Ah, Season Four! How you did sneak up on me!
I will tell you now, dear readers, that Season Four might well be my favorite season of them all... but fret not, I still find loads of things about it deeply problematic. You're never in less than reliably cantankerous, crabby, and critical hands here at BOCS, I promise you!
All right, so, we start off Season Four in festive party mode... festive engagement party mode, to be precise. The ladies attend the engagement party of some mutual friends, and said attendance/party sparks off some Thoughtful Musings on their parts about marriage, singlehood, no longer being in the first flush of one's dewy youth and still unpaired off, whether or not there is such a thing as (as the engaged couple ardently proclaims themselves to be) "soulmates," etc. (As Carrie inquires, in what becomes the episode's central question, "soulmates: reality, or torture device?")
In addition to reflecting on the Soulmate Question, Carrie is also contemplating her 35th birthday, which is almost upon her. She's... not too happy about the advent of said birthday! This lack of happiness is not diminished when the 35th birthday party which her friends seek to throw her results (through a series of mischances) in Carrie sitting in a restaurant all alone, feeling all alone--not just in the eatery, specifically, but also in the universe, generally. (Carrie, to the ladies, in the aftermath of Disastrous Would-Be Party: "I am 35, and alone..... I hate myself a little for saying this, but it felt really sad, not to have a man in my life who cares about me. No special guy to wish me a happy birthday--no goddamned soulmate. And I don't even know if I believe in soulmates.") Sorrow.
But then again... perhaps not such sorrow. Charlotte suggests to the other ladies that "maybe we could be each other's soulmates, and then maybe we could just let men be these great, nice guys to have fun with." Yup, you heard me right, that was Mrs. Charlotte MacDougal suggesting a revamp of the Soulmate Model. (But I thought she wrote the original Soulmate Model???) The ladies conclude this sounds like a plan, and then eat some ice cream. All's well that ends well, I s'pose!
Oh, and before I move on from Carrie, I am compelled to mention that Big is also present in this episode--Carrie invites him to her birthday party. He doesn't show up to that, but does show up at her stoop (doesn't he know I'm the one who has dibs on going back there?) with champagne, and some birthday balloons. They talk about soulmates, and both conclude that Love is a Mystery, and neither of them has a clue about it. They enjoy the champagne, though, and one another's company in a pleasant, friendly way which does not seem poised to result in me wishing to kill myself. So... I'll take it!
All right, so, what of the other ladies? I'll start with Sam, as her plotline is the one which I find the most numbingly uninteresting. She spies a beautiful priest one day (as one will), lusts after him in heart, and subsequently tries to tempt him into breaking his vows. But... no dice. Vows stay kept, Sam goes away empty-handed. Ms. Jones, have we learned nothing from your previous lusting after celibate holy men in Season One? It seems not!
Charlotte, meanwhile, is trying to figure things out with Trey. Should they get back together? Should they get divorced?? Is he her soulmate??? Charlotte doesn't know, on any of these fronts. Confusion--it reigns supreme. The only thing she is sure of is that when their last would-be tryst ends with something in the premature ejaculation vein happening on one of her pretty dresses, that she is displeased. Me too, the dress does not deserve such things!
Miranda's dresses, happily, are going unmolested, but this does not mean that she does not have some frustrations of her very own, because, of course she does--said frustrations centering on her compulsion to put on a little comedy routine about her disastrous dating life whenever an engaged or married acquaintance asks her about whether or not she herself is yet hitched (or ever likely to become so.) (Miranda, explaining this modus operandi to Carrie: "Society views single people our age as sad and pathetic... and so I go on the offensive and make them laugh. Just trying to avoid the Pity Party.")
But when she bumps into her married friend Shelia on the street one day, she doesn't feel like launching into her usual "ah, amusing, single me, what with my Bridget-Jones-like half-humiliating, half-entertaining romantic mishaps!" comedy routine. When Shelia reassures her that her One and Only Soulmate is definitely still out there, Miranda doesn't launch into her usual jokes on the subject, but instead unamusingly begs to differ. (Miranda: "Maybe, maybe not...I'm not sure I believe all that. Maybe there isn't someone for everyone.")
