The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “It’s a Miserable Life” (S2, Ep. 4)

Despite the sporadic nature of my updates to this series, I’m hoping to be a bit more consistent going forward. I’ve still got quite a few episodes to cover, after all. So, onward we go into season two.

In the fourth episode of the second season, the girls confront the malice and profound misanthropy of Frieda Claxton, their neighbor who does everything in her power to ensure that the old oak tree on her property is cut down by the city in its efforts to widen the street. When Rose loses her temper during a meeting of the City Council and shouts at Mrs. Claxton, the old woman dies on the spot, and the four women ultimately decide to pay for her funeral.

What is most striking about Mrs. Claxton is that she is unrepentantly misanthropic. Unlike the four stars of the show–who spend much of their time committed to social good–she straight up doesn’t like people. While the show doesn’t necessarily see this as a good thing (quite the opposite, in fact), it is refreshing to see a woman who doesn’t make any bones about the fact that she doesn’t feel the obligation to be nice to people just because that’s what she’s “supposed” to be like. Fun fact? She is basically what my Mom is going to be like when she gets to be that age.

The real highlight of the episode, though, is the scene at the funeral home, in which the four women have to contend with Mr. Pfeiffer (the “p” is not, in fact, silent). The scene is pure comedy gold, from Sophia’s threatening to give the funeral director a punch in his “pface” to the girls attempting to get the cheapest funeral and casket, since none of them really want to invest that much money into honouring a woman that none of them liked. The sequence also contains a sly reference to the popularity of The Cosby Show and indeed the centrality of television to the lives of those who lived in that far-off time before DVR. The whole thing is, quite simply, a hugely hilarious bit of comedy.

What I really like about this episode is that it shows us that Rose truly is a good, decent person. Sure, she has her moments when she lets her anger burst out inopportunely. However, her genuine devastation at the lack of attendees at Claxton’s funeral reveals how deeply Rose feels about the world around her, how she is determined to believe, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, that there is something good in the heart of even the most despicable person.

Indeed, this episode (like so many) contends with the incontrovertible fact of death and its increasing proximity. As mean as Frieda Claxton was, Sophia points out, she still deserves at least a measure of a funeral. Though she claims it’s good luck to pay for the funeral of someone you hate, one suspects that there is a recognition on Sophia’s part that death waits for all of them, and that it might be in all of their interest to save up some goodwill with the Almighty.

Next up, we come to one of my very favourite episodes, in which Dorothy’s gay friend comes for a visit.

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The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Take Him, He’s Mine” (S2, Ep. 3)

Special Note: This is my 500th post on this blog. Wow. We’ve come a long way, baby!

And so we come at last to the third episode of the second season, and the establishment of a pattern that will come to play such a prominent part in Dorothy’s life: her fraught and contradictory relationship with Stanley.

When Stanley comes by to ask Dorothy to go out with him to help salve his broken heart, Dorothy pawns him off on an unwilling Blanche. Unfortunately, the two of them bond more than she had expected, and this sparks yet another round of recriminations and feuding between Blanche and Dorothy. Meanwhile, Sophia and Dorothy go into business together trying to sell sandwiches.

One of the great strengths of The Golden Girls is the way in which it really helps shed light on the messiness of personal relationships. It would have been far too easy to paint Dorothy and Stan as mutually hating each other, and it appears that was indeed the goal in the first episode in which he appears, there’s clearly a lot of chemistry between Bea Arthur and Herb Edelman. One can actually imagine the two of them as a couple that once loved one another (even if their marriage came about in less than auspicious circumstances). The series shows us instead that the ties that bind a couple together during 38 years of marriage cannot be so easily dissolved or snapped; however much we might want it, there is rarely is such a thing as a truly clean break.

