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The Real Housewives of New Jersey Recap: Portrait of an Insane Family

The Real Housewives of New Jersey's family poses for the family portrait.

If there is one thing for which the Real Housewives franchise deserves artistic recognition, it is the patient and immaculate building of a villain. When we first met Teresa two seasons ago, she was the dopey, guileless comedic relief of the show, the one whose table-flipping anger came off kind of adorably because, at the time, the behavior seemed uncharacteristic. It was like watching a chattering squirrel shaking a tree branch at a dog. And at the beginning of this third season, Teresa was not yet turned, as the infamous Christening led us to believe that the Gorgas were the petty ones, that all batty Teresa did was deliver a pleasantry to a brother who also had a thing for pounding tables. It was still possible to believe that Teresa was unaware of the slights she had made and was totally naive about any bruises that bore her prints.

But now, here we are at the finale, and Teresa has emerged as a full-fledged scoundrel, a character who is far from dumb about cause and effect, as she once appeared, but who is dangerously dumb about the score that she keeps in her head, overinflating its importance to the point of derangement. And so it is fitting that this episode traces the brief illusion of her redemption, nodding to the past and to the complexity of her shittiness, and then fittingly drops us out the other side via the introduction of a book. At the end of first season, it was the tome Cop Without a Badge that brought out the endearingly hotheaded Teresa, and at the end of this season, it is Fabulicious! the cookbook that ultimately flips any allies that remained.

But before the book, there is the epic family portrait. Melissa gets the call about the picture while she’s trying on one of those fabric strips that malls in the nineties used to sell by promising that you could wear them 50 different ways. Melissa’s chosen way is letting the cloth hang on for dear life by using her nipples like 3M adhesive hooks. Over at Teresa’s, feral child Milania is teaching her little sister how to climb furniture, and it looks like the baby will be scaling deli cases at the supermarket in no time. Meanwhile, a deceptively sanguine Teresa tells Juicy that she thinks this portrait signifies that the extended family is actually ready to move forward together without dragging along their old resentments.

The evening of the sitting, Teresa’s dad stumbles into the house saying he can’t see anything because he just came from the doctor, who put some kind of drops in his eyes. It’s probably for the best because his baby granddaughter Audriana has been outfitted in the kind of old-timey saloon dress that novelty portrait studios keep for drunk chicks who wander in requesting “historical hooker,” and his eldest, Gia, is shooting for “demure Vegas showgirl.” Both his son and his grandsons are decked out in “upscale street urchin.” So yeah, maybe it’s best that he just went through that night with blurred vision, imagining something less ridiculous in his head until he was forcibly confronted with the finished product.

Everybody’s there on the gaudy settee except the future baby girl that Joe Gorga wants to name Joevina. The photographer was clearly found through some kind of mental institution work-release program, and she waves a feather duster at the group while yelling, “Don’t fart! Did he fart? Oh no, that was grandpa!” And maybe I just don’t understand what rouses Joe’s sense of family honor, but here he has a lady blaming phantom farts on the ill Gorga patriarch, and he’s just going to sit there and smile for the camera? He should be pounding on the coffee table and backing this photographer into a corner until she, trembling in fear, admits that she’s the one who farted, even if she didn’t do it. But I guess everyone’s just in a decent mood. Even Milania puts up with a few extra shots once she’s assured that she can see “Justin Beaver” [sic, Teresa] if she’ll just park her ass. And so the portrait goes forward and a peaceful meal follows, during which Teresa voice-overs that the family is turning over a new leaf to the gentle strains of a piano instrumental.

We take a brief detour over to Jacqueline’s to visit the season’s second greatest villain; while Ashley has been the show’s static, cartoonish bad guy, Teresa has been its Keyser Söze, more artfully developed and revealed. Black sheep Laurita brother Jaime has shown up to talk to his step-niece about being a minimally useful human being. Supposedly, Ashley respects him, and why wouldn’t she, what with the gay Jonathan Ames thing he has going on? Immediately she’s showing him her “swallow” wrist tattoo, which he smartly advises to call a “sparrow” because he understands that she’s the type of girl who is inevitably going to attract the biggest shitbags on the planet, and there’s really no need to do the work for them. Then Ashley whips out her super-secret new foot tattoo that she got while her mom was in Punta Cana, and here’s my own piece of advice: If you have to tell people that your tattoo is “supposed to be a feather,” then maybe you should start Yelping the best laser removal specialists in your area.

Lest you think that Ashley spent money on the tattoo because (1) she finally got a job or (2) she no longer needs any savings because she’s realized California is a bad idea, she tells Jaime that the westward migration is still on despite the fact that she remains unemployed. When he turns on her for being lazy and emotionally manipulative even though they both have tattoos, Ashley walks out of the kitchen crying. Thankfully she’s back in time to hear her stepdad Chris give a heartfelt speech about how yeah, she’s a “bitch,” but still, he believes in her. I can’t even begin to count the times in my life I’ve been the recipient the exact same sentiment from my loved ones, so this moment really touches me on a personal level.

