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.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “The Operation” (S1, Ep. 18)

In today’s installment of “The Great Golden Girls Marathon,” we get to see both a moment of vulnerability from Dorothy and a truly spectacular dance scene between Dorothy and Rose. When Dorothy accidentally injures herself during a tap dance, she is forced to contend with her fear of hospitals and of surgery, while the other two must decide how they are going to perform without her (they eventually dub themselves “The Two Merry Widows”).

It’s rather nice to see Dorothy manifest something other than the sort of steely strength that is normally her way of being in the world. She is clearly quite frightened about the fact that she has to go through a fairly major surgery (and who wouldn’t  be scared, when even the doctors blurt out the truth that they can’t really guarantee that something won’t go amiss). While the whole scene in which the doctors act like complete idiots is played for laughs, it has just the slightest bit of edge to it, and that gives Dorothy’s determination to see the surgery through–but only after briefly escaping from the hospital.

Yet the episode also takes pains to show that, to a degree at least, she’s being just a bit ridiculous about the whole thing. When she meets her roommate, Bonnie, played by the inimitable Anne Haney, famous for her roles in both Mrs. Doubtfire and Mama’s Family), she realizes that her own crisis is rather small potatoes compared to Bonnie’s survival of breast cancer. While the particularities of women’s health issues wouldn’t really take full shape and get full treatment until later seasons, the fact that it is brought up in this early episode indicates how deeply this concern runs in the show’s ethos.

The highlight of the episode, in my opinion, is the spectacular tap-dancing scene between Rose and Blanche. There is something uniquely pleasurable in general about seeing the human body engaged in the beauty of the dance, and it becomes even more so when it is two characters that we have already begun to love. Rue and Betty seem to have a particular bond with one another that exists in that pleasurably intimate space between intense friendship and romantic desire, and this is frequently expressed in their ability to be physically intimate with one another.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that the strongest bonds (particularly physical) exist in distinct pairs:  Dorothy/Blanche; Dorothy/Sophia; Blanche/Rose. I am not exactly sure what to make of this as of yet, though I suspect part of it has to do with the rather vexed relationship that existed between Bea and Betty when they weren’t in character. There’s no denying that there is powerful affection between all of the women, but there’s also truth to the observation that it’s definitely stronger between some of them than others.

In the next installment, Blanche meets yet another man who wants to make her a permanent part of his life, while Dorothy and Rose attempt to take on that most gargantuan of household tasks:  the installation of a toilet.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “The Truth Will Out” (S1, Ep. 16)

In today’s entry in “The Great Golden Girls Marathon,” we once again meet some members of the girls’ family, in this case Rose’s daughter Kirsten and granddaughter Charley. While Rose has spent the years since her husband’s death cultivating his legacy and encouraging her children to see him as a successful businessman, it gradually becomes clear that, in fact, he was a terrible salesman, and that he left her very little in his will.

However, on the way to that revelation, Rose finds that she has to lie to both her daughter and her friends, claiming that it was bad investments on her part that led to the lack of funds. Kirsten, unsurprisingly, condemns her mother’s alleged irresponsibility, proclaiming that she has never been so ashamed of her. Somehow, it becomes acceptable for her to show the utmost disregard for her mother’s feelings, to say nothing of the respect that she should theoretically at least an effort to demonstrate.

It should come as no surprise that Kirsten proves to be quite the ungrateful and indeed disrespectful to her mother when she believes that Rose has squandered the fortune that her father allegedly built. The fraught and often contentious relationship between children and their parents would prove to be an ongoing tension in many episodes of the series (not least between Dorothy and Sophia), but here it takes on an especially cutting edge, and we’re definitely not encouraged to sympathize with Kirsten.

Indeed, it’s only when Rose realizes that the myth she has propagated about Charlie has begun to distort the view that her grandchildren have of their grandfather that she feels that she must at last come clean about the reality of his legacy. It’s rather touching, I think, that Rose was willing to sacrifice her own good image in her daughter’s eyes rather than sully her husband’s conversation. It’s also rather nice that Rose, and Kirsten, finally realize that it is Charlie’s success as a good person that matters, more than the amount of money that he was able to leave his widow and family.

In a fun bit of casting trivia, this is the first of two times that daughter Kirsten appears in the show. She would return in the final season when Rose suffers cardiac arrest, though in the latter she is played by a different actress. If anything, her later incarnation is even more unpleasant, since she blames the other four women for her mother’s health scare. Truly, Kirsten is one of the most unpleasant of the many progeny that appear in the show, and one wonders how someone as sweet and kind as Rose could raise such an unpleasant daughter (I’ll have much more to say on this when we get to Kirsten’s second appearance).