Dorothy’s flare of jealousy at Blanche’s budding relationship with Stan also speaks to the complicated relationships that exist between women. I know that I, for one, can completely understand Dorothy’s feeling of betrayal  and jealousy at the thought that her best friend might be sleeping with her ex-husband. I mean, who wouldn’t feel that way? Even if you are divorced from someone, even though they might have betrayed you in the worst way possible (remember that Stan left Dorothy and married a woman half his age), you still can’t let those feelings go.

But, this being a sitcom, balance has been restored by the end. Blanche jettisons her relationship with Stanley, correcting understanding that to persist in it would put an irreparable strain on their friendship. It’s rather touching, really, to see how they privilege their feelings for one another over their ones with men. It’s a dynamic that will be one of the constants in the entire series, and for me it’s one of the most enjoyable things about it.

Lastly, we should make at least passing mention of the Sophia/Rose part of the story. Admittedly, it lacks the gravitas of the other, but it is definitely hilarious. The “Bacon-Lettuce-and-Potato” bit (they run out of tomatoes for the sandwich) has to be one of the most hilarious segments in the second season.

Next up, we get to take a look at the strange case of Frieda Claxton in what is arguably one of the funniest episodes of this second season.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Ladies of the Evening” (S2, Ep. 2)

As I’ve said several times, the second season of The Golden Girls is, in my mind, the point when the whole thing starts to gel. The writing amps up–both in terms of the comedy and the political commentary–and the chemistry among the leads also seems to really hit its stride. You finally get the sense that these are four women who may disagree with one another in many significant ways, but deep down they truly love one another. Their friendship will endure many trials, but it will always emerge stronger than before.

In this episode, Blanche happens to win tickets to see Burt Reynolds and, as part of their celebration, they opt to spend the evening at a lovely hotel in Miami Beach. Unfortunately, the hotel they choose is a den of prostitution, and they are taken to jail. Hilarity ensues, particularly when Sophia snatches the tickets in retaliation for having been left out of their Reynolds plan.

To my eyes, at least, this is one of the funniest episodes of the entire series. The sequence in jail–particularly Rose’s dismay at losing Butter Queen in her youth–the appearance of Burt Reynolds at the end of the episode, the squabbling amongst the inmates. All combine to make this a riot from beginning to end. There’s even a nice little dig at Richard Nixon (courtesy of Blanche), which is splendidly funny. There are times in a good comedy when the writing and the performances all come together, and this is one of those episodes. What’s more, it once again shows the women come together in the end, all of their differences put aside.

There are also a few little comedic gems that are worth mentioning. When Rose reads off a litany of the other celebrities that will be present with Burt, she mentions that Charles Nelson Reilly will also be there. While the girls are less than impressed, the canny viewer will no doubt recognize that he appeared with Betty White in a number of game shows throughout the 1970s. It’s just another one of those little touches that the show frequently uses to highlight the exemplary careers of its leading ladies.

One also can’t help but wonder if the Sophia strand of this episode’s plot is a rather sly and self-aware gesture toward the fact that she wasn’t originally intended to be a key part of the series. She is justifiably upset that she is being left out of the plans that the four women make, and one can hardly blame her for her desire to finally take a little bit of pleasure for herself.

All in all, I think this is one of the most uproariously funny episodes in the entire series. The surprise appearance of Burt Reynolds at the end might be brief, but it is hilarious. The man somehow has the knack of commanding the camera regardless of what he is in.

In the next episode, we’ll see what happens when Stan returns and goes on a date with Blanche, much to Dorothy’s chagrin.

The Great Golden Girls Marathon: “End of the Curse” (S2, Ep. 1)

As it’s been ages since I wrote anything about The Golden Girls, I thought I’d take a bit of a break from my novel and dissertation stuff to write a brief entry in The Great Golden Girls Marathon. Here, we move at last into the second season, wherein Blanche has to confront the fact that she is moving into the next phase of her life, when she is told that she has begun menopause.

