Like anyone with a hint of a pulse and a semi-decent attention span, I was quickly drawn into the first season of Mr. Robot. Even the commercials for the show were intriguing; they gave away almost nothing about what the eventual plot turned out to be, but there was a style to them that I responded to immediately. The show looked like it was going to be gritty, like it had been shot by some genius in 1973 before the studio system decided to sign him to a binding contract and then required that he trade in his testicles and his taste for some pure mainstream appeal that came with pure mainstream profit.
Only two minutes into the pilot, Mr. Robot managed to remind me of Taxi Driver and Fight Club in terms of having an unreliable but charismatic antihero protagonist and the lush wide shots, off-kilter pacing, and Elliot’s voiceover that came out like a drug-numbed drone settled deep within my head. I focused on the characters and their interactions and I was swept away to a very dark place that I happily crawled back to week after week. As with many series that have interwoven plots and mounds of developing characters and questions that have been alluringly dangled like a bunch of bright green grapes over the course of a season to ravenous viewers who just want something to chew, it was the penultimate episode of the first season that felt the most rewarding to me. Answers were offered and theories were somewhat resolved and so the actual finale fell a little flat for me because it would have been nearly impossible to follow up the gripping hour that preceded it. Still, there was something eerily magical about the conversation Elliot had on the street with Joanna in that last episode. The whole thing was shot in a hushed kind of manner and so much was not being said between them and all of the empty and dense space behind them in the frame managed to look almost menacing and it was just about perfect. For me though, the most perfect part of the entire episode was not that street scene, but a line spoken by Elliot in voiceover when he saw the mania created by the repercussions of his choices and his actions: “So this is what a revolution looks like.”
I couldn’t help but think about the Mr. Robot revolution line as I watched the latest episode of The Real Housewives of Orange County because it certainly seems like a battle is about to burst forth, one that will be fought on the expansive grounds and inside the tacky parties thrown by women who should really know better than to expect normality to govern their lives anymore. I think maybe that’s what actually offends me – that any Housewife still has the audacity to feign surprise that 1) the other Housewives are talking about her and 2) that they are saying only very shitty things. What does surprise me, though, is the darkness this franchise as a whole has descended into. The conflicts used to revolve around lies rich women told one another for sport or people showing up to events for which they had never sent an RSVP or any other minor calamity from which an hour (or seven) of dramatics could be squeezed, but we are not in that place anymore. The conflicts have been upped and the fallout has become massive. Now our Housewives face things like incarceration. They fail publicly and spectacularly in alleged quests for sobriety. They are embroiled in lawsuits for screaming across the airwaves that another Housewife’s vagina smells like rotten fish. Depositions are actually scheduled for some of the other Housewives to comment on the record about what they have heard about the alleged scent of another woman’s vulva.
This is what the revolution looks like – and I could not be more disappointed.
It’s not like most of what’s explored on this show has ever been tremendously positive, but we’re veering into a thick and murky area now as the boyfriend of one of the Housewives has been accused of faking his cancer. That is some next level sociopathic shit – if it’s true. When the doubt about Brooks’ illness was first presented, it came forth in a way that read as almost silly. It was a whiskey-imbibing psychic who had the first inkling that cancer wasn’t really inside the body of Vicki’s boyfriend, but now that the rest of the women also feel suspicious about the matter, things have gone to the next level, and by that I mean a level down because it doesn’t get much worse than doubting or faking a cancer diagnosis.
So is Brooks lying? My initial reaction, formulated early this season, was no way. I based that opinion on the fact that the guy looked so thin that he bordered on frailty and he said buzzwords like “chemo” relatively frequently and his girlfriend appeared tremendously concerned about his welfare and only a complete monster first seen in a myth about flying beasts would lie about having cancer, right? Right? I am, however, no longer quite so sure in my beliefs, and it looks like I’m not the only one. As more slivers of information have come forth about Brooks and his doctors and his medication, doubt has grown. Yes, it’s revolting to think the guy has been lying, but it’s not like this is the first time we’ve been clued into the fact that the guy who likes to pray before meals served on camera is also a man who has acted, shall we say, less than pious. We have been shown vehement confrontations on reunion shows where Brooks fought with Vicki’s daughter about how he drunkenly advised her husband to knock her around a little bit to keep her in line. We know the timeline is a little blurry (and probably more than a little bit sticky – and I’m so sorry for that imagery) when it comes to when Brooks and Vicki got together and it’s pretty evident that Vicki was probably married at the time. We know that Vicki’s daughter finds the man to be so unsavory that she will not stay in her own mother’s house when she is in town because Brooks is also in that house and she believes him to be the spawn of Lucifer and we know that Brooks was banned from Vicki’s mother’s funeral because apparently nothing is worse than burying a loved one – except burying that person in the vicinity of anywhere Brooks might be. We know Vicki and Brooks have broken up and gotten back together several times, that he has been taped discussing sexual interactions with other women, and that Vicki is a walking open pus-wound of a human being who would rather be dead than be alone. My point here is that this guy has not exactly held himself up to be the President of the Morality Society in the past, so that he is now being accused of something beyond heinous actually might make some sense.