Having thus sufficiently harshed her friend's Love Buzz, Miranda then realizes that it's not just single people of a certain age who feel sensitive about not hitting the social ideal of "spouse, kids, picket fence"... whilst they are chatting, the childless-by-choice Shelia launches into a would-be comedic monologue about why she and her husband aren't having youngsters, even though everyone expects them to. Miranda (and we, the humble viewers) cannot help but be struck by the fact that this spiel sounds not at all unlike Miranda's would-be comedic monologues about her persistent single state. Ah, social pressures! They fall both on the partnered and single alike, it seems! Thanks for being even-handed, there, pressures!
LGBT Folks Watch: We hear Stanford's voice on Carrie's answering machine, apologizing for not being able to make Disaster Birthday Party--but that's about it. All right, Season Four is off to a raring start!
Insignificant, But to Me Necessary, Note About Capes: So in this episode, Carrie wears a succession of truly gorgeous vintage capes (which the costume designer Pat Field tracked down in thrift stores, bless her heart) with which I am unambiguously in love. I myself just purchased a gray wool cape for $6.00 from a thrift store, meself, and am unambiguously in love with that, as well. I'm a soft touch, me, I'll give my heart away to anything which is swirly, vintage, and CHEAP.
Charlotte Actually Taking Charge of Her Own Life, Rather Than Waiting For Someone To Take Charge of It For Her--Excellent! Watch: In her continuing efforts to try to make sense of her relationship with Trey (what is it? what does it meeeean?), Charlotte... actually stands up for herself, and works to take control of the situation, eventually asking Trey to stop calling her, to give herself some space to figure out what she wants and needs--and then she'll call him when she's ready to talk. Wow. The Charlotte of Season One would have dismissed this as radical, unladylike behavior of the worst possible description, and fainted away in horror at the very thought of doing such a thing. But the Charlotte of Season Four actually feels comfortable directly articulating what she wants and needs to the gent in her life, and not letting him be the only one to make decisions about the future of their relationship. Nicely done, Mrs. M!
Masturbation, Treating It as Normal! Amazing! Watch: So you may recall that in Season One, the hapless Charlotte gets so much addicted to the solitary vice that Miranda and Carrie literally have to stage an intervention, and take her favorite vibrator away. (Of course, I am told that this kind of thing is a very common occurrence.) In my discussion of said episode, I noted that I found it more than little unsettling that the show thus neatly played into some rather distasteful stereotypes about female masturbation--it is a sad and pathetic substitute for a man! It turns ladies into crazy recluses!, etc.
Imagine, then, how pleased I am to see masturbation treated as... something normal and unremarkable in this episode. At one point, all four ladies discuss it (as part of their discussion of Sam's sighing over her Forbidden Priest, naturally, about which whole storyline... yawn, I don't care), with Charlotte taking part in this conversation in a way which makes it clear that she and the solitary vice are not strangers. And yet... she does not seem to have turned into the madwoman in the attic! Amazing!
Having Carrie, Charlotte, and Miranda all talk about masturbation as though it was just a normal part of their sexual lives rather warms the cockles of my icy spinster's heart, since these three are the relatable, non-outrageous, (and in Charlotte's case) even conservative characters in the series. The fact that Samantha talks about it quite a bit (and that Sam and masturbation often feature in the episodes' comedic subplots) I find less useful, as she's always the outlier, the boundary pusher, the hypersexual one... but to have the three "normal" ladies talking about masturbation in tones which one could not find in a nineteenth-century tract written by members of the purity movement ("It will deform a ladies' very SOUL!", etc.)--I call that progress!
