On ''Desperate Housewives,'' Betty and Bree threaten to expose each other for helping their sons escape justice; meanwhile, Gabrielle fights the hot nun
Alfre Woodard
Credit: Alfre Woodard: ANDREW ECCLES/ABC

”Desperate Housewives”: Betty and Bree’s standoff

I-I-I-I-I feel a little like Sandra Oh at last week’s Golden Globes — so overwhelmed I don’t even know where or how to begin this Desperate Housewives TV Watch. We’ve got the screamingly funny catfight between Gabrielle and the hot nun, Susan’s snap-tastic rebuff of the hot doctor, some serious screen time for resident hottie Edie, and even Lynette’s tearful demand for Tom’s forgiveness. In a normal week, any of those scenes would be fantastic jumping-off points, and yet they’ve all been trumped by the mother of all mother-on-mother showdowns: Bree vs. Betty. Indeed, the Van De Kamp-Applewhite rivalry is one that — if played right — has the potential to be mentioned in the same breath as Martina vs. Chris, the Yankees vs. the Red Sox, Superman vs. Lex Luthor, heck, even Krystle vs. Alexis.

What’s funny is that before tonight, it had somehow escaped me just how alike these adversaries actually are, but as Betty herself pointed out, both are seemingly ordinary suburban moms who’ve gone to extreme (and felonious) lengths to cover their sons’ violent crimes. Still, whereas Betty sarcastically suggested she and Bree are on the brink of becoming great friends, Mary Alice’s voice-over eerily alluded to an altogether different outcome: ”a fight to the death.” If that was intentional foreshadowing on the part of the show’s writers, I sure hope they don’t take this dispute to the coroner’s slab too quickly.

Yes, it’s true that up until a couple weeks ago, I was starting to hope the Applewhites might pack their plodding plotline into a U-Haul, but the moment Bree spied Matthew Applewhite’s hand attached to Danielle’s laundry — and asked, in her most sociopathically clipped tone, ”Question: Is there a black man hiding under your bed?” — I was singing a different tune.

Indeed, as slowly as the Applewhites’ story has unfolded all season (and perhaps the late substitution of Nashawn Kearse for the ousted Page Kennedy in the role of Caleb was partially to blame), this week advanced their watercooler worthiness at exhilarating speed. Suddenly, we’ve got Bree spying on Caleb through his bedroom window, realizing he’s the man wanted for breaking into the Solis residence (leading to Gabrielle’s miscarriage), and inexplicably blurting the news to her daughter and organizing a gossipy poker game instead of calling the police (the episode’s sole lapse in logic). Then we’ve got Danielle sharing her mother’s discovery with Matthew and arming him with the information about Bree’s cover-up of the accident in which Andrew killed Mama Solis. And finally, we’ve got a poker-faced Betty, marching over to Casa Van De Kamp and using the damning info to secure an icy stalemate — for now, anyway.

That closing shot of Alfre Woodard and Marcia Cross facing off over their poker chips was a Housewives classic, and the fact that the writers didn’t show which woman held the winning hand only amps up the suspense. I know we’ve seen Bree make mincemeat pies of Rex, George, and Maisy Gibbons, just to name a few, but the way Betty slapped Matthew and, worse still, her smiling threat to Caleb (”If I ever catch you looking at that Van De Kamp girl again, I’ll hit you twice as hard as your brother, and I won’t feel bad about it”) puts her in a more menacing category.

And while I’m thinking aloud, anyone else have a fleeting suspicion that perhaps Caleb might be a patsy for his brother? There’s something a little creepy-calculating about the way Matthew persuaded Danielle to spill her family secret before he gave up his own (if he did at all, since we never heard what he confessed). Could it have been a guilty conscience, and not brotherly love, that prompted the handsome fellow to spring Caleb from his basement cell? (Note Caleb’s name sounds like a combo of Cain and Abel. Coincidence? Hmmm?)

Oh, and while I’m in biblical mode, can we discuss the sight of Gaby knocking Sister Mary Bernard into a row of votive candles, then putting out the hot nun’s flaming arm with a ”Jesus Saves” banner? As if Mrs. Solis weren’t in enough trouble over that mid-mass ”Son of a bitch!” outburst (indisputably the funniest profanity on any show this TV season) after discovering her rival’s return from Africa, now she’s added a false confession and assault to her rap sheet.

What’s amazing to me about Eva Longoria’s portrayal of Gaby is the way she deftly balances slapstick and serious drama, often in the same scene. With hair still askew from her tussle, and with acid-kissed bon mots flying (”I’m not just some uterus in high heels!”), she still manages to convey her character’s burning need to make her marriage work.

Sadly, with all the lead actresses at the tops of their games, it’s easier to spot the rare weak links in the show’s casting. Exhibit A: Joy Lauren as Danielle. In her defense, it’s got to be intimidating to share scenes with Woodard and Cross, but Lauren’s overwrought line readings always remind me I’m watching an actress working hard to create a character, rather than allowing me to focus on the actual character herself. But considering that I’ve run out of time to discuss all the great scenes with Felicity Huffman, Teri Hatcher, and Nicollette Sheridan, I’ll quit my quibbling and tip my hat to the writer’s room for the season’s best episode.

What do you think? How much longer will the Applewhites stay on Wisteria Lane? How long can Tom and Lynette work in the same office? And how long will it be before Susan ruins her relationship with Dr. Ron?

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