Episode Title: Civil Wives
Season 01, Episode 08
Episode 008 of 344
Written by Jack Turley
Directed by Kim Friedman
Original Airdate: Thursday, February 14th, 1980
The Plot (Courtesy of TV.Com): Sid's ex-wife comes to town and attempts to disrupt his marriage to Karen.
Remember a few episodes ago, back in Let Me Count the Ways, when Karen was feeling frustrated and came close to straying from her sacred marital vows? Boy, that was a great episode (still the best episode we’ve watched and discussed so far), and now it’s time for the reverse of that….sorta. See, Civil Wives is an episode that seems to exist to challenge Saint Sid to stray from Karen, showing an interesting mirroring of that prior episode, but done a bit differently. Now, I always remembered loving Let Me Count the Ways, but I didn’t remember much about Civil Wives at all, aside from the basic outline of the plot. How does this episode stand up, both as a standalone and when put up against Let Me Count the Ways? Let’s explore.
In classic KL fashion, we begin the episode with something very homey and very neighborhood-y, something that makes you feel safe and cozy, and that’s our three leading ladies, Val, Karen, and Laura, all moving some big shelf out of Karen’s station wagon. Again, I feel like when you start a KL episode, even perhaps a later season episode where there’s more glitz and glamour and money flying around, you get an immediate sense of that realistic neighborhood atmosphere. See, whereas Dallas would generally start with some sort of a boardroom or bedroom encounter (to steal a quote from Patrick Duffy) or perhaps just the Ewings gathered around the table and making nasty comments towards each other, KL starts with things we can all relate to. Who doesn’t love going to the beach? Who hasn’t hung out with friends in their living room drinking coffee? Who hasn’t helped a neighbor move a huge shelf into their house? It’s small little details like this that I appreciate.
Our episode conflict is introduced pretty much straight away. See, the ladies are moving the shelf when a mysterious new character appears, a fairly pretty middle aged woman who introduces herself as Susan Philby and then seems to wait expectantly for Karen to recognize her. When this does not occur, she tells Karen that she is, gulp, Sid’s ex-wife. So right off the bat, we the audience know that there will be some conflict with her presence here, and we get the feeling that she might be up to something. Susan is not doing anything particularly nefarious in this sequence; in fact, she seems very kind and courteous to Karen, but it wouldn’t be good drama if she just stopped off to share some candy and cookies and then went on her way, would it? We know that she is up to something, and we have to wait to find out what it is.
Susan is played by Claudette Nevins, an actress that probably nobody besides myself cares about. Well, I care about her because she seems to follow me around; no matter what I watch, she seems to pop up frequently. Why, just the other day, my friend and I watched all six episodes of the brilliant but cancelled Police Squad!, and Ms. Nevins popped up in an episode of that as a vixen lady who ran a nightclub (a nightclub where Frank Drebin sings Judy Garland songs to standing ovations from the crowd, LOL). Also, she showed up as Doug Savant’s mother on the KL ripoff series that I still sorta enjoyed, Melrose Place. Why, not only that, but she also popped up in an early episode of E.R. and she even showed up for two episodes of the gloriously heinous 7th Heaven. Oh, and I only just realized this from reading her IMDb, but she is also a Transmorpher, as she shows up in a 1990 episode of Dallas, playing Lizzie Burns (the episode is Season 13, Episode 21, and it is called Will Power, by the way). So, Claudette Nevins, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to you.
Anyway, we move on from Karen and Susan Philby to the B-storyline for this episode, which is actually moderately interesting despite involving Kenny and Ginger (I know, I know, I’m biting my tongue). See, this storyline involves Eric Fairgate developing a bit of a crush on Ginger. I’m not really sure what the point of this storyline is, and it sorta goes nowhere, but it’s interesting, nonetheless, and relatable to those of us who were ever 15-year old boys. We start the storyline with Eric being a gentleman and helping Ginger carry her groceries into her house. Kenny’s not around (thank God for small favors), and Ginger is all like, “Thanks for carrying my groceries; why don’t you come in and hang out and listen to a record or something?” So, Eric does that, and he takes a gander at their hot and hip record collection (although the public domain record that I’m so obsessed with does not get a mention). Anyway, as we watch this scene, we can see that shy, awkward Eric maybe has a bit of a crush on Ginger. I guess he likes chicks with big bug eyes or something, I dunno.
Returning to the main storyline of the episode, we have Karen being ever the perfect hostess towards Susan, letting her come in and visit in the living room, I think even making her a cocktail (I might be hallucinating that part). Everything seems very civil, and Susan says how she’s here for some sort of issue involving Annie. Oh yeah, this is worth noting, because in my memory, Annie showed up in Pilot and was never seen nor mentioned again, but I am only half right in my recollections. True, she’s never seen again, but she’s already been mentioned quite a few times. It’s nice to know the writers haven’t forgotten this character, and here Val says to Susan, “Annie is a terrific kid.” This line almost made me choke on my coffee, as we all saw how the neighborhood got along with Annie back in the first episode. I found myself wondering: Is Val just saying this to be polite to Susan? Or does she legitimately believe it? At first I went for option one, but now I’m leaning towards option number two. After all, even though Annie was a bit of a hellion while she was in town, Val took her down to the beach and the two had a real heart-to-heart and then danced around in the ocean while the theme song played, right? So perhaps Val really does think of Annie as a terrific kid, I dunno.