To my eye, this episode marks a definitive turning point in the way that the series works. Whereas Season 1 focused primarily on the familial and the personal–conflicts with grandchildren, nephews, sons, daughters, etc.–the second begins to really break out in an explicit way into the broader political questions that will become one of the series’ hallmarks.

Further, it also marks some significant shifts in tone. As I noted several times in my discussion of the first season, the characters had not quite gelled yet, though they came pretty close by the season finale. Rose is the character that shows the greatest change from the first season. By this episode, she has largely shed the prude persona–so conspicuously on display in the episode in which Dorothy has an affair with a married man–and has slowly morphed into the naive, slightly dim-witted, yet incredibly sincere and lovable Rose that will be her incarnation for the remainder of the series. Her funniest moment in this episode comes from her fundamental understanding of what an aphrodisiac is, leading to an absolutely hilarious interchange with Dorothy about “African what?,” the singular or plural form of Spanish fly (or beetle); and whether minks can be induced to mate.

The real center of the episode, however, is Blanche’s body and her relationship to it.

There’s no question that the subject of women’s bodies and their functioning is one of the most vexed in western (and perhaps global) culture. This is particularly true of Blanche, who sees herself as, first and foremost, both an object of desire for men and, I would argue, as the agent of that desire. The accumulated myths associated with menopause (or “The Change,” as it is menacingly referred to throughout the episode) suggest to her that with this biological shift she is losing an essential part of her femininity that renders her into that desirable and desiring subject/object.

Fortunately, the episode goes out of its way to inform Blanche (and us), that there is nothing unnatural about this shift. As her psychologist tells her, she will still be the same Blanche that she has always been, the same desiring, fun-loving woman with an uninhibited sex drive. Rather than seeing her as deranged–which Rose seems to, quite problematically, believe–he helps de-escalate her psychological state. As a result, she goes from seeing in her face the shade of her mother to hitting on the veterinarian who comes to examine the minks. She has emerged triumphant, back to being the love goddess that we know and love.

It is also worth noting that the series other major plotline, the breeding of minks for their fur, also expresses (albeit more subtly) one of the other semi-consistent political issues of the series: the ethical treatment of animals. Fortunately, the minks don’t end up being fur coats.

Next up, we come to one of my favourite episodes, in which the women’s plans to meet Burt Reynolds go terribly awry…

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Big Daddy” (S1, Ep. 23)

Since its been ages since I published a post about The Golden Girls, and since I needed something to distract me from some personal grief, I thought I’d write another one. In today’s episode, we meet Blanche’s father “Big Daddy” who, unbeknownst to her, has sold the family mansion and taken up a career as a country singer.

While Big Daddy will appear in another episode, this iteration is a rather earthier, more homespun charmer than his later incarnation. It’s clear that Blanche has a very close relationship with her father, yet it is equally true that she cares just as much about the dignity of the family name (for anyone who is from the South, this should sound and feel quite familiar). Unfortunately, as the episode progresses, she finds that her interest in maintaining the latter conflicts with the former.

There are truly some golden comedic exchanges, as when Big Daddy asks Dorothy to promise him that she won’t “fret none.” Dorothy, with her typical dead-pan delivery, says she would so, only she doesn’t know what “fret none is.” Of course, part of the humour in this situation arises from Dorothy’s ever-present skepticism and indeed dismissal of the peculiarities of southern culture.

Despite the episode’s focus on the personal relationship between Blanche and her father, there is also an ever-so-slight feminist element that springs from the conflict between the women and their cantankerous neighbour who refuses to repair the damage done by his tree.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Blind Ambitions”

Since it’s been quite a while since I posted about my dearly-beloved Golden Girls, I thought I’d take a minute and post about one of my favourite episodes from the first season. In this episode, we meet yet another member of the extended family, in this case Lily, Rose’s sister, who has recently gone blind and struggles to make it on her own.

