The best scene in this episode is when Denise and Lisa Rinna talk in the hotel lobby next to the cappuccino machine and the continental breakfast. (In Italy, all breakfasts are continental.) They talk about the events of the confrontational dinner the night before and Denise accuses Lisa of not being a good friend and not standing up for her. Then Lisa uses the crying-on-cue skills she learned at the Blythe Danner Master Class she bought from the suggested ads on her Instagram. Lisa says, “If you’re mad at me, I respect that.” Denise replies, calm as Rihanna after three glasses of red wine, “I’m not mad. I’m hurt. That is all.”
That is when I realized that Denise Richards is an existential threat to this entire franchise and, because of that, it must destroy her.
What she is saying in this moment is that she will not engage in the usual cycle of anger, apology, and redemption that Housewives of all stripes go through. Get mad, own it, talk about it, decide that it’s best for everyone to move on. (Though in Bev Hills, the moving on is the hardest part.) Denise won’t get mad. She won’t go after Rinna, she will just question how she treats her and reveal the true emotional toll this process takes on a person. Denise asks Rinna, “Is this a friend?” The answer is no. This is not a friend. These women are not friends. They are chess pieces in a game for our amusement, but Denise is like a knight who won’t move in a L-shape. She is a queen and she can move in whichever direction she wants, and the players can’t keep up with the new rules.
Denise also says to Lisa, “Just be you,” which means she thinks that Lisa is not being her authentic self, the friend she’s known for 20 years, when the cameras roll. This proves many fans’ suspicions — that this is all as fake as a bunch of plastic grapes in a wooden bowl on a ’70s credenza. These women are acting. This is manufactured. They’re going after Denise for some reason that has nothing to do with what she actually said or did.
This is just one of the ways that Denise, by refusing to play by the rules, is unconsciously dismantling this precious and precarious sandcastle that we all keep propping up against a rising tide. Just look at her on the way to dinner. Everyone else just got out of hours of glam, with some (like Dorit, in a chic hair flip and a classic Chanel suit) looking amazing and others (like Sutton, playing a doily on your grandmother’s side table) looking like they wasted a lot of money on flying a whole glam squad to Italy. Denise, on the other hand, rolls in wearing a pair of jeans, a puffy coat, a simple black tank top, and a messy bun piled on top of her head like she’s auditioning to play Messy Bratz Doll in Memes: The Movie.
When Denise arrives at dinner, she decides that she is going to do her part to squash this conversation about her and Brandi Glanville (say her name 30 million times and she gets her diamond back) and whether Denise talked shit about the other women. Instead of fighting the allegations, she fights the institution. “To be brutally honest, there is so much judgement in this group, every fucking dinner I’ve been on the receiving end of being attacked. And that is not fucking cool,” she says. She is not wrong. There is still some question, at least in my mind, if the evidence from Brandi is admissible in a court of Housewives. Also, for them to keep coming after Denise requesting something entirely intangible seems cruel.
Kyle responds, “When things get brought up in this group they have to be addressed.” Denise’s quick retort is, “They do not.” Yes, we’re back to the question of whether this should have been brought up in the first place and whether it should be shown. But Denise did talk about these things that were brought up and when she did, it was not enough for the women. “You kept saying, ‘Be honest. Be honest,’” she tells them. “I was and you didn’t believe me.”
This leads me to question what, exactly, do they want from Denise? What is the endgame here? They’ve brought up that she had sex with Brandi, but to what end? Is that an argument? How can Denise resolve this when there is nothing to resolve? She may or may not have done it. What effect does this have on the other women and why do they care? They say that she talked shit about them to Brandi, Denise says they did not. Is that what they’re mad about? Come on! Every Housewife talks shit about their castmates behind their backs. Is that really it?
If so, what can Denise even do at this point? It’s not like Lucy Lucy Apple Juicey, where Lisa could say, “Yes, you’re right. I leaked the story to the press.” In that case Lisa had actually wronged Dorit and could make up for behaving badly. But what exactly can Denise do other than say, “Yeah, you’re right. I talked shit.”
This also brings up Garcelle’s very salient point from the first dinner: why are they believing Brandi over Denise? Yes, Brandi usually tells the truth, but they all know she’s a loose cannon and has more to gain than to lose. Also, they have an ongoing relationship with Denise. Is there some reason they would doubt her? And if there is a reason, why are they not making that clear?
Dorit, who to her credit has been on Denise’s side the whole trip, says to Denise that the women aren’t trying to hurt her deliberately. Denise says it doesn’t seem that way. Again, she’s not wrong. What Dorit goes on to say, in essence, is that all of the women have had to go through a season or two where they are taken down a peg and have their reputations eviscerated. She’s saying that they all had to take it and get over it to have access to this platform, which they all value above their reputations. Denise is basically asking, “What if that is all wrong?” Why should she have to take this? Why does she have to be debased for our entertainment and Bravo’s profit? At dinner the night before, Rinna says that if Denise is choosing to sit there (meaning be on the show) then she has to talk about these things. Yes, she does, but should she?
