In a most confusing evening, the ladies take a break from fighting and brand-hawking to get a true taste of South Africa.

By Karen Valby
Updated February 13, 2012 at 02:29 PM EST
Nadine Hutton/Bravo

The episode opened back in the lion’s den. Marlo and Sheree were still bumping chests, accusing each other of being chumps. Are town homes and spare air mattresses truly signs of personal failure in their world? Poor, bemused Phaedra just sat there patiently on the foyer table, waiting for a break in the conversation so she could call first shower. NeNe risked getting in the middle of the two jabbering hyenas, and appeared genuinely mystified by the fracas. “Is this how I’ve looked in an argument?” she wondered. (Yes honey, though your tiffs always held an additional threat of physical violence.) She managed to separate the women and, without spilling a drop of her vodka-soaked OJ, calmly broke down Marlo’s beef with Sheree. She lugged Marlo back up the stairs, while Phaedra, who’d checked back into the conversation, tootled after the ladies. “You all going to Nobu? Y’all still want us to come by, is that okay?”

Party bus! Sheree, looking remarkably unruffled, assured the Smalls that she was still intent on having a great time in South Africa. So off to the coveted dinner party they went, where her friend Kevin had hired an African drummer to welcome the ladies. Phaedra pretended to admire the man’s bicep feathers as opposed to his muscles. Outside a nerdy-looking white man impressed the guests with some fire baton light saber moves. The Smalls looked enchanted until the end when they looked warily at the sparkler cinders flying dangerously close to their hair. At dinner, Kandi sat next to a very handsome gentleman from Botswana. Would the dinner end with a helping of Kandi Koated dessert? He was beautiful and so accomplished—a model, an actor, and an up-and-coming music producer. And by that he meant that sometimes he liked to crack jokes and wink at himself in the mirror above the bar where he worked on Tuesday nights. Kandi Koated buzz kill.

At Nobu, NeNe tottered down some stairs in eight-inch heels. Duck, diners! At the table Cynthia looked like she wanted to drive one of those heels into Marlo’s cold heart. When the woman excused herself to the bathroom Cynthia and NeNe broke the argument down. “The f-word is not a nice word, you don’t use that word,” Cynthia rightfully said. “And I know Marlo has quite a few gay guys in her camp so I was surprised that she went there.” If nothing else, the drama provided NeNe with a long overdue A-ha moment. “It always just looks so ugly when we be grown-ass women and we gonna jump off the high-rise,” she said. “I was like looking at myself.” Check, and check.

Marlo returned from the loo and failed to acknowledge that she’d taken the argument to a level it should never go. She seemed downright smug about supposedly standing up to Sheree. “Baby you better Google me and check my charges,” she said, which made Cynthia wince and NeNe giggle. Off to the club they went, with NeNe encouraging the Talls to order bottles and charge them to Sheree’s tab. “Okay so we can go get arrested in Africa,” said Marlo, “with the credit card being declined.” NeNe was in heaven.

NEXT: Kandi and Phaedra pocket some fun money.

“The bitches just arrived,” Marlo announced upon the Smalls’ entrance. So Marlo, clearly enjoying a mean buzz, skipped over to give Phaedra, Kandi, and, low blow!, Sheree’s friend Kevin big hugs. Then she greeted a willfully impervious Sheree with the finger. Inevitably Marlo started throwing money up into the air, crying out “Make it rain, bitch!” And so the ever-practical Kandi followed Marlo around, clumsily leaning down to collect the loose bills lest they go to waste. Phaedra soon joined her, rightly figuring that the money could be used to buy a Cape Town shot glass for Apollo and a stuffed giraffe for her baby. On the bus home, NeNe begged the driver to stop at a 7-11 for potato chips and soup. Marlo started fussing in the back that her sugar daddy had been 60 years old, rather than 80, and that she’d quite liked calling him Daddy. Good grief, that image will make you throw your soup up.

In the morning, the women made the drive out to the beautiful Shamwari Game Reserve. Is it just me, or is this by far the best Real Housewives trip ever? When the elegant manager wondered if the women had any additional needs Marlo demanded a hair and makeup specialist flown in, stat. God, she’s an idiot. The next day Marlo and NeNe spent hours in their room getting ready for the safari. Would the antelopes admire NeNe’s capelet? “Louis Vuitton,” Marlo told the unimpressed table downstairs. “The designer?” Cut that bitch, Cynthia, who looked 12 times as fierce in her patterned jean jacket and door knocker earrings. Outside Marlo’s ridiculous heels dug into the ground and she asked the increasingly deflated-looking manager if someone might carry her to the vehicle.

Oh to be a Small, Cynthia pined throughout what should have been a magnificent day. NeNe snacked on her potato chips, wondering how she got stuck on an animal tour, forced to endure the waking nightmare of a turtle. Marlo yammered on about nothing, and then terrified some zebras out of their natural habitat. The Smalls had a considerably better time, though their hearts appeared to break when their lovely driver informed them that there were no tigers in Africa. The man offered up lions as what would seem like an awesome alternative but the women seemed weirdly unimpressed. What the f-?

NEXT: Children sing, hearts swell.

The last 15 minutes of the episode were as satisfying, and dear, as there have ever been on this usually toxic franchise. The women were going to spend the day touring an orphanage, an outing which could have brought out their most terribly tasteless and obnoxious selves. But from the moment they stepped in the van that morning, the women behaved as mature, observant, deeply feeling adults. (I know, I know, it was totally weird.) “Julius, who are these youngsters?” Phaedra called out like a Downton Abbey cast member when she saw school-age boys in uniform singing on their lunch break. So the van pulled over and the boys showed off their fine dance moves. “For the first time it really felt like ‘Oh my God, we’re in South Africa,'” said a grateful Cynthia.

The women proceeded to buy out a store to load up everyone they met with supplies. Sheree wanted to make sure the boys were stuffed on break and chicken bologna. Cynthia cleaned out the toiletries section. That bitch Marlo bought a relaxer because she was alarmed by a girl’s afro. (Heaven forbid a child not loathe her natural hair.) I can’t explain the relief it was to see a Real Housewife counting out bills at a cash register because she was buying things not for herself, or her spoiled-ass child, but for someone in actual need. Go up, up, up, price tag!

At the orphanage, the women were introduced to 60 kids who were either HIV-positive or the victims of abusive families. Oh, that sad room of beautiful, charming, slightly dazed four-year-olds. I hate Marlo but I have to give it up to her that she was the first one down on her knees, talking to the kids on their level. “I’ve never seen children with so little be so happy,” said an extraordinarily touched Cynthia. Poor Phaedra, spent the day, and the private interview after, with a soggy tissue in her hand. “The children sing for us,” she sniffled, “and I mean, it’s very sad because they’re trying to entertain us which is beautiful but at the same time it means more that we help them. Because we have wonderful lives, all of us. Even crazy Marlo.” Again, this was the best Real Housewives trip ever.

Next week: Back to bitching. Sigh.

What do you think friends? Wasn’t it weird to watch the Housewives behave themselves, and be moved by such genuine moments of innocence and need? Does Marlo give you a headache? Did you find yourself kind of liking Cynthia this episode and sympathizing with her weariness over the Talls?

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