As my Boyfriend recently pointed out, it’s an interesting fact that the women that hail from St. Olaf (with the exception of Rose) seem to be a bit quicker on the uptake than Rose herself. This is distinct from the men, such as Rose’s cousin Sven or the three men who come to determine whether Rose will be eligible for the St. Olaf Woman of the Year Prize, all of whom are quite as dense (if not more so) than Rose. Lily seems to have escaped the veil of idiocy that surrounds almost all of the other inhabitants of this small Minnesota town.

Throughout the episode, brief as it is, we get a good sense that Lily has really struggled to adapt to life as a blind person. She is clearly a woman who is used to doing what she wants when she wants, and her physical disability has made it difficult for her to adapt to a different kind of life. As a result, she finds that she has to rely on Rose to an extraordinary degree and, unsurprisingly, she asks Rose to come life with her. As happens so often in the series, Rose finds herself torn between various competing personal loyalties.

I’ve always thought that The Golden Girls was fairly progressive in its articulation and representation of disability. The disabled persons who appear in the show are, in many ways, treated just like any other characters. For the most part they aren’t just magical figures that sweep in for a very special episode, only to serve as a message. Now, admittedly, Lily doesn’t really appear again in the show, but it is true that she has a richness and a depth that one rarely sees in a one-off sitcom appearance. We get a real sense of her, both as an individual as well as part of Rose’s very large family. Just as importantly, we also get a strong, almost gut-wrenching sense of what she has lost, when she breaks down and confesses that she yearns for the days when she could still see.

It is thus refreshing that the episode ends with Lily taking control of her own life and deciding that she can, indeed, be independent without Rose’s assistance. Rose’s decision to force Lily to be independent is certainly heart-wrenching for her, but in the end it enables Lily to prove to herself and to her sister that she is capable of leading a life of her own without assistance from others.

Of course, the episode is also full of some truly hilarious moment, as when Rose rediscovers her old teddy bear that was almost sold at the garage sale. The high-pitched voce that she adopts when talking with that teddy bear engenders a screech of dismay from Dorothy, and it is hard not to erupt into laughter at the banter between these two.

Next up, we meet Blanche’s father Big Daddy. Blanche, like her fellow women, must contend with the various pressures of a family.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Job Hunting” (S1, Ep. 22)

In today’s entry of the marathon, I want to talk about “Job Hunting,” one of the final episodes of the first season. In this episode, Rose loses her job at the counseling center and, faced with financial insolvency, embarks on a job search that proves less than fruitful.

This is one of the first episodes that starts to address the broader cultural issues of the 1980s head-on. In this case, one of the primary thematic interests of the episodes is the fact that many employers will refuse to hire a person simply because they have reached a certain age (this will be a recurring issue in later episodes as well). Rose has to face the unpleasant realization that the late 20th Century workforce is incredibly hostile to those over 50, particularly women. So great is her shame at this, indeed, that she conceals the full extent of her futile search from her friends, until the futility of it makes it impossible to hide any longer.

Furthermore, it is also striking that Rose, perhaps more than any of the other characters, has had to contend with the economic realities of being a widow after being a housewife. When Dorothy pointedly asks her what she did after Charlie died, she had to pick up the pieces and try to forge an independent identity for herself. However, she also reminds Dorothy that she was younger then and Dorothy’s response–which hilariously points out that both she and Blanche have also gotten older–is not only uproariously funny but also a reminder that the women need each other’s strength to get through these difficult times.

The issue of elder poverty is one that will recur throughout the series, as each of the women must contend in one way or another with the fact that their lives are predicated on a certain scarcity. Though it is easy to forget, part of the reason that they live with one another is because it was too expensive to live on their own. The economic realities of the world they live in are rarely far outside the frame, a perpetual reminder of the precariousness of each of their lives. It is also noteworthy that the women continually support one another in these pinched financial times, for they understand that it is only through their collective emotional and financial strength that they can manage to withstand the curveballs that their culture continually throws at them.