After Denise gives her whole speech, she gets up to leave because she doesn’t want to let them respond, once again breaking the unwritten rule that she has to stay there and fight. When she runs into Garcelle outside, she says to Denise that if she doesn’t give this issue full closure it will keep brewing under the surface. She’s not wrong, but if this was real life, why would Denise talk to these people ever again? Why would she go back? Why would she let them say their piece when they’ve been saying it over half-eaten plates of mushroom risotto for several days?
Then we see something unprecedented: a producer. We’ve heard their voices. We’ve seen them rush from behind the camera when, say, Nene Leakes was attacking them. Never have we seen one, you know, actually produce. He gets Denise to return to dinner by telling her, “You say you want to move past this, let’s go back in there and move past this.” We needed to see that producer, because that is why Denise returned. She wouldn’t come up with some lame excuse so the story would make sense, she forced the show to expose the very cogs that keep it running.
When Denise and Garcelle sit back down at the table, the argument is forgotten. They all decide to move on and have funny conversations about the most trouble they got into as teens and the wildest place they had sex. Sutton, being Sutton, wants to talk about the “most romantic” place she ever had sex. Ugh, Sutton. She just has to be difficult in the most pedestrian way possible. Just when I start to like Sutton for being like, “They should have asked me if we needed tickets to get into St. Peter’s” and making fun of Dorit’s remodel of “Buca di Pasto?” she goes and does this. Sutton is like the strawberry section of Neapolitan ice cream that we’re forced to buy but no one can swallow.
Anyway, these moments are fun. There were a lot of great moments this episode. Erika Jayne orders a ham and cheese sandwich off the kids menu in a fancy hotel. Love! Dorit and Kyle nearly pee themselves laughing wearing silly helmet liners and sitting in Vespa sidecars in the rain. Love! Lisa Rinna talks about how she was a church orphan as a child. Love!
This is how Denise is toppling the show from within. (Can she get cast in The Patriarchy next? Because that could surely use some toppling as well.) She makes us wonder why the show even needs “drama.” Why does the show need to ruin people like Denise? Isn’t all of this fun stuff enough? I always joke about this show being Rich Women Doing Things, but why can’t we just let the rich women do the things? Remember how much fun their RV trip was last season, and all they did was go grocery shopping, play beer pong, and not fight. Why can’t ridiculous shopping trips, crazy outfits, and hungover hijinks be enough? None of these women really want to get into the messiness of brawling like those in New Jersey or Atlanta do. Why can’t this just be the aspirational one where we all just continue to hate on Dorit’s outfits while they go to store launches and Kyle once again does the splits?
Instead we’re questioning not just why we watch but what this thing is. Like a hummingbird on the windowsill, if we look too closely, it will go away, our gaze disintegrating the very thing that we admire. I want to be all #FreeDenise about it. I want them to believe her over Brandi. I want her to be some badly dressed Khalessi here, to break the wheel and free the reality TV slaves. Just like Khaleesi, though, we have to question her motives.
Denise does herself no favors this episode. She keeps insisting that she didn’t say that Erika was icy, but then in a confessional she says that Brandi said that Erika was icy to Denise and Denise didn’t deny it. Isn’t that kind of the same as her saying she’s icy? She insists she didn’t trash Teddi. (And why should she? Teddi does a good enough job trashing herself.) Then, also in a confessional, she says she said way worse things about Teddi that Brandi didn’t even bring up. So is Denise lying about everything? And, if she is, does she have to address that? If she’s trying to save her reputation on the back of lies, should we let her? Can the lies be exposed? Will that be enough for the women to back off? And what would them backing off even look like? Who can say? I don’t know. But questions about the viability of the series is not the thing I want to take away from this show. (What I want to take away is some great outfits, a few GIF-worthy moments, and being able to half-look at it as I like pictures of shirtless guys and Bravo memes on my phone.)
The one person we really learned a lesson from this episode, however, was our new queen Garcelle. When she’s around she is an excellent addition to the cast. At their first dinner, Lisa wants everyone to be honest, so Garcelle asks her an honest question: does Lisa think that her dancing in next to nothing on Instagram led her daughter to an eating disorder? I don’t think it did. As Teddi says, it’s hard to pinpoint one cause for someone’s eating issues when there is so much in the culture (and probably in her personal life) that could have tipped her into this disease.
What Garcelle is showing us is how insidious it is to bring these things up. Now we all think, Hmm, maybe Lisa did contribute to her daughter’s anorexia. Just like we think, Maybe Dorit was doing cocaine in the bathroom at her party? Just like we think, Maybe Yolanda Bananas Foster did have Munchausen’s. By bringing these things up, they are manifesting themselves into the universe. They are gaining form, stout but manicured and dressed in a rhinestone outfit ready for their closeup at the reunion. This is what has happened to Denise. This is what has happened to every woman on this cast, and, up until Denise, these women were willing to walk hand in hand with these apparitions, strolling through the pearly gates of having 1 million Instagram followers and book deals and dance singles and product launches and people asking for selfies on the sidewalk. They were torn piece from piece, but it was worth it. But what if it wasn’t worth it? What if there is another way? Has the wave finally crashed over our sandcastle, demolishing it into millions, billions, trillions of atoms and then dragging those particles back to the briny darkness from whence they came?