Since nothing can ever be resolved on a Housewives show in a single episode, it has taken us about four episodes to get to where we are now, which is back at Shannon’s Aries Party, an event thrown for no real reason whatsoever besides the fact that Shannon must have drawn the short straw and she figured that if the party was in her own house, she could keep an eye on her husband and make sure he’s not secretly packing a bag to bring along on his escape. With David’s every move covered outside, Brooks and Vicki have gone inside to tell Meghan to stop contacting women from Brooks’ past to inquire about claims that he previously lied about having cancer. It also came out that Brooks doesn’t put a whole lot of stock in anything Tamra says and nobody else should either. And that comment, once it gets back to Tamra, incenses the woman whose eyes are so black and dead that they might as well have been formed out of flattened roadkill.
She’s not exactly one to take a criticism quietly, our Tamra, and so she starts screaming at Brooks and telling Vicki that she has been nothing but supportive to her revolting boyfriend and Vicki tries to calm her friend down because all this screaming about Brooks makes him look bad.
“He didn’t talk shit about you, Tamra! And don’t swear at me,” implores Vicki, but it’s really too late. Tamra is positively irate at being called a liar, and I am relieved to my very core that in the past I have only called her trashy, classless, and demonic, which I hope means that I haven’t pissed her off and that she will spare me should she suddenly become all-powerful during the next stage of the revolution. I realize such a thing is unlikely, but so is the fact that any of these women are famous in the first place so it’s really best for me to cover my ass.
As Tamra stalks inside to tell every person she passes – other Housewives, former Housewives, waiters to Housewives, an interloping washing machine repairman – that Brooks is an undigested piece of shit, Heather decides to deal with the actual problem at hand. Heather – for all her wealth and her preening and that time she allowed leeches to suck on her stomach to get glowing skin – is actually quite rational. She knows that Vicki is fighting with Meghan and Tamra, but the real issue is that all of the women are having legitimate concerns about the fragmented stories they have heard over time about Brooks and his health. Heather is attempting to slice through the crusty bullshit that might be coating Vicki’s relationship with the guy she insists on calling “my man,” while inside, Shannon would like to cut the cake that will be served at the most joyless party ever thrown in honor of an astrological sign. But away from cake, Heather tells Vicki that she just wants to be honest. She has talked about Brooks – and she wants to explain to Vicki why she has done such a thing. Keeping her voice level and her face almost slack, Heather tells Vicki that when Brooks revealed who his new cancer doctor was, Heather realized she knew the doctor. She has been treated by that doctor – for cellulite. Heather goes on to explain to Vicki her thought process here. Could it be that a charlatan doctor is duping Brooks? Why is it that every piece of information floating out there in the atmosphere about Brooks comes off as “hinky”? Who is lying? Heather wants to know – and she wants Vicki to want to know, too.
But what Vicki really wants is for these suspicions about Brooks to just go away. Since they show no signs of abating, Heather suggests something rather bold: can he please just show his lab reports to a crowd of people and then tell everyone to fuck off after he’s definitively proven with data that he is terminally ill? Let’s stop here for a minute and consider how insane this request is. Imagine someone asking you to prove via lab reports or x-rays that you are in fact dying because they don’t believe you when you tell them you are dying. Could there be anything more insulting, short of the person pissing on you while asking to see your medical charts and then using your hair to wipe? But let’s also acknowledge this: Heather has a point. That’s how sick this reality show dynamic has become – that’s how untrustworthy Brooks continually appears – that asking him for his confidential medical history seems almost acceptable. We are in fucked up waters now, the shore has eroded, and regardless of the fact that Vicki herself made Brooks a medical folder that I’m sure she had her assistant laminate, she will not trot it out for her friends’ perusal and she is stunned that they would expect that she would.
“It makes me sick that this is the group of people I hang out with,” states Vicki.
“This is a group of people that loves you and they want you to have the very best,” responds the Housewife who should immediately be rewarded for her candor by being thrown off this show for good and get to spend her time instead traveling to the far points of the globe to buy new shades of marble for all of her bathrooms. Unfortunately, before Heather can imagine a new life designing bidets, Brooks comes into the room. He’s ready to leave and so is his girlfriend and they slip out without saying goodbye to anyone, not even their hostess who is happily lighting her cake on fire so she won’t break and eat any of it.
