Favourite TV characters: Desperate Housewives’ Bree Van de Kamp

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At a time in television drama history when major female characters in particular were designed to be relatable, pardonably imperfect, full of all sorts of endearing flaws and so-called ‘loveable’ qualities, Bree Van de Kamp began her eight year tenure as one of four main leads on Desperate Housewives as a stock stereotypical housewife, made of clay – or, by her standards, porcelain.

While all the other housewives were constructed as those women that the modern female viewer could relate to – liberal, occasionally messy, typically saying the wrong things or locking themselves out of their own houses – Bree represented what a typical suburban woman feared. She was a perfectionist; well-organised, extremely reserved, scrupulous, almost hypocritically moral and deviously well-versed in her plans.

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She was also a gun-owning Republican and church-going Presbyterian – the kind of woman whose tasks of the day would be listed by a person who had only ever heard of her: fundraising, baking, charity cake sales, picking up her son from football practice, preparing dinner, and most of all cleaning, for which she had an compulsion. She was a conceit devised by series creator Marc Cherry and based on his mother, and it was quite clear throughout the series that although Susan was intended to be “everyone’s favourite housewife”, Bree was the creation that Marc Cherry most cherished and held on to. When asked to describe the Van de Kamp family, Cherry compared it to his own, which “unlike some of the Jewish and Italian families that [I] know, just kept it quiet.”

The difference between Bree and every average Middle America housewife was that not only was her external personality greatly boosted by variously charming quirks and a reserve which often made her real self both mysterious and undetectable, but it provided a great contrast with what lay within. Bree was originally presented as someone unreal – a cardboard character who provoked the contempt of a 12 year-old me back in 2005. At the wake of close friend Mary Alice, who had committed suicide, Bree presented herself with her words and actions not just prepared, but schematically premeditated. There were two baskets of muffins: one to ensure that Mary Alice’s widower and son had a good breakfast, the second for the guests at the wake. After a fully-fledged sermon on how sorry she was for their loss, she decidedly reminded them: “Of course I’ll need the baskets back when you’re done.”

The prospect of such a character initially seemed horrifying. But later in that episode the viewer was told that Bree did not work like a machine. In fact, around her gleaming porcelain world, the edges were crumbling. Her husband despised her and sought a divorce. He missed the ‘girl who burned the toast’, he told her. She responded by advising him that she would not speak of a potential divorce in such a place as a drive-in restaurant.

Behind an exterior that was originally off-putting, however, were not only various idiosyncrasies which, if they didn’t provoke the viewers’ affection, at the very least amused them, but also far more depth, human understanding, love and intelligence than any other of the female leads. Her neighbours may have assumed that she was a conventional WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant in American slang), but beyond an unshakeable veneer lay both frightening and quite fascinating qualities.

There was Bree’s cunning – an art that, when practised, appeared polished and fashioned at length. There was a perverse fascination for guns. In Season 2 we discovered that the uptight, faultless Bree was actually an alcoholic. Bree may have been a hardcore Republican with an extremely moral outlook and judgment of people, but that didn’t stop her from illegally covering up for her son when he knocked over fellow housewife’s Gabrielle’s mother-in-law with his car. Nor did it prevent her from deliberately poisoning rival chef Katherine when she felt she was occupying too much of the spotlight at a society ball.

2But Bree was not vicious –even when her actions bordered on vindictive, the events of her life somewhat justified them. Her first husband frequented the town whore, then attributed his actions to his wife’s own behaviour. Her son Andrew once threatened to frame his mother for a murder, and later seduced a man she was interested in. Her daughter Danielle got pregnant at fifteen, dumped her child on her mother, and then came back two years later and forcibly took the child back. This is not to mention Bree’s cursed misfortune with men, on which whole volumes could be written.

And yet for all the calamity in her life, no qualm ever betrayed itself publicly on Bree’s face. Her psychiatrist Dr. Goldfine attempted to probe Bree in their sessions, but her determination not to reveal herself often spoke far louder than a voluntary admission. In one of their first sessions, urged on by her first husband, she pointed out to Dr. Goldfine that a button was loose on his jacket and decided to sew it back on. Following her husband’s death the doctor encouraged Bree to confess that she was not in love with her next beau, George the pharmacist. She conceded that this was the case but informed him: “True love is great, Dr. Goldfine, but at this point in my life I just want to go to the opera,” adding that she and George had ‘cried buckets’ after Aida – and wasn’t that also important when it came to a relationship? One can see how Bree’s attitude to men left her somewhat misguided.

