Eastwick: “Red Ants and Black Widows”

Horns of a Dilemma


“Red Ants and Black Widows”
ABC, Wednesday, 10 PM
Written by Nancy Won
Directed by Tom Verica

There was a time when smart women could be found at the head of popular TV series: Murder She Wrote,MaudeCagney & Lacey. What power they had came from their brains; they consistently outwitted male criminals and earned the respect of their male cohorts. Where did all those women go? What we have today is a TV landscape full of women who are either the butt of their own jokes, or whose “powers” derive from the mystical, the mysterious, the supernatural—anything but the intellect. The top shows on TV today in which women play the lead are shows like MediumGhost Whisperer, and True Blood, shows where women succeed only through the use of non-intellectual gifts. Women, rather than taking their place as the equals of men, are now relegated by writers and producers to the role of sidekick or witch. Neither of those is a position of power or respect. The divide is so stark that even shows in which men are portrayed as having “psychic” gifts (The MentalistPsych), it turns out that they are merely clever con men—again, succeeding with brains, not spells. Women have once again been relegated to their classic sideline roles.

Which is why, ultimately, I find Eastwick so annoying. There should be a fun romp here, and from time to time it can be entertaining. This episode of Eastwick was better than many, perhaps because the writer and director represent new blood. Or maybe it was the presence of veteran actresses Veronica Cartwright and Cybill Shepherd, actresses who remember a Hollywood that was friendlier to smart female characters. In any event, the show continues to annoy and mystify with its treatment of its lead characters, as if the writers themselves hold their creations in contempt.

Could this all be a lingering echo of John Updike’s own ambiguous treatment of women in his original novel, The Witches of Eastwick? That novel was set in the late 1960s, in a time of feminist turmoil and the maturing of the women’s movement. He’s even stated that he meant the book as a warning against female power: “That was my warning to the feminists, since the peaceniks in the Sixties claimed that women in power would behave better than men, be gentler and kinder,” (see this 2008 interview with Updike). What we get, here in 2009, is an interpretation of women as weaker and stupider. Twenty-five years after its first publication, we still don’t know if women in power would be gentler and kinder, because we haven’t tried it. And after watching Eastwick, I wonder if there are any voters left who are willing to try.

We start out immediately following last week’s fatal accident, while Roxie still does not know her lover is dead. In the classic manner, her dead lover appears to her in a dream and gives her cryptic clues. What is it with dead people, that they have to always speak in riddles? What I wouldn’t give for a dead person who spoke sense once in a while. At any rate, when Kat and Joanna come to tell her he’s dead, she already knows it on some level. And while at first she acts as if she is in denial, very shortly she is breaking down into grief-stricken sobs. For the rest of the hour, she deals with her grief, comes to terms with her losses (and her growing reputation as a black widow), and starts to track down the mysterious clues Chad mentioned. She eventually comes to the point where she can pack away the clothing and other keepsakes she’s been obsessively hanging onto, and can now get on with her life.

Kat and Joanna, however, are a complete mess. Kat heals a child with a touch, then deliberately rejects this evidence of her own powers. At the same time she is dismissing Joanna’s claim to have telekinesis. Joanna tries several times to demonstrate this, but fails completely. Joanna is further distracted by the discovery that she’s been replaced on the newspaper, by engaging journalist Max Brody (Jason George,Jigsaw). Brody proves to be a persistent, smart, witty newshound who relentlessly pursues Joanna in hopes of an inside story on her kidnapping. When she persists in telling him she can move things with her mind, he scoffs, then offers her some sound practical advice: stop blocking the emotions associated with her kidnapping, and perhaps her “power” will reassert itself. Pretty good advice from a guy who doesn’t believe in telekinesis. Joanna, who lives and dies by her emotions rather than her brains, finds herself intrigued by this advice and this man.

Kat, meanwhile, has decided to help Bun recover her memories by taking her to see Eleanor (Cybill Shepherd). Eleanor, having caught a glimpse of Darryl on the TV making a commercial for his beer, had run in panic into the middle of a highway and been injured. She no sooner lays eyes on Kat in the ER than she recognizes her as a fellow healer. Naturally, she cannot answer a direct question about her powers, so she slips away as Kat is fumbling between curiosity and denial. Since Bun is listed as Eleanor’s emergency contact, Kat gets the bright idea to bring them together. Bun does not recognize Eleanor, but Eleanor practically hisses when she sees the other woman. So, so mature. I just love watching mature, strong women acting like teenagers at recess. Eleanor reluctantly consents to release Bun’s dammed up memories, which she does by releasing a flood of red ants (see pilot) that have been inhabiting Bun. Funny, they didn’t show up in the MRI. Bun gets her memory back, Kat flees in terror from the reality confronting her, and Bun and Eleanor agree that they may have to kill Darryl Van Horne. Again.

What interests me is why men think of women as witches. It’s because they’re so fascinating and exasperating, so other. There’s such a psychological gap between the sexes. The erotic impulse jumps across that distance, like the creative spark. —John Updike

Maybe men think of women as witches because they haven’t bothered to have a conversation with them. Maybe because they’re writing about women through a lens distorted by testosterone. Maybe it’s because the psychological distance between the sexes is not that women are less intellectual or capable of logical thought, but because it is men who are ruled by their sex drives, engaging in a classic case of projection. In which case, perhaps the most feminine character in Eastwick is… Darryl Van Horne.

Van Horne’s best scenes occurred with Roxie, the character with whom he has the most chemistry. First she visits him as he is doing a little casual fire-walking in his back yard. One wonders if the Devil is homesick for hell as he strolls back and forth over the coals, discussing feminism and power with Roxie. Later, she bursts into his home as he is practicing tantric yoga (hello!) and pours out her fears and concerns to him. He gently steers her toward a reconciliation with her own conscience; she flings herself out of the house after kissing him on the cheek. In both scenes, he showed real tenderness and concern for Roxie, for her self-discovery, for her true powers. These are the only two characters in this series with any depth to them, and as good as they are, they just might be enough to make it interesting beyond another couple of weeks. Paul Gross’ Van Horne is growing on me, as each week shows new levels of subtlety—or is that cunning? In any case, he seems to get these women in ways they don’t get themselves. Which would be irritating in anyone other than the Devil. Kudos to him and to Rebecca Romijn for continuing to invest these characters with more depth than they deserve.

Eastwick tied last week’s low ratings with 4.6 million viewers, putting it neck and neck with Jay Leno. To be fair, however, all network shows lost viewers when they were up against Game 6 of the highest-rated World Series in five years. Not even witchcraft could stop the Yankees this year.