Real Housewives of Atlanta Review: The Circle of Life

This week on Real Housewives of Atlanta, we begin with a handheld camera on a turbulent plane ride, where Cynthia and NeNe goof around en route to South Africa. Cynthia is about one thousand per cent more impressed with the first class seating than she should be, considering she’s an allegedly internationally-beloved top model. Across the aisle, Kandi and Phaedra crack themselves up with stupid jokes about riding animals and everything else, too. And as the lucky ladies descend upon Cape Town, I experience Jan-Brady-level pangs of jealousy and resentment, though having Marlo along would be too high a price to pay even for such a glorious vacation.

“One bad apple does not spoil the applesauce,” says Phaedra about Marlo. Is that one even accurate? How big is the batch? Besides, Marlo’s more like a rotten egg in the applesauce, which she sets upon demonstrating immediately on the ride to the luxury hotel. First stating several times that she refuses to share a bathroom with anyone, she goes on to give an etiquette pop quiz because of some asinine book she read which tells you to pass the pepper as well when anyone asks for the salt and also eat your bread in delicate little buttered pieces so as not to be seen chomping down on entire slices like some sort of hopelessly undoable fatty. This is her idea of friendly conversation, I think. Plus, she doesn’t have anything else knocking around in that noggin at the moment, as she likely ran out of Chomsky references on the plane.

After walking through their beautiful sprawling penthouse as awe-stricken as if someone had just transported them there from a prison camp, the women settle in the kitchen to negotiate room assignments. Marlo instantly tries to claim the most desirable room, but Cynthia shoots her down. “Cynthia should watch out, because Marlo is moving in on her friend,” says Sheree, explaining the underlying tension between the Succubus and the Model. Though what happens next is completely outlandish, I promise I’m not making it up: Marlo asks the concierge for the names of each of the housekeeping staff that will be working on their apartment for the 36 hours of their visit, adding that she needs to be alerted by cell phone if anyone is sick during a shift. The other ladies have the good sense to look a bit embarrassed under their wooden smiles. I try my best not to shout at the screen a very ugly, very hateful, misogynistic word that I loathe. It’s harder than it sounds.

Eating a gourmet brunch on the balcony in their sleepwear the next morning, the group discusses their plans, noting that they’re only in South Africa for the day before heading on Safari. Marlo’s still spouting her etiquette tips, and but everyone is fed up. Kandi’s hilarious and spot-on impression of Marlo in her talking head is the only genuinely funny thing I’ve ever seen her do. Then, she makes a great point, saying “Marlo is constantly trying to erase her past and make herself into a new person.” Suddenly, I see Marlo for what she is: a weeping, self-loathing child huddled and trapped in a dusty corner inside an obsolete sex machine on autopilot. It’s probably not her fault, but there’s gotta be an escape route somewhere.

Two ensuing events are best seen in light of this new paradigm so that Marlo’s visible disappointment and hurt aren’t such a mystery. First, Phaedra hands out custom inscribed mirrors to her friends as a commemorative item, leaving Marlo out since her attendance was unexpected. Ever the classy lady, Phaedra promises to have an additional one delivered to Atlanta before they arrive home, since Marlo feels so excluded. “This is what happens when you casually Plus-One on a ten-day international vacation!” points out Phaedra to the camera. Next, Sheree announces that her gay (relevant later) friend Kevin is throwing a dinner party tonight, and only Phaedra and Kandi are invited, since NeNe probably wouldn’t feel comfortable around a friend of Sheree, anyway, and Cynthia is attached at the hip to NeNe. Cynthia is at least as hurt as Marlo in this situation, since she wants people to know she can get along without NeNe. She explains inside that she thought being in the Motherland would magically heal all wounds and dissipate the drama. She was wrong.

Back home in Atlanta, Ms. Kim Zolciak is missing out on the trip to shuffle around her mansion breastfeeding and eating her parents’ Italian food while Sweetie continues to be utterly useless at her job and Kroy runs around on a distant football field. Those seat edges won’t know what hit ‘em when Kim’s spin-off show finally premieres!