This in turn led Bree to discover that this pharmacist had in fact caused the death of her first husband by calculatedly switching all his medications, something which eventually led to a heart attack. In Bree’s finest moment she received a call from George the psycho pharmacist, who told her he had taken an overdose and needed an ambulance. She arrived at his hotel room and told him, weeping, that if he apologised for her late husband’s death, she would force herself to forgive him – for she was a good person, she understood that he was not in his right mind, and she could defeat a need for vengeance and even a grudge. George didn’t apologise. Coolly, she left him to die.

Bree’s self-contradictions and contrasting qualities made her, incomparably, television’s most multi-faceted character – when she was well-written. Nothing highlighted this as much as the events of Season 5, when the setting of Desperate Housewives advanced five years forward. At this point Bree was living with her second husband, Orson Hodge – a man whose own worth was a tenth of her first husband’s, and that isn’t saying much. A twisted plot involving his past had prompted him to try to murder other housewife’s Susan’s husband by hit-and-run; something Bree only discovered two years into their marriage – long after the viewers had seen it. Bree forced him to go the police and confess for the sake of her friendship with Susan, and to redeem himself. From then on their marriage hastened to a rocky decline.

Bree’s career, on the other hand, at last took off. What Bree did in Season 5 – for all the meagre quality of that season – was to take her bourgeois, traditional, homemaking lifestyle and transform it into a vocation. She became a famous cook; a respected domestic rolemodel compared to Martha Stewart. But second husband Orson, on his return from jail, wasn’t too fond of such a move, because it made him even smaller than he was. After all, he was just an ex-convict, now barred from practising dentistry. This led him to blackmail her and resulted in all sorts of contriving on both his and her parts, not always interestingly executed on the part of the writers.

One good thing, however, did emerge. For the first time in the whole of Desperate Housewives, a man actually took an interest in Bree. Bree had been proposed to many times, and had had suitors before her marriage to her first husband. And yet she had only really attracted perverse, weird men, who for some bizarre reason believed her to be of their pedigree. George the pharmacist had been a psycho; so was Orson. Her first husband had not – but he had treated her cruelly.

In Season 6 there came a man who at last could not only be the first to appreciate Bree’s compulsive need for an external calm, peace and propriety; but marvelled at the contrasts manifested by her character. Bree had hired a divorce attorney so as to rightfully stop Orson getting his hands on her catering enterprise. In order to do that she would have to swindle the law – something to which Bree reluctantly complied. It was time to play dirty and, although Bree didn’t know it, it was going to be in more ways than one.

3Finally there was a man in Bree’s life who realised that behind that tactful, carefully adjusted and mathematically calculated external appearance, there was a fire within. This was Susan’s ex-husband, Karl Mayer. He was a fairly devious, womanising, attractive, seductively appealing scoundrel; the kind that every woman knows she can, on the grounds of self-preservation, look at but not touch. He discovered that fire in Bree, confronted her on her self-contradictions, and manipulated and toyed with her desire to subvert the law for her own good. For the first time in her life she actually had fun, and, what’s more, a normal and good-looking man had actually fallen in love with her.

But the show deflated any of its prior merits by stupidly killing Karl in some amateur plane crash. It was the beginning of the end – not just for Bree, who got lost as a character in her own right, but for the series, which took a dip in its writing and plots at an unspeakable pace.

Suddenly Bree’s world was flat. After Season 5 the traditional Bree – the Bree who believed that reserve and the concealment of emotion, excitation, rage and self-pity were a human being’s finest virtues – escaladed greatly as an entity, her dialogue becoming more and more conventional. In the penultimate season she took up with a man half her age with tattoos, and in the final season she became overly promiscuous. It was as though the writers had assumed a new position: reserve, and self-control were no longer the agenda, and ladylikeness forever went out of fashion. The message was no longer: “Here is a woman with problems who still wants to maintain her good nature, live life by her principles and maintain poise.” It was now: “It’s okay to be flawed. In fact, it’s okay to be extremely flawed.”

By the end of the series Bree’s goodness and high moral standards, somehow intact, were all that was left, and even then they found themselves dwindling. It was a disappointing decline (of the series as well as the character), and not even the sublime Marcia Cross who had lent Bree her soul for eight years could salvage the character. That said, it was nice while it lasted. When Karl made advances on Bree he told her she was “the most fascinating woman he had ever met.” That could have been a line he had employed with many a woman on many an occasion – possibly. But for a few years, with few rivals, Bree Van de Kamp was by all counts the most fascinating female character that television ever met.