In the next episode, we meet yet another member of the extended family (which happens a great deal in the series, particularly in the first season), when Blanche’s niece Lucy comes for a visit and reveals that she acts a little more like Blanche than is probably good for her.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “In a Bed of Rose’s” (S1, Ep. 15)

In today’s installment of The Great Golden Girls Marathon, Rose strikes up a one-night-stand with a man who, unbeknownst to her, is actually married. The real kicker, though, is that he dies after their encounter (in her bed!), leaving Rose to deal with the consequences.

Of course, it ultimately becomes apparent that Al is in fact a married man, and that Rose–who has always considered herself the most morally upright of the four women–has become the very thing she had condemned Dorothy for being. She has become the other woman. That being said, she deserves kudos for being willing to meet Al’s wife face-to-face to tell her not only that her husband has been carrying on an affair, but that he also died in her bed. The conversation between the two women, in which Al’s wife reveals that she has long known of his infidelity, is one of the richest and most compelling in the entire first season, as the women commiserate over their shared relationship with a man who was, all things considered, something of a cad.

It’s particularly striking that this episode comes after one in which Dorothy also has to contend with the moral consequences of adultery. Rose, however, has to deal with the other side of that equation, in that she has to do the right thing and actually confront the wife of her paramour. As always, The Golden Girls shows just how complicated, messy, and sometimes unpleasant life can be. Even when we think we’re just having a bit of fun, sometimes our actions have unintended consequences with which we then have to contend.

Furthermore, Rose also has to contend with the fact that Al, like her husband Charlie, died while making love. She clearly has a great deal of emotional guilt that she carries around as a result of Charlie’s death, and she has to accept that sometimes bad things happen, and that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with her that leads to men happening to die while in her amorous embraces. (There’s also a great joke near the end of the episode, in which she says that her next date also dies, as well as the police investigating the case. Truly one of the funniest moments in the first season).

All in all, this is one of my favourite episodes of the first season, because it truly does allow Rose to finally begin breaking out of her prudish shell and engaging in the same sort of romantic escapades as the other women.  As such, it stands as one of those points where we do see some character development and, frankly, I have always found the later Rose much more appealing and charismatic than her iteration in the first few episodes of the first season.

Rose will also be the focus of our next entry. In the next episode, we’ll discover some deeply-held secrets about Charlie, as Rose has to contend with her desire to protect Charlie’s memory with the demands and judgment of her daughter Kirsten.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “That Was No Lady” (S1, Ep. 14)

Today on The Great Golden Girls Marathon we’ll be talking about the episode in which Dorothy takes up with a married man, a fellow school teacher named Glen O’Brien. While Sophia, unsurprisingly, judges her harshly for doing so, Blanche and Rose remain divided in their advice.

It’s actually rather surprising, and pleasant, to see the vulnerability Dorothy expresses in her tender moments with Glen (before she realizes that he’s cheating on his wife). For her, Glen represents another opportunity to share her life with someone with whom she has a powerful physical and emotional connection, someone with whom she can be completely comfortable in her own body. While Bea Arthur is not always associated with vulnerability, this is one instance in which her skills as an actress are brought to the forefront. The unfortunate realization that Glen has been cheating on his wife all along punctures that pleasantness, revealing Dorothy to be, at first inadvertently, and then willingly, the other woman.

There is a certain irony that Dorothy continues to see Glen even after she discovers that he is cheating on his wife. It almost seems disingenuous that a woman whose husband left her for a younger woman after 38 years of marriage would then herself indulge in an extramarital affair. But then, that is not being entirely fair to Dorothy. The heart wants what it wants, and it sometimes doesn’t care about the the obstacles that our everyday life puts in thew way. It is this fraught and dangerous personal territory that she has to traverse as she tries to figure out how she should contend with this seemingly intractable problem.

Of course, for all of its subversive strains, The Golden Girls remains in many ways a somewhat conservative show, and so the affair ultimately ends, with Dorothy recognizing that she cannot continue putting her own morality in such jeopardy. Even so, there is an acknowledgment that dating and romance can be especially challenging as one gets older and as the old ties that bound us start to loosen up. It’s hard not to feel at least a little bit of sympathy for Glen’s plight; he recognizes that while his marriage has failed, it’s not as easy as he would like it to be to start out afresh. He cannot recognize (though Dorothy does), that life doesn’t always work out as neatly as you might like it to.

Having re-watched The Golden Girls in its entirety, it’s rather striking the extent to which the first season focuses so much on the romantic exploits of Dorothy. Given the fact that so many jokes in subsequent rely on the fact that she is dateless and has no social life, her rather robust and eventful dating life in the first season is all the more extraordinary. Further, as I noted before, it also gives Bea Arthur a chance to show off her acting abilities; she’s just as compelling a romantic leading lady as her co-stars.

Next up, Rose has her own extramarital affair to deal with, when the man she has been sleeping with ends up dying in her bed.