At the very end of the party, Meghan decides she hasn’t done enough damage yet. I’m not sure what Meghan believes she’s accomplishing by telling Shannon that Vicki and Brooks maintained that they never once asked for Shannon’s help after Brooks was allegedly diagnosed with cancer, but Shannon looks stunned and says that she was asked for help within hours of Brooks’ diagnosis. It’s then that Heather tells everyone about her conversation with Vicki and all that Vicki said, including that Brooks was going to start chemo again – a claim that is the exact opposite of what Vicki told Tamra a week ago. What’s the truth? Who knows, but Shannon believes that if Brooks is lying, Vicki has to know about it. Why? Because she’s Vicki fucking Gunvalson, a smart woman who doesn’t get duped. (I’d debate that claim for thirty hours straight, but first I must do something far more essential, like organize my sock drawer.) As for Tamra, she thinks it’s possible that Vicki doesn’t know that Brooks is lying and Heather has no idea what to think anymore and with that, yet another Housewife party ends and I saw absolutely nobody eat even one slice of that fucking cake.
With the party just another hideous memory, Meghan and Hayley embark the next day on a shopping trip to find Hayley prom dress. As they stand around while some salesgirl praying for a giant commission pulls some dresses, Meghan shares that, for her prom, she organized everything. She even made spreadsheets! It’s becoming more and more apparent to me that Meghan likes to create tasks for herself and after she’s done locating her stepdaughter the perfect dress, she will segue effortlessly into her other pressing task at hand, which is proving Brooks a total liar by adding to her already bulging dossier that is crammed with every untruth the guy has ever spoken. It’s an impressive document; his lies are listed both in alphabetical order and in order of appearance. After that little matter of ruining a man is complete, she can maybe revisit whether or not taking a hands-off approach with Hayley is the right move or just the easier one.
Over at Vicki’s house, Tamra arrives and her mood upon entering the house is odd. She seems both stressed and resigned to a fight, or at least a very tough discussion, and she doesn’t appear to want to have it but she jumps right in. Tamra begins by apologizing for going off on Brooks at the party and Vicki responds by saying that she hopes that she and Tamra are better friends than Tamra is with Meghan – because everything to Vicki is a competition where nobody actually wins because the prize is getting Tamra as your friend. What Vicki wants Tamra to understand is that she should not “condone a thirty year old” contacting Brooks’ former girlfriends to try to get information, and that seems fair, though I think it would also be fair if Meghan had just turned seventy-eight.
“As your friend,” begins Tamra, “I’m here to tell you what everybody is saying.” (Shotgun! I’m putting that saying on a t-shirt tomorrow and wearing it to brunch with all of my friends! I shall make it into a game to see how long it takes for one of them to stab me with a butter knife before I can reveal that everybody hates all of them.) Then she launches into questioning whether or not Brooks has cancer and why his stories are so convoluted and Vicki tells us he most certainly does have cancer and that there’s a privacy element in this scenario and he will not show his medical records to anyone.
“Does he have to die for everyone to believe him?” huffs Vicki, and this entire thing has become so twisted that it makes me look back on the days when Jeanna’s son verbally assaulted her as the more peaceful time in Housewife Land. Vicki’s suggestion is that she never discusses Brooks with Tamra again, but Tamra – to her credit – knows that’s not a viable option for what they have convinced themselves is a true friendship. Sadly, she is also aware that Vicki is so wrapped up in Brooks and believes everything he says that she knows their friendship is tarnished for now. I’d mourn that loss, but we all know that they will reconcile when they are drunk and dancing atop a bar somewhere in the tropics next season.
Now it’s time to check in with Shannon! Every time I see the exterior of Shannon’s house, I cannot believe the grandeur of the place. I hear it’s for sale and I suggest that whomever buys it should wave around some sage to cleanse the negative energy and then invite me over so we can toss a gigantic slip-and-slide over that sprawling back lawn. Until that day comes, Shannon still has the house and she is making the most of it by hanging out in her kitchen and stirring up some chili. David comes in and asks about her day and about the Vicki scenario and the guy either rehearsed his lines in the car with a producer before walking through the front door or he’s actually trying to be more present. Shannon explains that she’s saddened that the deep and spiritual Aries bond she shares with Vicki hasn’t been as strong lately and that she’s offended that Brooks and Vicki left her party without even saying goodbye. Shannon has also now reached a point where she is confused and frustrated with Brooks and his choices and all of the holes within his story. In fact, she’s full-on suspicious now in the way she was only partially suspicious before. It very much seems like Shannon really wants to believe that Vicki has absolutely nothing to do with the creation and the spreading of some of Brooks’ potential lies, but that belief appears to be dissipating by the minute.
