I guess I should have held my praise about Eileen’s character growth for a little longer. The O’Neal matriarch takes a step backward this week, which seems to emphasize that learning to accept your loved ones is an ongoing process. Just as The Real O’Neals reminded us that coming out is not a one-time thing, Eileen’s struggles in “The Real Other Woman” let us see that acceptance doesn’t happen all at once. Sometimes, people stumble. If you don’t want to fall back into old habits, you must keep learning.
For the past few episodes, The Real O’Neals has established a closeness between Kenny and Eileen. This week, we learn about their shared love of Project Runway. It makes perfect sense that they’d love watching that show together — Eileen gets to be critical and Kenny gets to be gay. However, their bonding hits a rough patch when Kenny, inspired by the program, buys a mesh shirt and decides he wants to work at a store called Fashion Junkie. Eileen hates the shirt and the store — they use actual drug addicts in their commercials, but it’s clear there’s more involved in her refusal to let Kenny wear the shirt or work at the store. Kenny presses and Eileen claims she knows he’s not the kind of gay person who would wear shirts like that or work in such a place. Kenny fires back that he doesn’t even know what kind of gay person he is. How could she possibly know?
Kenny’s attempts to define his identity are so important. He’s still a teenager, and he’s dealing with a very important aspect of his life in frequently hostile situations. It wasn’t easy for him to come out, and it’s not easy for him to push for the breathing room he needs. I’m glad the show keeps highlighting this oft-ignored experience. Realizing you’re gay isn’t a one-stop epiphany that lets everything fall in place all at once.
After Kenny daydreams about Tim Gunn telling him that “mesh is the new blech,” Eileen gives him a list of acceptable jobs. They’re all examples of domestic work at the church, except for tutoring. Kenny jumps at the latter and ends up tutoring Jonathan, pronounced YON-athan. Rather than connect with his student, Kenny is drawn to Jonathan’s mother, Sandra. She’s everything Eileen isn’t: soft-spoken and free-spirited. She insists Kenny call her by her first name. Best of all, she asks him if he’s seeing anyone and wants to know about the boys he likes. Sandra can tell that Kenny is gay and wants to talk to him about his crushes. She has no problem accepting Kenny and understands how hard it can be to learn who you are.
When Kenny later lies to Eileen about tutoring so he can stay for Sandra’s freshly-prepared, organic meal, he realizes he’s cheating on his mom. He gets home late and Eileen is suspicious. She goes through his cell phone and finds a picture Sandra sent of herself, holding a basket of vegetables from her garden. It’s cute in a Freudian way that Kenny and Eileen are acting like a cheating spouse and his jealous wife. It really shows how connected they are.
When Sandra invites Kenny to a Unitarian church, Eileen loses it. Sure, Sandra gave Kenny some rainbow toe socks, but to ask him to attend a non-Catholic church is too much for Eileen to bear. She turns to Pat, who helps her understand that Sandra accepts Kenny in ways she still cannot. Eileen thinks she’s saving Kenny from the judgment of others when she prevents him from acting flamboyant, but Kenny feels like he gets plenty of judgment from her at home.
Parents can think that being critical is being helpful, but often times, it’s not. It can be pretty hurtful to have your loved ones only offer negative feedback or refuse to let you be yourself. Eileen made some missteps — and it’s certainly significant that she admits she was trying to protect her son — and now, she must learn that letting Kenny be himself is for the best. Eileen even attends the Unitarian church to show Kenny how much of an effort she’s willing to make to keep him in her life. Although she leaves after hearing a prayer start, “To whom it may concern,” Kenny appreciates her effort and the two mend fences yet again.
Back to Pat. He was feeling pretty lonely because the kids weren’t making much of an effort to see him. Pat is upset at the thought that his kids aren’t interested in hanging out with him. He’s mere feet away in the basement! What’s going to happen when the divorce is final and he moves out? He reminds Eileen that kids always come back to their mothers. He eventually takes a firmer stance with the kids, and thanks to the police dog he brings home, he lures them into hanging out together.
Pat is such a wise and patient father, which seems to get lost in Kenny’s story line. He’s a really good dad, one of the best on television right now. Pat and Eileen once explained that the reason for their divorce is simple — they just outgrew each other — but I’d like to see more of what happened between them. They married young because Eileen was pregnant, but what else was there? Pat and Eileen are good people. She gets pegged as the bad guy, but that’s just because she’s resistant to change. Her faith and family have been the most consistent parts of her life. Meanwhile, Pat’s job as a police officer has helped him remain fluid. He never knows what to expect on any given workday, and his ability to go with the flow translates back to his family life. Even though Eileen’s character dips into the Uptight Wife/Mother cliché too often, she and Pat complement each other well. Let’s hope we learn some more about their relationship.
Eileen regresses a bit in “The Real Other Woman,” but in the end, she is able to see where she went wrong. (With Pat’s guidance, of course.) Both Pat and Eileen must learn how to remain present in their children’s lives as distractions build up around them. It was good to see them put aside their own marital issues to strengthen the bonds within their family. Pat and Eileen may not be able to repair their marriage, but their ability to work together for the good of the family is admirable and sweet.