanders, played by iconic character actor Glynn Turman. Once an addict who abandoned her and her brother, Dean (Harold Perrineau), Calvin is now a sober, well-off architect who never looked back at the children he left behind. Desna — herself at a crossroads about how to proceed in her relationship with the drug dealer Roller (Jack Kesy) — is encouraged by her friends, wondering if maybe facing this baggage from her past will make her present a bit easier.
Reality proves a bit more complicated: When Desna confronts her father, she is coldly rebuffed. “I have imagined this moment for so long and I feel stupid for ever wanting anything from you,” she says, her eyes growing wet with tears, her voice cracking. This is a picture of Desna we don’t see often: brought low by tragedy, her usual confidence that burnishes through her every movement gone. Here the slow-motion walk, which Claws utilizes often, isn’t a venue for great fashion or bold confidence but to study the minute fractures that crack Desna’s armor after Calvin’s blow. Yet Desna is not easily broken; she’s the kind of woman to apply a fresh coat of lipstick and her best jumpsuit and keep it moving. Facing her father (and the latter fallout after her casino-running foes recognize him as a way to hurt her) becomes an important quest in capturing a sense of autonomy. After all, the stories we tell ourselves about our lives — for Desna, it’s the story of her father’s abandonment — are just as important as what happens to us. In facing him, she can take control of her own narrative instead of falling victim to it.
When Desna walks into a room wearing a snakeskin jumpsuit and leopard-print jacket, each in shades of crimson, she’s announcing to the world that she won’t be backed into a corner or ignored. You will bear witness to her fury and extravagance. As Polly put it plainly earlier in the season, “Clothes are everything.” The entire series is infused with this maxim believing that what we wear speaks to who we are. Under costume designer Dolores Ybarra, colors clash, broaches glimmer, tight fabric glistens. Fashion, then, is a means of transgression and liberation, a way of skirting societal mores that noir often takes strides to critique and subvert. (Noir has always used the wears of women to speak to larger issues, like Phyllis Dietrich’s “honey of an anklet” in Double Indemnity becoming a nearly totemic stand-in for illicit desire.) In doing so, Claws is able to slyly marry visual fantasy with noir’s trenchant considerations of class and power — something the women in the series struggle with again and again.
“All those years of being passed over, lowballed, taken for granted are over,” Desna tells her crew before the show launches into that “En Vogue” fantasy dance sequence. This is what powers her and the show itself: a hunger for autonomy and the finer things in life. Above all, this is what I find so charming about Claws, and why it seems so perfectly suited for this season. It chases joy in all its forms while slyly marrying its audience’s desires for a frothy summertime fantasy with something bolder and more complex: a black woman’s unapologetic quest to be in control of her own narrative.