Desperate Housewives is a show that deserves better than it got. Maybe that’s a crazy thing to say, considering it managed to remain a consistent ratings success, even as the luster started to fade on a show that was once a legitimate pop-culture phenomenon. But from a creative perspective, the show won’t enjoy a sterling reputation. That’s a shame, because while creator Marc Cherry and his team made some occasionally catastrophic missteps over the show’s eight seasons, more often than not, it did what it did quite well—even if it didn’t always do so consistently.
Part of the issue was that when it first premièred, Desperate Housewives seemed like it was more than a nighttime soap opera: it seemed culturally significant. Its high-minded opening credit sequence—showing the evolution of women’s roles throughout history—and storylines like Lynette’s addiction to her child’s attention-deficit medication or Gaby mowing the lawn in an evening gown to cover for an affair made the show initially seem like it had something important to say about wives and mothers. The fact that it was frequently hilarious and a well-executed murder-mystery was just icing on the cake. But the second season was an absolute disaster, featuring storylines for the women that kept them separated for episodes at a time and a poorly constructed mystery involving new characters that only affected existing characters in a tangential way. By season three, Desperate Housewives had recovered creatively, but it was still just a funny nighttime soap, and it was clear that there was nothing larger or more ambitious it had to offer. I think that cemented an impression that Desperate Housewives never quite lived up to its promise, and once the “good for one season, then it went to shit” narrative formed, the show never recovered from it.
I’m probably much more critical of latter-day Housewives than most diehard fans, but I would call this season finale an ignoble death, if only because it followed the least successful season the show has ever done. Season seven, which featured the return of season-one villain Paul Young, wasn’t the show’s finest moment either, but it at least sewed up some dangling threads for fans who were interested in those resolutions. Season eight was hung on a series of incredibly flimsy pegs, and for its plot to lurch forward, a character always had to be sacrificed by making a choice that didn’t make sense for the character—or make sense as something any person, real or fictional—would do.
The trouble started at the end of season seven, when the residents of Wisteria Lane threw a progressive dinner party. Gaby was cornered in her home by an intruder, her abusive stepfather who had been stalking her and came back to victimize her again. Carlos walked in on the attack and bludgeoned his wife’s attacker to death. The other women—including Lynette, Susan, and Bree—ended up witnesses. In a panic, they decided to cover up the murder so Carlos didn’t go to prison. The problem with this is that it doesn’t stand to reason that these characters would react to this situation this way. These are characters who think of themselves as law-abiding, model citizens of suburbia, not people who would fear imprisonment over a homicide that anyone with common sense would deem perfectly justified. But that’s the direction the writers went, which quickly grew wearisome considering the season—which eventually led to Bree being tried for the murder—had absolutely zero stakes. The women’s ultimate acquittal was not only a predictable outcome, it was the outcome of a situation that felt totally contrived from the beginning. The one potentially interesting development—the mysterious figure who sent threatening letters and killed a detective who got too close—was revealed to be Bree’s creepy ex-husband Orson, which provided a fittingly sad end for that character. Unfortunately, it also destroyed the season’s main story driver.
The pair of episodes that conclude the show’s run, “Give Me The Blame” and “Finishing The Hat,” were limited in how good they could be, given that they were the conclusion to such an ill-conceived season. The first hour finally ends this non-starter of a season arc, while the second is the proper series finale, full of arrivals, departures, and reflections. The problem with the finale is that most of the action surrounds characters who were either recurring or never really got off the ground to begin with. Among the biggest events in the episode are the wedding of Ben and Renee, two thinly drawn, recently introduced characters, and the birth of Julie’s baby, fathered by Porter. Neither plot has been compelling all season, so these moments that should have been climactic feel just the opposite. But I will applaud the episode, which Cherry wrote, for its handling of Mrs. McCluskey’s death. McCluskey grew to be one of the show’s most consistently endearing characters, and Kathryn Joosten deserves the credit for turning the neighborhood crank into the character that was frequently the show’s most relatable. McCluskey’s final moments come in a montage set to Johnny Mathis’ “Wonderful! Wonderful!” that’s just lovely. It isn’t a groundbreaking moment, but an indulgence that felt appropriate. This is a show that, to my recollection, seldom used pop music cues, if at all. So when a montage like that comes in the final episode, it seems like a fair moment to pull out the heavy machinery, even if it is slightly manipulative.
What really makes “Finishing The Hat” interesting, though, are its final moments. There is first a series of epilogues in which we see where the four women end up after leaving the Lane. Lynette and Tom move to New York where Lynette becomes a successful CEO. Bree marries her attorney and eventually wins a seat in the Kentucky General Assembly. Gaby starts a successful personal-shopping website with Carlos’ help, and Susan takes MJ to live with Julie and her new grandchild. Susan hands her house over to a new resident, then takes a final ride down Wisteria Lane, with the show’s many dead and buried ancillary characters watching her as would observing angels; Mary Alice continues to watch, and narrate, until the very end. Then, Jennifer, the woman who has just moved into Susan’s old house squirrels away a box that contains the type of dark secrets people living on this street always have.
It’s a fascinating note on which to leave Desperate Housewives, because the show eventually did have something important to say, it just wasn’t about women. It became a show about what a neighborhood is, what it means to the people who live there, and what’s healthy and unhealthy about it. A recurring theme became how wonderful a neighborhood the women lived in, how lucky they were to be on Wisteria Lane, and how they wouldn’t let anyone or anything destroy the street they loved so much. Never mind the tornado, the plane crash, the earthquakes, the arsons, and the multiple murders (not all of which were committed by the nabe’s serial strangler)—Wisteria Lane, its residents always swore, was a suburban idyll worth fighting for. But everything in this episode suggests the characters were deluding themselves about their street. The finale casts Wisteria Lane as a purgatory of sorts, a minimum-security prison for karmic debtors. If you can manage to work through your issues and escape, you find a life of happiness, filled with a personal and professional satisfaction you’ve never known. If not, you end up one of its many, many casualties.
- Of course the finale would be called “Finishing The Hat,” given Cherry’s habit of choosing Sondheim songs as episode titles.