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'Red Widow' tests a mother's limits

Red Widow

8 p.m. Sunday

WFAA/Channel 8

Posted 4:49pm on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013

People never know the awful things they are capable of doing until they are backed into a corner.

That's the life lesson that Marta Walraven, the hero of ABC's Red Widow, if you can call her a hero, learns when times get rough.

During the show's two-hour premiere, Marta (played by Australian actress Radha Mitchell, the leading lady of movies Silent Hill and Pitch Black) morphs from a suburban wife and mom into a desperate drug smuggler.

In fact, just three weeks after the murder of her husband, Marta is willing to do such despicable things to keep herself and her children alive that she finds herself asking, "Is this who I am now?"

The answer -- sadly for her wayward soul, but happily for viewers who will enjoy the subtle acting performance -- is yes.

By season's end, Mitchell promises, Marta will become "the matriarch of her own crime family dynamic."

It's a fascinating transformation -- one not unlike the chemistry-teacher-to-meth-kingpin journey that Walter White has taken in Breaking Bad.

"She starts off as a soccer mom," Mitchell says. "She is a character under duress. She has been dragged into this world that she doesn't want to be part of.

"But in the process, she discovers that she has talents [having to do with not just surviving, but thriving in the criminal underworld] that she didn't know she had."

Conveniently, Marta is the daughter of a Russian gangster. So it's in her DNA.

But Mitchell suspects that we've all got that kind of a cad lurking inside of us.

"This definitely feels like a woman that you might know or you might be," she says.

Or as executive producer Melissa Rosenberg puts it, "She is this very moral woman forced to make very immoral choices. I think audiences are going to be drawn to this woman. Everything she does is to protect her children. What that does is forces her to cross the line of what she thinks she will and won't do."

The eight-episode season, which network executives promise will close with a bona fide ending, opens with Marta's small-time criminal husband and his business partners making the wrong enemy.

They're involved in the theft of millions of dollars worth of cocaine from an international crime boss, Nicholae Schiller (played by Goran Visnjic, of ER fame). Marta's husband, Evan, pays with his life. But as far as Schiller is concerned, his debt has not been cleared.

While trying to square things with the crime boss and trying to raise three grieving kids, Marta will discover that she has a resourcefulness and a sinister streak she never knew was there.

"With a lot of grief and pent-up pain, the debt leads her on this whole adventure in the drug underworld," Mitchell says. "She gets involved in all kinds of things, against her will, in a way, but she discovers she has talents she didn't know she had. The story drags her into this really intense experience."

Rosenberg, who wrote screenplays for all five "Twilight" movies, developed Red Widow from a Dutch TV series called Penoza.

Rosenberg said she hopes viewers enjoy living vicariously through Marta during the next two months.

"I think audiences crave surprise," she says. "They crave something that is going to take them on a journey. They want a good ride.

"I'm a huge TV fan, too. I watch a lot of television. I want the twists and turns. I want to be on a roller coaster. And I think we're delivering that."

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