I enjoyed this—the fourth—season of The L Word more than any since the first. Producer Ilene Chaiken has returned to form, allowing a pleasing lightness back into the show, and slowing down the race to caricature and stereotype the characters. The star-billed guest artists enhanced the season, and the plot stayed on the more realistic side of outlandish than it has for the last two years. Even Sunday night’s grand finale (see clips from this and other episodes here) avoided cliffhanging flourishes, ending wistfully and ambiguously with just enough mystery to keep us anticipating the start of Season Five (since the show has been renewed).
The Season Four finale left our heroines in various states of relationship distress, disorder, and for the first time in a while, pleasure. Max, our transgender hero, showed up only to load a rented van for Bette’s sign-stealing caper, but for long enough to suggest that he’s hesitating to go through with his sex surgery. Max was estranged from the rest of the L Word women this season, spinning out his gender transition mostly at work, which offered the show a chance to address gender discrimination in employment. Max is ostracized when he reveals he’s transitioning, which he does to advocate for a woman at the office who’s being sexually harassed.
Once his boss and co-workers understand Max’s identity, though, they shun him, despite his obvious talents, and the woman he outed himself to protect winds up assigned a major account in his place. When it’s clear Max has to quit, instead of blowing up or speechifying (which the writers could have chosen for his final moment on the job), Max closes his laptop and makes his way around the conference table, shaking hands, thanking people individually, and telling them how much he learned from them. While this polite trans-mentsch says his good-byes, the smug straight people sit chagrined and a little ashamed at their own ignorance and bigotry.
Shane and her new lesbian mommy girlfriend Paige come out to Paige’s son so that they can start spending nights together instead of having sex in cars and other public places (as if there’s really something wrong with that). Jared reacts badly, but Shane persuades him that they’ll all be a family and that Shane’s little brother Shay (their father clearly had little imagination where names were concerned) will come live with them, too. The “promise” works and the boy’s down with the plan. I worried, though, that Shane, the champion of promiscuity and non-monogamy, seemed to be promising a nuclear family as the answer to the boy’s homophobia (“I don’t want you to be a lez, too,” he whines to his mom). And in fact, we soon find Shane brushing her teeth in Paige’s bathroom and contemplating a house in the suburbs for them and their kids.
But to her credit, Chaiken (who wrote and directed the episode) intercuts a 1950s-style fantasy sequence through their interactions, representing in tinny, monochrome reds and blues Ossie and Harriet moments of Shane in middle-class suburban male drag and Paige in Leave it to Beaver dresses, both playing at the stereotypical gender and class roles of the era. The critical irony works, and allows for the possibility that the lesbians-with-kids-in-the-suburbs fantasy might sour in Season Five.
After all, we’ve seen Shane reject this domestic scenario before with Carmen, who seemed much less intent on chaining her to a conventional coupled life than Paige and Jared. And Paige emanates a suspicious fragrance; there’s something not quite right about her wholesale embrace of Sapphistry. Or perhaps I don’t trust the character because I’ve heard rumors that the actor playing her (Kristanna Loken) has bad-mouthed The L Word cast, calling them cliquish and cold.
How Paige and Shane’s relationship resolves remains to be seen, but if their sexual encounters are any indication, it doesn’t look good. At first, The L Word was the one of the only mainstream representations of lesbian sex to get it even remotely right. But after the first season, the show’s erotic quotient nosedived and hasn’t recovered. Shane and Paige literally go through the motions; there’s no performance of heat, desire, or even love in their awkwardly choreographed, forced couplings. Katherine Moennig’s desperately thin body could be partly to blame; seeing her sharp, jutting bones click through her less than suave faux butch fumblings takes all the ardor out of the scene. Or maybe it’s just that Jennifer Beals and Laurel Holloman were better at faking lesbian sex. And now that Papi’s been defanged as the chart-busting Romeo, Shane bears the burden of the show’s sex, and she buckles under the weight.