Over in the land of better daughters, Kathy’s kid Victoria is going to prom with Paulie, who has got to be authentic Italian because he’s wearing a whole bottle of EVOO on his head. Mr. Dickface puts his dickface in this kid’s face and tries to intimidate him by cracking nuts and asking what they’ll be doing until 5 a.m., even though if Paulie had answered “reverse cowgirl,” I don’t think Mr. Dickface could have brought himself to believe it. Because he’s still confidently delusional that his daughter’s going to lose her virginity on her honeymoon night, even after she comes down the family staircase in a short, silver-sequined mini that’s ideal for covert limo finger-blasting. But before Victoria can slip away for that kind of fun, she has to take a thousand pictures in a tent that I believe has been set up in her parents’ backyard and filled not only with every available cousin (Rosie, old girl: nice vest!), but also, bizarrely, with Melissa’s “songwriter” and his keyboard. Afterward, as Victoria drives off with her date, her dad yells, “Put the seatbelt on!” when he probably should be swapping out “seatbelt” with “condom.” The elders watch the car go, Kathy realizing that she’s not ready to have a career because she wants to obsess over her kids. And as she and Mr. Dickface lean in for a kiss, you have to wonder if kissing a dickface technically doubles as a blow job.

And now the book makes its landing. It appears via Caroline’s scene, which is nice because it gives her something more significant to do in this finale than dispense gems on the radio like “this is not a rehearsal” (re: life) and appear as if she’s smelling a fart when she’s listening to callers’ problems. The Manzos are out on the deck eating what looks like brunch to me when Lauren brings out Fabulicious! and begins dropping the bombs that will finally detonate any feeling that Caroline had left over for one Teresa Giudice. The first: Teresa has bagged on Caroline’s pan-fried meatball preparation, suggesting that it’s inauthentic. The second: that “Caroline is as Italian as the Olive Garden” (this one gets a “hellllllllllllls no” from Greg). The third, that Caroline is only one sixteenth Italian. But none of those jabs gets Caroline half as pissed as the one putting down Christopher for having had the noble dream of a car-wash business run by strippers. How dare Teresa.

We whip around town to see the cookbook landing in the hands of the other women. Kathy is discovering a dig at Mr. Dickface, who’s mentioned as an annoyance. Melissa is telling her sister about the part in the book that says, “My baby sister-in-law copies everything I do.” And Jacqueline has come over to Teresa’s house to attempt to gently discuss with her the Caroline content, seeing how the affront to Caroline’s Italianness is simultaneously an affront to Chris Laurita. And, mind you, Jacqueline has come to do this duty even though she’s in the midst of a massive zit breakout that’s been caused by the stress of Ashley, a breakout so serious that she is traveling with concealer.

She arrives as the Gorga-Giudice portrait is being unwrapped and says that it’s beautiful and that everybody looks good, which is kind. Really, really kind. Gazing upon the picture, Gia mutters that Melissa “kinda controls” her favorite uncle, which bodes well for the future generations of this family and the Christenings of the children who haven’t yet been born. In the background, Milania is heartily spanking and stepping on her baby sister, who weirdly seems to enjoy it, but maybe that’s just a psychological coping technique. Maybe this is just how she lives to see 3.

Teresa starts things off promisingly by admitting to Jacqueline that she hasn’t been a very good friend to her, and this is one of those moments of complexity that make the asshole she is all the more multifaceted in light of the asshole she doesn’t have to be. But then, a darkness within her prevailing, the curtain starts coming down behind her pupils. As Jacqueline questions her motivations for shitting on Caroline in the book, Teresa’s eyes begin jogging back and forth like a doll with mechanical sockets and her tongue starts hanging out between her teeth and she begins that telltale gesture of smoothing a piece of hair that falls in front along her forehead. “It was a joke!” she brays, and maybe in the first season — even the second — we would have believed this. “Dopey, lovable, clueless Teresa!” we would have thought, as it had the ring of truth back in those simpler days. But at this juncture we have seen the rest of her, and so we know in our heart of hearts that there was thought, that there was a deliberateness behind every “story” that Teresa put into that cookbook. She may still be dumb enough to believe that these people wouldn’t be mad at her for those stories, but we can be sure that she’s not dumb to what she was saying by including them.

As always, the season closes on the cast member updates, and Ashley’s did not disappoint because we learn not only that she’s still living at home without a job, but also, and more wondrously, that she has “legally changed her name to Ashlee.” I could write another 2,000 words about how much that decision kills me, but I’m working through a bout of nausea and so I’ll just have to condense my thoughts to: ahahhahahahhahahahhahahahhahahahhahahhahaha. We learn that Teresa’s cookbook spent one lonely week on the New York Times best-seller list, and mysteriously that Joe has “abandoned his multi-million-dollar bankruptcy filing” amid allegations of fraud. What does that mean? I have no idea, but this image of jail keeps popping into my head. Kathy, boring as ever, “hopes to bankroll a dessert company.” So I guess she’ll be making some cookieZzzzZzzzzZzz. And if you didn’t know already, you’ll be thrilled to know that Melissa’s single hit No. 14 on the iTunes dance chart. You’ll roll your eyes to know that Teresa didn’t attend Baby Joey’s first birthday, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise to you because it was basically her destiny not to be there. Judging by the leaks we’re already hearing about next season, she’s just getting started.

My DVR cut off the recording before I could discover what Caroline’s up to, so I’m going to just pretend that she’s “not letting anyone tell her no” and “living her dream” and having gel-offs with K.D. Lang. You can let me know if it went differently in the comments.

Photo: Bravo