The family visits Teresa in prison and contemplates what they've learned.

By Melissa Maerz
October 26, 2015 at 02:21 AM EDT

Teresa Giudice gets out of prison on December 23, 2015. That means her time is nearly over, and now that we’ve finished the final hour of Teresa Checks In, our time is done, too. Lessons have been learned. (Maybe?) The family has gotten stronger. (Or, at the very least, Teresa’s family members have said the word “stronger” a whole lot.) Soon, Real Housewives of New Jersey will return with season 7, and viewers might forget that this three-part spin-off was supposed to foster compassion for the Giudices instead of just the inevitable fodder for some “Top 20 Real Housewives Meltdowns” list.

In the meantime, we’re left with a lingering question: How will this difficult moment in the Giudices’ life affect their relationship with the Gorgas? Sprinkle cookies almost broke Teresa and Melissa apart for good, so how can prison really bring them together? Whenever they’re in front of the cameras, the Gorgas insist that they’re heartbroken over Teresa’s incarceration. (“It’s just weird without Teresa,” is a phrase Melissa utters about once every other commercial break.) But is it possible to show real empathy when you’re on reality TV?

Last week, while watching Teresa Checks In and reading viewers’ responses on Twitter, I noticed some Real Housewives fans getting upset about what they believed were crocodile tears on Melissa’s part. How can she say that she’s really there for Teresa? the argument went. She’s not even live tweeting as much as she should be during the show! It’s almost as if she wants the show to fail! The logic here is complicated at best. Is Melissa really supporting Teresa if she’s just drawing more attention to a three-part special about the Very Bad Thing that Teresa and Joe did? Can this family only show love through self-promotion? 

At times, the Giudices and the Gorgas seem to view one another with the same distant remove that the cameras view them. When Joe Giudice loses his cell phone in the water, Gia doesn’t jump in and help him. She stands on the shore, laughing, and shoots a video of him wading through the muck, because “it is definitely something my mom would want to see.” (Also, note to Joe: By the time you put on those fisherman’s waders, that phone is already long gone.) For a moment, Gia is watching her dad the same way many viewers watch the Giudices at home: She’s thoroughly entertained by their every last embarrassment.

It’s sad to see Gia slowly turning into Teresa. When she tries to express how much going to upstate New York makes her grieve her Nonno Franco, she flubs the line and starts laughing about how much she’s like her mom. But when she repeats the line about her late grandfather, it comes off cold and rehearsed. That’s not to say that Gia’s not genuinely sad about losing him. It’s just that she’s been so scarily media trained, she’s now used to turning heavy emotions into sound bites, which can’t be good for her mental health.

Anyway, we learn quite a lot about upstate New York from this episode. Apparently, you don’t wear bows there, you can’t get real Italian pizza dough there, you can hang a billion wild animal heads on the walls of your cabin without anyone suspecting that you’re a serial killer, and no one even blinks when children play with bullets and carry chainsaws around there. Let’s hope that Bravo is extremely well lawyered up, because the cameramen just stand by and shoot without intervening while Milania handles dangerous equipment that could turn her into a miniature Leatherface.

Upstate New York is also a place that’s gonna give Melissa “agita,” especially since the weekend will end with a visit to see Teresa, who hasn’t (and likely won’t) put Melissa on the guest list. (Who can blame her?) Still, Melissa tries to reassure her husband that prison might not be so bad for Teresa. “We all have these images in our minds from the TV shows we watch,” she says. “Maybe it’s not as bad as it’s made out to be!” It’s a weird thing to say, since Melissa herself is currently on a TV show, and judging by the images that Teresa Checks In has lodged in our minds, prison is just a place where you watch Magic Mike with your girlfriends, go to spin class, and have your vagina tightened. Basically, it’s just like New Jersey, with more jumpsuits.

NEXT: What have the Giudices really learned?

By the way, Joe Gorga is way too fascinated by Teresa’s observation that prison can “turn you into a virgin again,” which is especially weird since she’s his sister. “In prison, the vaginas get tighter. Maybe I’ll send Melissa there!” he jokes. Yep, that’s right. It doesn’t matter that both Joes have spent the past two episodes expressing sympathy for their wives’ jobs as full-time mothers. (“If I watch the kids for a day, it’s hard for me,” says Joe Gorga while the world’s tiniest Italian violin plays in the background.) You know things haven’t changed that much when the Joes make lunkhead jokes like that, or accuse each other of having menopause, or claim that crying makes you “a little bitch.”

Somehow, though, there are still moments in this episode that make this whole clan deeply sympathetic. After the Giudices go to their family’s chapel, and the girls can’t remember the “Our Father” or “Hail Mary,” Teresa gives them advice that makes her seem like a really good mother. “You can just talk to God and tell him whatever you’re feeling, and he listens,” she says, while Milania wipes her eyes. Gia and Gabriella both promise to help out around the house. Even the biggest brat in the whole family gets a few flattering scenes, whether she’s volunteering to take care of her parents when they’re sick, or apologizing for acting like a monster: “Sometimes I get bored and I just do stuff that’s crazy.” Milania should get a Daughter of the Year ribbon simply for shaving her dad’s back, which prompts Joe to remind her that she could get a tax reduction for working for him. Careful there, Milania. Don’t take tax advice from a guy who a) doesn’t understand what a tax reduction is and b) will soon go to jail for fraud.

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Is it too much to hope that the Giudices might be slowly evolving after all? Well, the Creepy Lawyer Who May or May Not Live Under the Giudices’ Staircase is back to remind us just how far they’ve come. “Ever been to this place before?” he asks Joe over dinner, as if he has no idea that Teresa flipped a table there seven years ago. Creepy Lawyer notes that Teresa has been chipping away at her restitution, and a news clip says she agreed to give back her Maserati and a portion of her Bravo paycheck to satisfy the $414,588 debt she owes the federal government. Then Creepy Lawyer reveals that she’ll be on home confinement, not house arrest, when she gets back, which should make Bravo very happy. (How could they possibly get good footage if they can’t force Teresa to attend dinner parties with the women she loathes?) And when the Creepy Lawyer asks Joe what he’s learned, Joe solemnly replies that’s he’s going to do things the right way from now on. “I didn’t know I was doing things wrong in the first place,” he says, shrugging.

Hmm. Claiming that you didn’t know you were doing things wrong probably counts as lying, which doesn’t count as the “right way” to do things. But I’m still rooting for the Giudice family anyway, especially when Teresa sweetly tells Joe over the phone, “I can’t wait to be in your arms, for like forever.” She’ll be home the night before Christmas Eve. He’ll start his sentence in March 2016. Watching them try to hold their family together during this three-part special has been a sobering experience, one that will make it just a little harder to go back to Real Housewives of New Jersey and take pleasure in the Giudices’ everyday humiliations again. But maybe that’s better than watching the kids cry every single episode. For the sake of the Guidice girls, I hope I’ll never have to recap Joe Checks In

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