It is striking that the job that Rose eventually attains is one which Blanche roundly criticizes as being beneath her. Yet, as Rose passionately responds, it’s better than sitting around feeling sorry for herself. The chance to work again, even if it as at a diner, represents for her an opportunity to reclaim her lost agency. (Of course, it’s worth pointing out that she eventually returns to being a counselor at a grief center, though whether it’s the one that recently closed or another one is never clarified).

In the next episode, we meet Rose’s sister, and Rose has to face a perilous choice about that sister’s disability.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Flu Attack” (S1, Ep. 21)

Well, it has been a long time since I wrote a post on The Golden Girls. So, to take a bit of a break from the oppressive political news that seems to assail us each and every day, I decided to do a short entry on one of the final episodes of the first season, “Flu Attack,” in which Blanche, Dorothy, and Rose contract a flu and, in the midst of their sniping, also must contend with the fact that each of them is in the running for a prestigious volunteer award.

The episode is marked in particular by one of Sophia’s most humorous and self-reflexive stories. In her telling, pesto was inadvertently created when a village healer gave “Salvador, the village idiot” a salve for an ear infection. Once he realized that the substance actually tasted great on linguini, he decided to market it. When Dorothy accuses her of making the whole thing up, Sophia immediately responds, “I’m old. I’m supposed to be colorful.” Naturally, the scene is played for laughs, but it also contains an awareness of the

The revelation that it is Sophia who will be winning the Best Friend of the Friends of Good Health Award is one of the first instances in which we see her extraordinary level of involvement in the community (this theme emerges more fully in a future season). Furthermore, it also allows us to see the extent to which all four of them are deeply engaged in civic and public service. In the past, some critics have reprimanded the show for not allowing its four women to be more politically active, and I have always wondered if they have been watching the same show that I have. While a writer like Susan Faludi states that the women are safely ensconced in the home (and thus do not pose a challenge to the male order), I would argue that these moments of engagement on their part actually do serve as a site of resistance. They refuse to fade into irrelevance,

I’ve always found this to be one of the best episodes from the first season, as it is one of the ones that clearly shows how both the writing has matured and the four leads have begun to grow more comfortable with one another. There is still a bit of an edge to the comedy, but by now it has already been tempered by the obvious love among the four women, a love made all the more touching by their reconciliation at the end of the episode. It’s worth pointing out, however, that the sparring between Blanche and Dorothy in particular is uproariously funny, particularly their argument over custody of the blanket.

However, there are a few tender moments sprinkled amidst the vitriol, as when Blanche in a fit of pique calls Rose a “nerd” and the latter breaks down into tears. While it is clearly intended to be a humorous moment (and it is), it also reveals both Rose’s innate tenderness (for all of her competitiveness) and is also a moment of release from the bickering that has so far taken place. Rose can give as good as she gets, however, as when she passive aggressively reminds Dorothy that she cannot possibly get the award, given that too few people like her. And of course Blanche has her own vulnerabilities, as when she pays a waiter at the event to be her “date,” since her own was unwilling to go with her in her state.

All in all, this is one of the funniest episodes of the first season, if not an explicitly political one.

In the next installment, Rose finds herself unemployed and must attempt to find another job, which turns out to be much more difficult than any of them had anticipated.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Adult Education” (S1, Ep. 20)

In today’s entry in The Great Golden Girls Marathon, Blanche is confronted by her professor, who tells her that the only way that she will be able to pass his class is by sleeping with him. Meanwhile, the other three women attempt to get tickets to see Frank Sinatra.

For me, this episode has always been one of the most explicitly feminist in its sensibilities. The episode is a scathing indictment of the way that men in positions of power think that they have the right to women’s bodies (and the expectation that women will give in to their demands for that access). Once again, it is uncanny how relevant the series has become in the era of Donald Trump, when the President-elect of the country has openly bragged about assaulting women and has won the election anyway.

