I now feel Russell Armstrong’s suicide hanging over the entire Real Housewives franchise, and I’m not exactly in the mood to be examining people who value the appearance of extreme wealth over, you know, just having a meaningful life that isn’t structured around financial stress. I’ve mentioned in previous recaps that Joe Giudice looks acutely depressed this season, and tonight, watching him sit in his lawyer’s office as he listens to the $260K judgment against him, I longed for him to turn to Teresa and say, “Holy fuck, what are we doing? We’ve got the stupid house with the gigantic stupid doors, and our daughters have the stupid miniaturized luxury cars, and all we’re doing is running in circles to keep up this stupid fucking lifestyle when it’s only going to take us down! One day we’re not even going to recognize each other because I’m not going to be the person you married, and you’re only going to see the things that I’ve bought you instead of the person I am, or the person I was, and what will we have then besides this carcass of a mansion, daughters who hate us, and a television show that once chronicled the hulking lie we nurtured to the detriment of our happiness?”
But there Joe sits in the office with his tiny black espresso cup, its contents doing nothing to awaken his eyes. There Teresa sits in her maroon fur, just pleased that her liability has been extinguished in the lawsuit and she’s going to be able to buy her shit back. The lesson she’s taken away from all of this is that “you gotta lie,” believing that they’re in this hole because Joe told the truth about forging his ex-partner’s signature on a loan. And you want to reach through the television and shake her and scream, “No, you’re in this hole because you can’t find a reason for living if you’ve got to do it in an apartment on top of a pizza parlor! You’re in this hole because the two of you have brains and hearts stuffed with wads of cash and when you lie still by yourselves at night, all you can hear is dry crinkling.” Then Teresa drops a very weird comment about her “Jewish friends” who told her they would have divorced Joe in a second, seemingly implying both that Jews are money grubbing and she’s an ascetic saint, and I realize a good shaking wouldn’t be enough. She’s as hollow as ziti.
It’s actually a relief to go over to a discussion of Ashley, because for all her faults, I do believe that she wants to have a good time more than she wants to prove anything to anyone. In light of this week, that nearly feels like a saving grace. The show picks up where it left off last time, Jacqueline sobbing in a finished basement while Ashley’s dad Matt tries to get his daughter to lift her gaze from her phone. The thing is, if this were your first look at Ashley, I can see how you might think, These people are way tough on a girl who obviously feels as though they’ve already written her off. There are moments when I can see how little space her family has left for her to change or grow, and I feel a pang of empathy because it really is torturous to untangle yourself from other’s expectations. One day you find yourself frozen in a picture others have taken of you in your minds, and even though you were the one who struck that pose, it never meant that you wanted to stand like that forever. So yes, there is some part of me that understands that perhaps Ashley has failed to get her shit together because no one can envision her getting her shit together, including herself.
Then there is the other, larger part of me that understands these people wouldn’t be so thoroughly exhausted by her existence if things hadn’t gotten really, really bad. Her stepmom mentions that Ashley’s been disrespectful of her home when staying there as a guest, and that’s a Jacqueline-free territory. Her dad has to order Ashley to “try to be sincere” when he takes her down into the restaurant’s bowels to face her mom — that “try” so telling because he’s not even sure she can manage it. Even her cousin Lauren, who’s close to her in age and, importantly, not a parent, regards Ashley as if Lauren is Dr. Drew and Ashley is a mash-up of Bai Ling, Amy Fisher, and Michael Lohan. She’s given her 5 billion shots with nothing to show for it. When Ashley walks in without a single new sketch for the salon T-shirts, Lauren knows that her cousin is worse than eight pounds of sausage in a five-pound bag. She’s just the bag. And so she tells Ashley something that makes me think that here’s the Manzo who deserves the radio show: “You have no fear of disappointing your parents,” she says, “because you feel like you already have.” That is one of the best pieces of insight I’ve heard out of anybody on this show, ever, and I’d like to imagine that Ashley realized, upon hearing this, that someone in her family really does see her, that someone grasps the root of her emotional stasis. But the reality of the situation is that she probably just went back to texting.
You’ve also got to keep in mind that even though Jacqueline is “done” with Ashley’s bullshit, odds are that it would take very little for Ashley to redeem herself. I mean, Jacqueline’s face brightens when Ashley just goes over and hugs her little brother, so you can imagine how she’d beam if her daughter would just take a shift at Subway and put her panties away in a drawer. It wouldn’t take much to stay peacefully in that house, with its roaring fireplace and zero dollars a month rent. But Ashley is insistent on bailing for California, pissed that her mom has the nerve to point out that she has no means of supporting herself. I would also add that Ashley especially has no means of supporting herself if she goes to California because then she can no longer collect a paycheck from The Real Housewives of NEW JERSEY. But hey, maybe Ashley’s got it figured out and she’s going to set up on the Venice boardwalk, doing big-headed caricatures of vacationing Europeans. She tells her mom, “You’re such a bitch,” and even the family dog makes a face like, “Oh helllllllllllllls no. Hell to the no.” Chris follows Ashley to her room, where she’s talking shit about her mom over the phone to her dad. He’s been told by Jacqueline to give Princess Beaniehead a two weeks’ eviction notice, but something must snap in him in that instant because all of a sudden he’s telling Ashley to call a friend to come get her ASAP.
