June 8th, 2009
There are not many cool things in Nancy Botwin’s life.
This isn’t something sudden: as each subsequent season has gone forward, things have become more and more tense. The show’s fourth season was yet another shift in a direction where things are decidedly uncool for Nancy Botwin, a suburban mother who has been removed from suburbia and in many ways was no longer a mother as one son grew up and the other drifted into his own awkwardness. It resulted in a different sort of show, one where we are asked to laugh at situations removed from our own experience and, in all honesty, that are actually quite dangerous. The threat of the Mexican mafia was almost entirely without the humour of Marvin (during the U-Turn arc of Season Three), or the injection of Conrad and Heylia to keep the business from seeming quite that dangerous.
I don’t think this is inherently a bad thing: I thought the fourth season was a strong one for Nancy’s character, even if it took her away from the show’s original intention or purpose, and we can’t begrudge a show evolution moving into its fourth season. The problem is that the show is as schizophrenic as ever, with Nancy’s storyline proving so dire and dramatic that the absurdist comedy feels dichotomous, splitting the show into two separate parts. I like both of those parts, depending on who’s involved, but the show goes out of its way in “Wonderful Wonderful” to emphasize that, at least at first, there’s no room for the two to interact, a problem that will need to be rectified sooner rather than later if the season is to get off to a strong start.
For now, it remains poignant and capable of some strong humour, which makes it an ideal dark comedy on paper if not quite in practice – now it just needs to build on that.
There’s a running joke in “Wonderful Wonderful” that provides a wide majority of the episode’s comedy: as Celia Hoades is held hostage by her eldest daughter in Mexico, her boyfriend Rodolfo calls pretty much every character we’ve met thus far in an effort to gain a ransom. Of course, all of them “hilariously” refuse to do so, and Celia is left to bond with her kidnapper and count on his kindness and dislike of her daughter’s bossiness and violence in order to escape.
Now, I know this is Celia, who ever since she had cancer has never been quite a serious character and who has perhaps suffered most outside of the comfort of suburbia where she felt most at home, but at the same time this storyline is darker than it was given credit for on the surface. It wasn’t just an excuse for Doug to call her a whore, or Captain Till to express his own anger, or even Dean and Isabel’s nonplussed reaction to their mother being kidnapped – that was all very funny, but it doesn’t sustain the episode. No, the biggest impact of this is when she calls Andy and Nancy, two people who are the most likely to be able to acknowledge the severity of this situation, and finds both of them in the midst of situations that have them otherwise occupied.
That’s pretty much where the show finds itself as a whole, where things are so dire or so serious that something like a character getting kidnapped, even Celia, is acceptable and normal. There was a time when it wouldn’t have been normal at all, and the show has gotten to the point where not only are we supposed to find something so ridiculous funny, but the characters are barely reacting to it. That’s the one problem that really hits me with the show’s currently dark direction, as it forces us not only to overcome our own sense of the seriousness of this scenario in order to find humour, but also the fact that these characters aren’t willing to do anything about it. I just don’t know if, even with the running joke offering some good laughs, that really feels like a solid direction for the show.
It is, however, the direction chosen: we leave the episode, after all, with Nancy pretending as if she’ll be capable of interacting with her sons the way she did before after thinking she could try to protect the one who doesn’t want her protection and sending away the one who she still has some control over. Nancy has lost the ability to influence these people, the baby in her stomach proving the only tool she really has and unfortunately one which tends to knock out any other. It knocks Andy out of love with her, it sends her kids into a state of toddler-esque rage (especially Shane, who ironically is becoming less mature as Alexander Gould ages dramatically), and it means that her life is now solely defined by a Henry VIII-esque relationship with the mayor of Tijuana.
On a dramatic level, the show remains compelling: it may not fit some of the comedy, but the tension in the scenes between Nancy and Esteban really is electric, and Mary-Louise Parker remains an amazing talent at finding the small moments of comedy and humanity in storylines designed to rid her life of those elements. At the end of last season I was convinced that the baby was a plot, an effort from Nancy to trick Esteban and buy them more time. As the episode unfolded, you realize that this wouldn’t be possible, as the baby is necessary to her survival and there isn’t a short term exit strategy. There is nothing wonderful about this baby, whether it keeps her alive or not, since it essentially traps her; she can’t escape to Copenhagen as Andy suggests because he will simply hunt her down in an effort to find his son, so she’s stuck in the middle of a group of people who kill two guards and send their family flowers.