In another nice, cynical touch, Helena and her gambling dominatrix boss/lover Catherine bet on whether Shane and Paige will be together in six months. Helena says they will; if she wins, she gets a million dollars and her freedom. If sleazy, filthy rich Catherine wins, Helena signs up for another year of luxuriously indentured sex and wagering. Helena takes the bet, but as Catherine goes off to play the tables, Helena urgently empties her safe into a pillow case. Who knows what this might mean, but it’d be nice to have Helena back in control of her own life and finances. Perhaps Holland Taylor will reappear next season as her once again benevolent mother and give Helena back her inheritance. Although this season humanized Helena significantly, it’s not exactly clear what function the character serves, and watching her run about in sneakers moving boxes and jumping to do Catherine’s bidding seems way out of her original aristocratic character.
The finale leaves Jenny, the newly anointed, always irritating diva, literally out to sea–or up the river without a paddle, or whatever metaphor works to describe her literal and figurative situation . At the beach-side going away party for Tasha, who’s being reposted to Iraq, Jenny drags a little yellow raft out into the waves, planning on a float with her new dog, the Pomeranian Sounder (who replaces the shelter dog she bought to be put down by her nemesis’s veterinarian lover earlier in the season).
Somehow, Sounder misses the boat, and trots up to alert Shane that Jenny’s drifted out on the ocean. But since Shane can’t yet speak dog, Jenny sits alone, artfully arranged in the small raft as the sun comes up at the end of the episode. She’s been fired from writing the movie based on her thinly veiled tell-all, Lez Girls, and she’s alienated all her friends and collaborators with her headstrong vanity. This, The L Word tells us in no uncertain terms, is what happens to girls who go bad and turn on their community—they get stuck out on the water without sunscreen.
Devastated by Tasha’s pending return to Iraq, Alice resists going to her send off party until Dana returns from the grave to talk some sense into her. How nice to see Erin Daniels back on the show, even for that brief scene, which gets Alice to the party. But the scene also made me recall how sparkling the relationship between Alice and Dana (and Leisha Haley and Daniels) was before the producers sacrificed Dana to breast cancer. The actors’ witty repartee and the open affection between the characters (and the performers) was one of the highlights of the show. Alice hasn’t had a relationship with anyone as appropriate as Dana yet. But she heads off to Tasha’s party, showing up on the beach like a white apparition as Tasha and two of her friends (of color, happily) head in from a walk.
Tasha’s presence this season has lent the show some welcomed racial diversity, but her status as a closeted Army officer strains credulity. It’s doubtful that someone of Tasha’s commitments would endure the L girls’ vague liberalism, or their entrenched political ignorance and apathy. The rare political conversations the writers whip up sound false and trite. Politics do better on this show when they’re incidental, references or jokes made in passing, or when they’re grounded in situations (like Max’s work environment) and relationships (like Bette’s with Jodi, who’s deaf and played by Marlee Matlin) than they are delivered in well-meant but wooden, didactic dialogue. Sending Tasha back to Iraq seems a convenient way to dispense with a character who has no future in The L Word’s trajectory.
Likewise, stripped of her Casanova-esque sexual randiness, the ubiquitous Papi has lost her way, and her future on The L Word. Her attachment to Kit, the one non-lesbian in the circle (now that Tina’s back in the fold), never made sense. After indulging herself with a couple of alcoholic and sexual benders, Kit goes back to the remorseful Angus and returns to her AA meetings, determined to straighten up (in every sense of the word). Papi hangs on to Kit’s group like an appendix holds on to a colon, vestigial and useless. Her other friends of color, who played such good basketball earlier this season, and who seemed a more formidable, complex presence in this mostly white show, disappeared after an episode or two, leaving Papi and Tasha as the sole representatives of another community.
Papi’s down and dirty physicality and her refusal to make a commitment longer than a couple of hours offered a refreshing balance to the other characters’ self-serious searches for mates. But with both Shane and Papi domesticated this season, no one remains to round out the representation of choices for lesbian sexual expression. And if Papi and Tasha go, two woman of color characters could bite the dust.
Cybil Sheperd, who’s done a yeoman’s job with her guest role, finally finds her match when Bette introduces her to Joyce, the divorce lawyer who arbitrated Bette’s break-up with Tina, played by the impeccably campy Jane Lynch. Phyllis wants to get a divorce from her disapproving husband (and hopefully from her intolerant daughter); when she meets Joyce, it’s love at first sight. They gambol off into the butch/femme sunset of independent, happy women in their late 50s. Sheperd’s presence, while sometimes ridiculous and always sentimental, nonetheless tried to address the sexuality and desire of older lesbians. When Phyllis visited The Planet earlier in the season, the scene clarified how few places exist in which older lesbians can go to meet other women and socialize, especially when they’re just coming out. Seeing Phyllis walk off happily with Joyce redeemed her with dignity as a bona fide lesbian, even if she was never (not for one minute) believable as the Chancellor of a major university.
