Almost every episode of Desperate Housewives opens in the same way, with a shot of someone’s well-manicured lawn, children playing on the clean sidewalk, or neighbors emerging from their Martha Stewart-perfect homes. All are bathed in the perpetual, generic sunshine of Anysuburb, USA. This, as Mary Alice (Brenda Strong) so often reminds us, is Wisteria Lane.
Sure, the conceit of the American suburb as a beautiful facade masking a moral depravity and violence has been played out so often (Blue Velvet, Picket Fences) that it could be its own genre. And yet, Desperate Housewives is at its best when it considers the ever-shifting parameters of this too-lovely setting. As Mary Alice explained in the opening to the second season finale, “It’s a fact of life in every neighborhood: people move in, people move out.”
Marcia Cross, Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman, Eva Longoria, Nicolette Sheridan, Brenda Strong
Regular airtime: Sundays, 9pm ET
Season Two was accused of suffering a “sophomore slump” precisely because of the arrival one particular family, the Applewhites. Though the “Why is Betty Applewhite (Alfre Woodard) keeping a man locked in her basement?” mystery initially held promise—the silver dinner platter with a single red rose, that first shocking glimpse of a cuffed hand reaching for a bowl of ice cream—it quickly lost steam. By contrast, the “Why did Mary Alice (Brenda Strong) kill herself?” mystery of Season One managed to tie together most of that season’s central story arcs (the bludgeoning of Martha Huber [Christine Estabrook], the arrival of Mike Delfino [James Denton], the odd behavior of Paul [Mark Moses] and Zach Young [Cody Kasch]), while simultaneously forcing Susan (Teri Hatcher), Bree (Marcia Cross), Gabrielle (Eva Longoria), and Lynette (Felicity Huffman) to interact (and connive) in interesting ways.
Sadly, the Applewhite story offered no such satisfactions. Seemingly bored with Betty’s melancholy piano playing, our desperate friends retreated into their own quirky worlds. While some of these subplots were engrossing (Gabrielle’s unexpected turn to motherhood, Bree’s alcoholism and vicious battles with Andrew [Shawn Pyfrom]), others were merely amusing (Lynette’s workplace shenanigans), or downright annoying (Susan sobbing in the middle of the road while donning her mother’s wedding dress).
Even the writers seemed to be bored with the Applewhite mystery; the family would disappear for entire episodes at a time, reappearing only long enough for Woodard to gaze solemnly out of her window, perhaps wondering how and why she signed a contract to be on a series that so grossly underused her considerable talent and gave her character the most unmysterious “mystery” ever. Halfway through the season, we discovered why Caleb (Nashawn Kearse) was locked up in mom’s basement and about one second after that, most viewers had figured out that it was Matthew (Mehcad Brooks), not Caleb, who killed that girl back in Chicago. Yawn.
But then something fantastic happened. About two-thirds of the way through Season Two, some dead weight stories moved out of Wisteria Lane: weepy Susan pining and pining for the love of Mike, the boringly battling Scavos, and of course, Bree’s grip on her sanity. And in their place came some exciting new plotlines. Gabrielle and Carlos’ (Ricardo Chavira) struggles to adopt a baby zigzagged from slapstick to heart-breaking pathos. In fact, this season most clearly belonged to Longoria, who has made her character both a comic bitch and a convincing woman.
Also compelling was Bree’s final showdown with the only adversary worthy of her stubbornness, intelligence, and intensity. At times Andrew’s heinous behavior was over-the-top (false accusations of child abuse, seducing Mom’s first “normal” boyfriend). But as with Gabrielle, the show took pains to make the troubled teen more human than caricature. As we learned in the flashback sequences of the season finale, Andrew’s rebellion had roots dating back much further than the untimely death of his father and his mother’s cold reaction to his sexual preferences. In a simultaneously chilling and humorous display of hubris, Bree defended her Mommy Dearest approach to parenthood by assuring Rex (Steven Culp), “In the end, we will be rewarded.” She then asked for the opinion of an unseen bystander, who turned out to be the now dear, departed George (Roger Bart), who assured Bree and Rex that his mother was also “firm” with him. “And look how you well you turned out,” smiled Bree. Ah, the past.
These flashback scenes, so clearly about the future, made the entire last episode a pleasure to watch. When, for instance, we saw each woman’s first day on Wisteria Lane, we were provided with the kernels of her current unhappiness, her “fatal flaw,” if you will. The independent Lynette both loved and resented her husband for the life she was leading. Susan, who locked herself in her own moving truck, was always in need of rescuing. Bree, who openly wondered, “Why is my certainty a flaw?” was unable to relinquish control over anything in her life, especially her children. And Gabrielle expected Carlos to keep her company and keep her wealthy, two demands that turned out to be mutually exclusive.
Each character, the show led us to believe, was hardwired to be the woman she currently is. And every trial she endured, whether the torching of her house by a jealous neighbor or her husband’s inexplicable infidelity, became a test of her flaw. Would she learn from this experience or would she fall back on old habits? The finale’s turn to the past was a skillful way of reminding us of how it got to the present and where the show might head in the future.
Desperate Housewives also has a signature way of concluding. We return again to those idyllic shots of Wisteria Lane as Mary Alice reiterates what she said at the beginning of the episode, then ties a neat little bow on all the events that have transpired over the past 60 minutes. Throughout this season, Mary Alice’s little lessons became increasingly tiresome and forced, particularly since the various story arcs were often too divergent to effectively categorize under one “profound” statement.
But in the last minutes of the finale, Mary Alice’s words cut to the heart of what makes Desperate Housewives, at its best, one of the most entertaining shows on television. As we saw images of each housewife, happily beginning a life that we know no longer exists for her in the present, Mary Alive asked, “If I could, would I tell them what lies ahead? Would I warn them of the sorrow and betrayal that lie in store?” Her answer, of course, is no.
I can only hope that this rhetorical question was also intended for the viewer. That with all the new residents moving to Wisteria Lane—Tom’s demanding baby momma, Orson (Kyle MacLachlan) and the mysterious woman he visits in the psychiatric hospital—and all the old residents who are moving out—Zach retreating into his Xanadu-like compound, Mrs. Tillman (Harriet Samson Harris) hiding somewhere in the woods, Carlos banished to a hotel—that the mysteries promised during this finale will remain precisely that, mysterious.
Mary Alice told us, “There will be unexpected bends in the road, shocking surprises we didn’t see coming. But that’s really the point, don’t you think?” Yes, Mary Alice, ignorance is bliss.