What I like about how they’re handing this side of things is that they put it all on the table: there was no extended subterfuge, and even Silas and Shane were told (by Andy) that the only reason she’s keeping the baby is to keep them all from being killed by the mob. There’s a little moment where Silas points out that his father would be proud, but the show can’t really handle such an extended callback: considering how much Nancy had done to this point, we’re far gone from Judah playing an honestly substantial role in this context. However, at the same time, she is in this situation for ultimately moral reasons, having risked her life to play snitch, so it’s not as if she’s done something absolutely terrible. She was just a human being in an inhuman situation.
That’s where the show finds itself right now: no longer focused on the intersection of suburbia and the drug trade, it is moving closer to an investigation of Nancy as a character, and how over time she’s found herself in this situation. I feel for her at episode’s end as she sits there by herself, with no one to lean on even when she finds herself in a very dangerous predicament. However, the show isn’t going to place her in quite that dark a place, explaining the flash mob ending. Set to Michael Franti and Spearhead’s infectious “Say Hey,” the dance is something that’s simply cool, done without some sort of reason and implying spontaneity and fun amongst other things Nancy Botwin isn’t likely to experience any time soon as she spots Cesar eyeing her from across the mall. Still, it’s that glimmer of hope: Nancy isn’t able to join the mob and start dancing with everyone, but this is still a world where good things are capable of happening.
How they settle this balance will really define where the season goes from here, as this was perhaps the quickest setup episode we’ve seen in the past few seasons: Nancy’s cliffhanger was quickly resolved and placed into a linear path, Silas’ grow operation found a convenient location, and Shane’s headed off to stay with Nancy’s sister Jill (Jennifer Jason Leigh). There’s still plenty of room to move within this structure, but it does indicate some clear distinctions in terms of the storylines being provided, which is at least a quick start for a show that often tends to be too slow in the earlygoing.
If I had one major problem with this division, though, is that it places Andy again in some sort of floating position around everyone. Deciding that he was in love with Nancy was highly natural, but the baby dealt with that too swiftly: I understand not turning it into this underlying germ of a storyline that is dragged out longer than necessary, but having him very plainly state his intentions to Nancy and then bake 13 loaves of banana bread seemed like too quick a marginalization. Now, he’s left to shuttle Shane off to Oakland, and perhaps return to become part of Silas’ grow operation, and all of it leaving Justin Kirk without a clear direction. Now, he has some road tripping experience in the past, so I’m sure Kirk will remain funny, but sometime I hope Andy can get a storyline that’s a bit more dramatic and meaningful, especially since the show insists on using Silas as a leading man now.
But overall, I remain more intrigued by the potential than put off by some of its tonal inconsistencies – no, the show isn’t as funny as it used to be, and sometimes its humour seems to work against some of its dramatic elements, but having invested in these characters there’s still plenty of reason to stick around as long as the drama that encroaches on the comedy remains strong. So far, so good.
- Always interesting to see Sanjay show up considering he now has absolutely nothing to do with any storylines, the same going for Dean and Isabel – the episode didn’t suffer for their appearances, as I enjoy the actors and the characters, but it seems more irrelevant now than ever before.
- Cesar remains both highly creepy and quite funny – “I don’t need to process” was the kind of dry humour the storyline works best with. That side of things is only really funny when Nancy is in an awkward situation (struggling to discover how to get out of the room with two corpses blocking the door) or when Cesar cracks a little joke here or there.
- Doug is perhaps the one character who has easily transitioned into the show’s new environment, just because there’s always room for a goofball. This being said, I do think the show was unfortunately timed in terms of finding humour in auto-erotic asphyxiation considering the recent death of David Carradine.
- Celia’s storyline seemed a bit ridiculous considering how one-note Quinn was, and how Rodolfo fit so cleanly into the prisoner/guard archetype, but I’m curious to see where it goes from here. One has to think it won’t be all that easy for Celia to come back, but I will admit it: it’s simple, but Celia’s response to her “friends” at their refusal to pay her ransom is probably going to be a lot of fun.
- My favourite line in the episode: Andy’s “YOU RUIN EVERYTHING YOU TOUCH.” It was hilarious in its delivery, related as it was to a loaf of banana bread, but it also spoke to deeper dramatic issues, which the best comedy often does.