The women in Africa view the entire city from a yacht; Phaedra notes that it reminds her of San Francisco. Cynthia doesn’t think it looks like the same Cape Town from 25 years ago when she visited last, broke with no access to luxury anything. Kandi asks Phaedra if “this is where apartheid was,” and Phaedra is just impressed that someone brought up a historical event at all, considering how busy they are popping bottles and sighing in relief that their surroundings don’t look like those annoying late-night charity ads.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a few fertile seeds of drama are planted when Marlo claims that she saw Kandi at the mall recently and received only a perfunctory wave. Kandi insists she misread the interaction, and Cynthia takes the torch by accusing Phaedra of not being unapproachable in general. Remember how Cynthia and Phaedra already went on that double date and supposedly cleared everything up? Cynthia doesn’t. NeNe then asks for permission to clear the air, too, asking Phaedra why she’s so cold when Apollo always says hi. Phaedra promises to do better, but Cynthia isn’t done bringing the chaos, so she prods Sheree and NeNe to make up. Sheree responds with uncharacteristic maturity, saying they’re a work in progress. Finally having tossed the pink elephant a quick glance, the ladies have a laugh and resolve to be cordial for the rest of the trip. I think we all know just how fat that chance is.

At the penthouse, Sheree joins Phaedra and Kandi to start getting ready for the dinner party while gossipping about how dramatically sensitive Marlo is and how she needs to listen more than she talks. They laugh about how Marlo and Cynthia are NeNe’s “booty lickers” until Phaedra sees Cynthia’s shadow outside the door and starts to change her tune when asked what they were gabbing about. Phaedra says something along the lines of, “We were all just saying how glad we are that we cleared the air on the yacht,” and Cynthia invites the three of them to Nobu even though she knows they have their own party. Who goes to South Africa and dines at Nobu, of all places? Sheree responds to the invite by extending one to Cynthia for the dinner but clarifying that the other two women are still banned, and Cynthia sprints out the door and plops onto the bed where NeNe and Marlo sit to gush like a teenager about finally being invited to the exclusive event. Their initial expressions are ones of deep hurt; NeNe then pretends very loudly not to care one bit, but Marlo needs to go investigate for herself.

Here’s where everything falls apart. Once confronted by Marlo’s desperation to be a part of the gang, Sheree’s obsessive need to feel popular and highly envied explodes into a massive fireball of denial, contempt, and incomprehensible shouting between the two women. In one of the most candid scenes ever, they trade insults that are below the belt and true and very sad. Marlo attacks Sheree for being “ugly” and not having a man, thus having to resort to hanging around [insert the most awful slur for gay men here]. The fact that Sheree is literally at this moment on her way to the dinner party of one of her closest mutual friends of Dorothy is hilarious. Sheree counter-attacks, reminding Marlo that everything she owns is a result of sleeping with an 80 year-old white billionaire for awhile. Marlo is unashamed and continues to rattle off how much shit she has, completely oblivious to her own implicit admission to being a textbook prostitute.

As the shouting devolves into shrill gibberish, NeNe achieves a moment of enlightenment. “Is this what I look like when I fight? They look absolutely stupid!” Cynthia tells us she’d never have said anything if she knew her tattling would result in this massive battle, but I don’t believe her. In this moment, she gets to sit back and watch from the sidelines while NeNe plays peacemaker, while Sheree denies her well-documented money problems out of pride, Marlo expresses her personal hurt in the most degrading way possible, and the two wounded souls persist in launching arrows and shrieking and convulsing until the screen fades to black and promises us a continuation of the terrible spectacle in the following episode.

NEXT WEEK: The women head out to Safari and play with orphans. Sheree calls Marlo a “time bomb.”

Season 4, Episode 12: “South Africa: Just Like Home” (original airdate January 29, 2012)

The Real Housewives of Atlanta airs Sundays at 9/8c on Bravo.

Images courtesy of Nadine Hutton and Bravo.

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