Over at CUT Fitness, Tamra and Meghan are working out. I am saddened to report that they showed up for their workout dressed as pink marshmallow Peeps and that Tamra is telling Meghan exactly what went down at Vicki’s house after going there in the first place to salvage their friendship. Don’t get me wrong; I think Vicki is a nightmare of a woman and I can’t see why anyone would want to be her friend, but Tamra has insisted for a long time that she adores Vicki and with friendship comes loyalty – or at least it should. Telling Vicki’s newest nemesis every single detail of their chat seems wrong to me. Of course, all of these conversations are happening with a camera crew anyway, so perhaps the let’s-keep-this-between-us ship has already plummeted bow-first to the very depths of the ocean and has settled next to the spot where Brooks buried his actual medical records. (Don’t despair; Meghan has been taking scuba diving lessons so that she can eventually excavate them.) Tamra explains that Vicki was very defensive with her that she had an answer for everything, but she also tells Meghan that maybe it’s time to let the investigation and the suspicions go. She wants this messiness to stop and you really can’t blame her, but what Meghan says next is the most chilling thing I’ve heard on this show in a while. Her bet – stated so calmly that I really listened – is that in ninety days, Brooks will announce that he is cancer-free and that he beat the disease with this holistic nonsense he’s not actually partaking in and I think the reason her statement made me gasp in the way that usually only happens when I see that Lisa Vanderpump has acquired a brand new swan for her moat is because I think Meghan is absolutely correct.
Away from anyone who is wearing hot pink, Heather and Terry go out to dinner. His plastic surgery show is on hiatus and she is excited to see him again more regularly. They discuss illuminating matters such as selling their skincare line on television, meeting up with fellow Housewife and HSN legend Lisa Rinna to get some tips for that selling shit on TV, and an etching of a tree Heather’s mother has created for the new house. You know, they’re discussing the same things we all typically discuss at dinner. But there is a real problem here. Terry doesn’t like the etching and his unenthusiastic reaction so upsets Heather that I’m pretty sure she spent the rest of the meal quietly pondering whether or not she’d definitely get the new castle should she ever divorce the guy.
On a brand new morning, Tamra brings Ryan and his family to their new house, the one that’s located so close to her in Orange County. Ryan is completely not excited about any of this and the entire scene reads as weirdly foreboding. The guy is wearing a camouflage shirt and sunglasses balanced on his forehead and he looks like he’s aged about twenty-five years as he rushes a family he appears to have had second (and third…and fourth) thoughts about out of what will be their new home. He looks ragged and very sad and he even throws in a poetic “fuck my life” for good measure during what could have been a celebratory moment if he were anybody else. I would never want such a thing to ever happen, but I can actually see the guy snapping at some point and it makes me quite relieved to know that I live several time zones away from the guy and a simmering temper that can’t possibly stay contained forever.
Across town, Heather meets up with Lisa Rinna and they both commend one another on not aging. After Heather asks Lisa about the tricks for selling a product on television and Lisa’s response is that Heather should just be herself, they move quickly into Heather and Terry’s relationship. Heather tells Lisa that she has worked hard to always have dinner ready for him after a busy work day and to make sure they have date nights scheduled, and now she would just like a little bit of acknowledgment from him. She wants the gratitude to come without a nudge from her and that’s actually what all women want and really, men are morons for not understanding such a thing by now.
At a far less enjoyable meeting, Shannon and Vicki sit down for lunch. Shannon has arrived at the restaurant with a clear intention: she wants Vicki to convince her that Brooks is actually sick. She is so committed to making such a thing happen that she even orders water instead of her standard goblet of vodka so she can continue to stay focused. Vicki has absolutely no desire to talk about the Brooks issue and she wants Shannon (and everybody else) to just let it go, but Shannon doesn’t allow her off the hook so quickly. She wants to know why Brooks didn’t go see the doctors she found for him, why – if he says he’s fighting for his life – would he not choose to explore all of his options? Vicki’s response is that he is exploring his options, just not the ones Shannon offered him and he’s got his own doctors. Vicki keeps trying to reiterate that this is Brooks’ call and she is fed up with talking about any of it and Shannon should just talk to Brooks on her own. In an icky moment, Vicki tries to change the subject by bringing up how much she misses her mother. I don’t doubt for an iota of a second that such a thing is true, but I also don’t doubt that she brought it up just then to manipulate Shannon into backing off. It’s not gonna happen. In fact, Shannon agrees with Heather and thinks they should all be shown evidence of Brooks’ cancer, an event that we see will occur on next week’s episode followed immediately by Meghan disproving the man’s test results.
Now that Shannon is making sense, I find myself more confused than ever before and it frightens me. See, confused is certainly not the right frame of mind with which to don armor to prepare for the revolution, one I’m certain will be televised.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.