The finale also returned to the slapstick humor of the basketball game by sending Alice and Shane on a caper with Bette to steal a sign to give to Jodi. The large, rusted, antique piece of signage that cryptically proclaims “17 Reasons Why” looms over an abandoned warehouse, and the glamour girls press into uncharacteristic action to retrieve it. The basketball scene and this caper take great pleasure in parodying the characters’ indolent passivity by throwing them into physical situations for which they’re obviously ill-equipped. In this one, Bette, Alice, and Shane clip barbed wires, climb fences, throw meat to distract guard dogs, fall through windows, climb rooftops, and disassemble iron-cast signage, all without breaking a nail. In their hapless determination, they resemble Lucy and Ethel playing at Ocean’s Eleven.
(jenniolson writes in her blog on the Our Chart web site that the “17 Reasons Why” sign was a real architectural and emotional landmark in San Francisco’s Mission District for many years, until it was dismantled inexplicably and replaced by an illegal billboard that looms over the lesbian neighborhood to this day. She writes, “Erected in 1935, the 17 Reasons Why sign was a terrific Depression era commercial advertising structure, which originally sported neon tubing and stood as a neighborhood landmark promoting the Redlicks Furniture Store.” Check out her very interesting history of the sign and its current status at Our Chart. The one in the show was a facsimile made by The L Word props folks.)
This season recuperated Bette back into the fold, and even let her friends tease her for the first time. Although Bette’s lost none of her sophistication, and although she still seems older and wiser than her friends, the writers let other characters poke fun at her foibles. Jennifer Beals plays great deadpan, listening to Tina and Kit and the others as they tell her that she’s controlling, that she makes mistakes when she’s scared, and as they enumerate all the ways she misfires in a relationship. Bette in fact has lost Jodi to an art commission in upstate New York. Bette evinces a kind of cluelessness that makes her well-wrought and well-played character that much more endearing. When Bette shows up in a field New York in the last scene driving a tractor towing the reassembled “17 Reasons Why” sign behind her toward the outdoor artwork Jodi’s musing over, the moment is campy and sweet and does indeed win Jodi back.
This leaves Tina pining for Bette in the season’s wistful final moment. After all the vituperative recriminations of Season Three, Tina and Bette pulled together in Season Four to raise the rarely seen Angelika and to renew their friendship, if not their partnership. Sexual tension resurfaces between them, but Tina feels most caught by her resurgence of love and longing. Despite the ardor of Kate (played by the tough, sexy Annabella Sciorra), the director she’s hired to shoot the film adaptation of Jenny’s book, Tina’s stuck on Bette, feeding her lines like Cyrano so that she can win back Jodi’s affections. When Bette asks Tina for lines to deliver to Jodi, Tina tells her to say that she loves her and that she’d do anything for a second chance, which we know, as in Cyrano, is exactly what Tina wants to say to Bette. They misread each other’s cues and go off searching for their next relationship, when the woman they should be with is the one they both already lost.
Even the musical score improved this season, remanding Betty’s atrocious theme song to the opening credits and selecting popular singers with poignant lyrics to underscore the show’s moods. Toshi Reagon guest starred in the last episode, with her booming, plangent voice and affecting guitar providing the background for Tasha’s beach-side going away party. Finishing the season without the overwrought pyrotechnics of Bette driving off into the dark with her co-parented daughter in the back seat of her car was a welcome relief. The season ended as it ran, on a wistful, warm, funny, sweet, and human note.
And so it goes for the L girls of Vancouver (sorry, LA). Although I don’t think I’ll ever again feel the desperate sense of loss I experienced at the end of the first season, knowing the story wouldn’t continue for another nine months, I find myself ready to buy the fourth season DVD and to wait, distracted but eager, for the start of the fifth.
The Feminist Spectator