The most frustrating part of the episode, however, is Blanche’s meeting with Dean Tucker. It should come as no surprise to anyone who has had dealings with university administration that he is not only criminally inept (he doesn’t even know which form the incident requires), but he seems far more interested in brushing the affair under the rug than in actually taking this harassment seriously. Like so many men that occupy positions of power, he remains much more invested in both protecting his fellow man and insulating himself from potential criticism than in helping the woman who has come to him for his assistance.

Furthermore, this incident reveals a problem that still exists in terms of women’s reporting of sexual assault. When she explains that there were no witnesses to the encounter, he immediately reminds her that given it’s a matter of “he said/she said,” he has to err on the side of caution rather than let the professor’s reputation suffer. Never mind that a woman has basically been assaulted by a man in a position of power.  The incident, as frustrating (nay, infuriating) as it is, reveals just how deeply run the channels of rape culture. It is always the woman whose account is called into question; the man is always presumed (because of his power) to be the innocent party.

Fortunately, though, Blanche does end up having the last laugh, since she does manage to attain the grade through sheer hard work and determination. The moment when she proudly tells her sleazy professor to “kiss my A” is one of the most rousing and fulfilling of the first season, a symbolic victory over the kinds of men (like our very own President-elect) who make this world such an unpleasant and downright dangerous place for women.

I’ve always found this to be a peculiarly vexed episode, though, especially considering the many subsequent times that Blanche actually does use her wiles to get the test information in later episodes. However, in those cases, I would suggest that those efforts are undertaken by Blanche rather than pushed upon her. As always, The Golden Girls straddles the line when it comes to politics, showing the conflicted and often contradictory spaces that women occupy in a culture that still views their bodies as fundamentally not their own.

Next up, the four women have the misfortune of contracting the flu, leading to an episode that is full of some of the best barbs and insults of the entire first season.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Second Motherhood” (S1, Ep.19)

In today’s installment, we’re going to be talking about yet another suitor of Blanche’s who wants her to marry him, a certain wealthy widower named Richard.

Since Blanche is, unequivocally, the youngest of the four, it makes sense that she would be the one who could most easily slip back into the role of mother should the necessity arise (this is a theme that will emerge several times in the series run). However, she also comes to recognize that she can’t fix all of the problems that have already started to afflict his family, including his divided loyalties between his sprawling business empire and his children.

As always, however, the narrative forecloses on the possibility that Blanche is going to actually marry this man. For all that they actually seem to get along well, and for all that he would provide a measure of financial and domestic stability that she lacks, the series again reminds us that it is the relationship among the women that takes center stage. While Blanche does not say so specifically, it’s clear that she is not willing or able to take on the responsibility of fixing the many domestic problems that Richard has already begun to encounter.

The other narrative thread of the episode follows Dorothy and Rose as they attempt to install a toilet on their own. Of course, this whole sequence is delightfully ridiculous, as the plumber turns out to be quite  misogynist jerk who labours under the impression that women, especially older women, are incapable of doing male domestic labour. Of course, the two of them do, in fact, manage to successfully install it, giving the lie to the idea that two elderly women can’t take control of their own homes.

While this may seem a bit of a banal point, I do think it says something that Dorothy and Rose are able to reclaim this symbolic victory from the men who would dismiss them out of hand simply because of their gender and their age. Given that we now live in a country in which a notorious misogynist like Donald Trump has now been given the reins of power, this message of empowerment and reclamation seems to have taken on an extra layer of significance. This particular story gives us hope that even in the darkest of times there are still moments of representation–the symbolic, if you will–that show us what an alternative world might look like.

To me, the unruly women of The Golden Girls, with their refusal to cave in to the demands of patriarchal culture, are an important corrective to the world we are facing. We can look at them and draw hope from the fact that they managed to express such radical politics even during the backlash era, and we can continue to fight back against the powers arrayed against us.

Next up, we come to one of the most politically pointed episodes of the entire first season when Blanche is confronted with sexual harassment at her adult education course.