In 2000, Disney released a slapstick animated movie loosely based on ancient Peruvian and Incan culture. The premise was simple: A narcissistic young ruler (voiced by David Spade) was transformed into a llama by his adviser Yzma and her dim-witted henchman Kronk, whose performances were helmed by the inimitable Eartha Kitt and Patrick Warburton. A modest hit that was initially considered a box-office disappointment, The Emperor’s New Groove was iconic for its early portrayal of the proverbial himbo: harmless, affable, willing to please, and easily manipulated. While never explicitly stated, Yzma and Kronk were a not-so-subtle May-December relationship, where Kronk guilelessly deferred to Yzma’s whims and machinations.
In case it isn’t obvious yet, Caroline and Sergio remind me of Yzma and Kronk, and not just because in some version of the multiverse Sergio’s ancestors would have colonized this empire (I know the metaphor is tenuous, but work with me here; plus, Disney owns Marvel, right? So it kind of applies). Their dynamic operates in a whirlwind of delusion and submission that I find utterly bizarre. Sergio — a man who is a full 27 years old — refers to sex with the euphemism “tiki tiki night,” as if there are toddlers in the room who they don’t want to have indecent conversations around; he is literally tearing up as he pleads with his wife for sex! It is about as comfortable to watch as a urinary tract infection.
It should surprise no one that Sergio’s parents are not too keen on their baby boy marrying Mommie Dearest. However, it somehow still blindsided Caroline that Sergio’s parents may not have fantasized that their child’s partner would be an unyielding, withholding divorcée with two older children and no maternal instincts. With a rebuttal like “Frankly, I’m keeping Sergio out of trouble and bringing him up for you,” it sounds less like Stanbury has signed up for marriage than for a time-share. One thing that I did not expect to be revealed, however, is that the Carrallos offered their beloved son money to walk away from the union. I am quite confused as to the financial dynamics of this situation at this point. I assumed that Caroline was living in the lap of luxury, but she even turned this episode into work, promoting the Raffles hotel in her role as an influencer — excuse me, I mean global ambassador — which, she says, “is like a dream job.” Of all the luxury hotels that would need brand awareness, Raffles, home of the Singapore Sling, would seem pretty far down the list to me, but I am not in the hospitality industry, so perhaps there is something I am missing here. For what it’s worth, Stanbury’s father came off perfectly pleasant and levelheaded for a wealthy British man, but I’m sure that’s many people’s famous last words, so do with that what you will.
When she later connects with Lesa and Ayan (who is sporting a dizzying array of feathers in an oxblood minidress that she manages to pull off) at Nina’s high tea, her false notion of a hierarchy kicks in again. She launches into an ill-fated tête-à-tête with Lesa. While Nina tries her best hand at ghost-producing yet another conflict, Caroline deigns to tell Lesa that “she felt attacked” by Lesa at Nina’s friend’s birthday. Because of the editing and how the scene is shot, there is clearly a bit of Frankenbiting going on in this scene, but it is clear that Stanbury doubled down on the microaggressions, calling the interaction aggressive until she was cornered by Lesa holding her accountable with her own behavior, making no bones of telling her that she was being trashy. Somehow, while Lesa was being aggressive, Stanbury was being sarcastic and cheeky after suffering from too much to drink, as if that is anything resembling the point. She reluctantly mumbles out a sorry in between bites of a very stale French fry — yet, somehow, she manages to remain the affronted party in her confessional, acting as if the boundary Lesa is setting is beyond the pale. “Where is the line with Lesa?” she wonders, openly admitting that she didn’t even recall a word of what she had said. The capacity of white women to be offended at their own indiscretions is truly a superpower. And in case you were wondering, the relationship between Lesa, Caroline, and Sergio has not gotten any better in the present day.
In the world of Sara Al-Madani, we start to see the downside of what people call “toxic positivity.” It’s lovely that Sara, born into a comfortable life and always encouraged to pursue her dreams, is now doing exactly what she wants to do. That is simply not going to translate into a template for everyone else, and her belief is that it will quickly devolve into sanctimonious preaching. “It’s never too late to become someone like me; I was not born like this” is a quote I would expect to see on a BuzzFeed listicle of “17 Things You Can’t Believe Tyra Banks Said During America’s Next Top Model,” not advice from a licensed (I believe?) life coach. Plus, if the guidance she was supposed to be giving Ayan is with the intended purpose of helping her achieve a future similar to hosting a Global Citizen Forum, she should know that the events and actions are mostly performative scams, no matter how gratifying saying mantras in a conference room may feel. Ayan looked stunning in her gold gown and matching shawl, though.
Caroline Brooks, however, continues to be the most adrift in this series. She throws an event in Cove Beach, where her gay childhood best friends have essentially used a form of light pinkwashing of the Dubai experience with other gay friends. Let’s be very clear — this is only a perception of the queer experience for expats with means or access to people of means, and even then is still handled relatively discreetly. It would be extremely disingenuous to imply that all of Dubai, including Emiratis, felt empowered to flout Sharia at will, and I think it is more than a bit irresponsible of Bravo to imply as much. They have made similar implications about race relations that I did not find accurate based on multiple reports and experiences I know of within my network alone, but this is explicitly codified and, thus, factually incorrect.
As someone who genuinely sees the potential for this franchise, I implore the production team and network to refrain from sanitizing tough conversations. The best way to win over a western viewership is not to work to prove just how similar it is to a U.S. counterpart; it is to work within its differences and be honest about those realities. There are plenty of ugly and shameful things about American life — the world is watching us devolve in a real-time horror show, and there is no reunion for everyone to dress up and debrief at the end of it. Let the women step up to the plate and confront the hard questions; it will make the show better and make the fans more confident in the story’s authenticity.