In her interview footage, Jacqueline cries and dabs at her eyes with a long piece of toilet paper. Can’t someone get her a tissue? Jesus Christ, producers. Production assistant? Boom operator? She’s been through the wringer. Someone get the poor thing a real tissue, and the kind with lotion in it, too!
So what’s going on with the other women, you ask? Well, Kathy’s decided to invite the ladies over for a Middle Eastern tasting that’s supposedly for the purpose of “being and embracing your inner goddess” — your inner goddess who can’t get enough of yogurt sauce. This whole “goddess” thing is really sad because it’s just the New Age–ier version of “girl power” dopiness, but someone who’s not going to say a word about the independent nature of self-respect is “Zen” Jen. Remember her? She first appeared on the show as Dina Manzo’s energist (my spell check just put an angry red zigzag under that word, and rightfully so), and now she’s come to Kathy’s house to get “any evil out.” Joseph looks nervous at this pronouncement because he probably has a skinning knife tucked into his sock, and Mr. Dickface explains that he’s not really into this kind of stuff, which brings the two of us into spiritual alignment.
Melissa’s the first to come over for the party, explaining that when Kathy cooks, “she makes love to the food.” This sounds very unhygienic, but I guess as long as Mr. Dickface hasn’t made the beast with two backs with the sautéed shrimp, we can consider this a minor health code violation. Speaking of Melissa, she’s decided to dress as a self-proclaimed “edgy goddess,” which just means that she’s wearing a backless shirt with rows of what HSN likes to call “silver-tone” chains. Not totally sure how you tell an edgy goddess apart from a Bridge and Tunnel goddess, but I’m admittedly not that up on my mythology.
Mr. Dickface has left a bottle of holy water for Kathy to give to Teresa as a joke, because you know how Teresa can toooooootally take a joke. Almost as well as she can drop a grudge. Victoria knows that Teresa will interpret this as a dig — young, intelligent Victoria who’s studying on a Friday night and breaking Jacqueline’s heart by having direction in life — and Kathy, after learning that Teresa thinks Mr. Dickface is hot for her, decides that it “takes too much energy to be offended.” And she’s absolutely right there, but thank God she still takes a second to call Teresa cuckoo in her interview and act out the role of a cuckoo bird coming out of a clock, her eyes like spring-loaded marbles popping from their shooters.
So the party is fun for everyone except Teresa, who can’t stop being a miserable shitbag long enough to get into the freshness of the parsley salad. Caroline is yucking it up with Kathy over Middle Eastern fare and tall boots, finally admitting that maybe she didn’t like her so much at first, but now they’re copacetic. She and Melissa are also doing a little leaning into each other and giggling, too. But Teresa’s insulting the food and interviewing that she would have “done [the party] differently” and generally being the sour, petty, open-mouthed cold fish that she’s been throughout the bulk of the season. Kathy hands out “goddess bracelets” (I note that Christopher and Albie have already been wearing theirs for months) while telling each woman why she’s a goddess, and Teresa can’t even stand to hear Melissa called an amazing mom, so she jumps in, insisting that they’re all amazing moms, just in case somebody’s giving out awards. Then Teresa decides it’s the perfect time to announce that she and Joe are opening up a restaurant, like she’s the Italian version of Kristen Wiig’s Penelope, and, really, she should be so fucking thankful that no one at the tasting responds, “With what money? You gonna pawn the ring that kid at school gave Gia?”
Instead, they let her paste on her vacant smile and bullshit that everything at home is all right, even as she starts another fight with Melissa about whether Melissa has been courting Kim G.’s friendship. Since no one wants to listen to it anymore — including former Teresa-fan Caroline, who presses her fingers to her temples — Kathy rushes in her big surprise: a belly dancer. I flashback to The Real Housewives of New York, and for a split second, I have a vision of Ramona shimmying into the scene, shaking her hips and doing her spastic little Elaine Benes moves. And oh, I would welcome Ramona in this situation. Ramona, who has many, many of her own issues and flaws, but who also has an unstoppable habit of telling the uncomfortable truth. Pinot Grigio in hand, she would start to nudge at the bubble that Teresa has constructed around herself and her standard of living, the bubble that no one on the show seems to want to pop for fear of something that isn’t quite nameable. And maybe it would be better for all these people if they were to have their bubbles popped sooner rather than later. Then they might be forced suddenly into discovering that life goes on after you can no longer afford the $60K birthday parties; they might be kept from falling deeper and deeper into the belief that that kind of life might as well be death.