"Are You Telling Me You Didn't See Those 'Don't Worry, You'll Find Someone' Looks?": Discussing Singlehood and Soulmates in Some Nifty Ways Watch: I'm not going to pull any punches here, my friends, I will tell you quite candidly, up front and without prompting, that I love this episode. Yes, the Sam plotline bores me to tears, and I feel badly for Charlotte, getting her dresses ruined by her persistently headache-making spouse, but besides that--I think there are many festive things on display here, most of which have to do with musings about singlehood, marriage, soulmate-hood, and social pressures and perceptions of all these things. Oh, Season Four, Episode One, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways:
1) Questioning tidy, conventional romantic narratives. The lass whose engagement party the ladies attend fits the tidy, conventional romance narrative to a T (or seems to do so, anyway)--as she tells all the women there, the instant she met her husband-to-be, she knew he was perfect, that he was the One, that her search for a spouse was over, and that all was right with the universe. She and her hubby-to-be seem genuinely happy, and mazel tov to them--but the episode isn't really interested in them, which in and of itself, I find rather pleasant--the neat and tidy search for love, which ended with the glitzy engagement party does not interest the writers too terribly much... it's the messier, more ambiguous things happening in our heroines' lives which intrigue them, and bless them for that.
As they do throughout the series, in this episode the writers are concerned with circling absolute declarations like that of the Engaged Lass (about the perfection of love, the instantaneousness of recognizing it, the indisputable existence of your one, true soulmate, etc.) with rings upon rings of question marks. They suggest that maybe things aren't quite so simple--Charlotte loves Trey, but that doesn't make their love perfect, or her absolutely certain that he's her soulmate. Carrie believes in love, but isn't sure that she believes in (as Charlotte puts it) "that one perfect person who's out there to complete you." Throughout the episode, all four women (okay, three--Sam is too occupied chasing her priest--good luck with that, Jones!) poke holes in the tidy "Now that I have found my one true love, my life is paradise!" narrative offered by the Engaged Lass at the beginning of the episode. And that kind of makes me love them.
2) Questioning the idea that a single lass is one lost half of an as-of-yet-incomplete whole. In talking about soulmates, Charlotte and Miranda (not perhaps entirely shockingly) disagree about that notion. Charlotte says there has to be that someone out there who makes you complete, an idea which Miranda rejects ("And, what, if you don't find him, you're incomplete? It's so dangerous.... you're still looking outside yourself, and saying you're not enough.")
Ultimately, this seems to be the perspective which the writers expect us to agree with--Charlotte gets her "perfect soulmate who completes you" idea rattled quite a bit over the course of the episode, as she continues to face imperfections from and struggles in her dealings with Trey... he's her husband, and she loves him, yet he doesn't seem to be giving her that sense of completion and perfection which the soulmate ideal promises... enough to make a gal think, now, ain't it? I do appreciate the writers actively questioning the ever-popular "you complete me" narrative here. Good times.
3) Raising the possibility of friends, and not just romantic partners, as soulmates. I do also find Charlotte's speech about she and her friends being one another's soulmates rather touching here, as well. It's a neat way of summarizing one of the ideas that has been front and center in the series from the beginning--the concept that your friends will offer you unconditional love and support no matter what--that they will be a constant, no matter what else in your life may shift. Nifty to see the show once again putting that bright spotlight on female friendship, and noting that it (as well as male romantic partners/spouses) can be a central core of women's emotional lives. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg would just eat that up!
Stigma Against Female Childlessness: Let Us Acknowledge It! Watch: It is a small thing, really, but I also do enjoy the little "lightbulb over Miranda's head" moment towards the end of the episode, where she realizes that it's not just ladies who are single who face social pressure and disapproval for failing to conform to the "ideal" life model. The anxiety which her friend Shelia clearly feels about "explaining" her persistent childless state is very much like the anxiety which Miranda herself feels to "explain" her persistent single state--coincidence? The episode suggests not. From what Shelia says, it's clear that neither she nor her husband wants kids, but that she nonetheless feels the need to explain and justify this fact, in part by making self-deprecating jokes about it. Nice to see the episode showing these two women suffering from a case of what the series will later call the "should"s--Miranda is 35, she should be married! Shelia has been married for five years, she should have kids! Is that what they actually want? Ummmmm, who cares? Get crackin', ladies!!!
Notable Quotables: Miranda to Carrie, as they're leaving the engagement party: "We were the only single people in there." Carrie: "Miranda, we're the only single people anywhere."
Next Up...?: "The Real Me" featuring Margaret Cho as a special guest star, and musings about female beauty and self-worth aplenty. Excellent!