Anyway, Annie’s mostly a plot device here, as Susan has shown up to get Sid to sign some sort of legal documents that would essentially entitle Annie to a bunch of money right away. Apparently she’s been getting a monthly allowance, but this document would mean she gets all this money in one big lump. Seem like a great idea for a wayward teenager who parties and drinks and presumably does drugs all night? No, I didn’t think so, but I also don’t think Susan really wants Sid to sign this document. My theory is that she has created some false reason to show up in Seaview Circle and try to woo Sid back, and the best reason she can think of is this bogus legal document that she knows full well Sid will not sign.
I have to say I find Don Murray kinda hilarious in the early portions of this episode. First, he’s working at Knots Landing Motors with Gary, and he gets the phonecall that his ex-wife is in town. He’s talking on the phone with Karen, and she’s all like, “Hey, I’m cool with this; let’s invite her to dinner,” and then Sid poops his pants and is like, “No, don’t do it!” Next time we see him, he’s running into the house like there are monsters outside chasing after him, slamming the door behind him all epic, clearly upset and anxious about his ex-wife’s arrival. We immediately can tell that he doesn’t trust his wife, that she was probably a duplicitous person in the past and that the sooner she leaves, the happier Sid will be. Indeed, as soon as she says why she’s here, Sid is like, “Are you crazy?” and rejects the stupid paper documents about Annie. Now Susan should leave and the episode should end, right? Mmmm, not so much, and I think we can predict where things are heading from here.
Susan begins a very desperate and very transparent act of seduction on Sid. Seriously, this chick is very obvious with her attempts to steal him away from Karen. First, he’s getting a midnight snack in the kitchen, and she comes waltzing in wearing a bathrobe or something and gives this big speech about, “Oh, same old Sid, he always needed his midnight snacks.” Take it from me, Claudette gets to go on a lot of long Shakespearean monologues in this episode, usually based around the theme of “Same old Sid.” Honestly, she gets right down to business here, as Sid is just trying to enjoy his late night glass of milk, but she saddles up to him and plants a great big old kiss on him. Oooh, how scandalous; will Sid be tempted? We must continue watching!
At the same time this is going on, we have some fabulous material for Karen, and Michele Lee does a tremendous job of erasing all her bad acting from the previous episode, Land of the Free. Here, she’s back to her usual self, delivering a fantastic performance full of warmth and heart and character. Just give her the Emmy; just do it! I find Karen remarkably complex in this episode, and I still can’t quite figure her out. She is so kind and polite towards Susan, going out of her way to make her feel welcome and at home, even inviting her to stay at the Fairgate house despite Sid’s vehement objections. The title of the episode is of course Civil Wives, and Karen is nothing if not civil towards Susan. But my question is: Why? While at her core, Karen is a good person who strives to do the right thing, a character trait she never loses throughout the fourteen seasons, I do think there’s a little streak of immaturity running through her, and I think it’s on display here. She feels a need to test Sid, despite knowing full well that her husband is a very fine and very honorable man who would not cheat on her, ever. Why, then, must she test him? It’s a complex thing, and I can see some viewers being aggravated with Karen’s behavior in this episode. After all, Sid tells her not to invite Susan for dinner, and she does so anyway. Then he tells her not to let her stay at the house, but she invites her to stay anyway. When Susan starts to pull the seduction act on Sid, you do get the feeling that Karen is at least partly to blame, don’t you think? Sid warns her that his ex-wife is trouble, but Karen ignores this and does her own thing.
But wait, it’s time to return to the moderately interesting B-storyline of the episode, Eric and Ginger. When we return to the pair, they are actually in Ginger’s bedroom (oooh, how scandalous), but before anything can get too saucy, Kenny-the-erection-killer comes walking in and immediately makes the scene more bland. Of course, Ginger is all excited to see him, and covers his face with kisses, and poor Eric has to stand in the corner and watch the girl he is crushing on make kissy with this….specimen. Eric looks all sad and, well, that’s pretty much it. One certainly gets the sense, in my opinion, that Eric is the one with the crush and Ginger is just woefully oblivious to his crush. Probably she just views him as the cute little teenage boy from the Fairgate house, nothing more. However, being invited to spend time one-on-one with her leaves Eric a bit confused and probably more than a bit horny.
Oh wait, but how could I almost forget about the C-story for this episode? Oh my, and I completely forgot about it until I went through my notes! See, we have a third and, arguably, best storyline in this episode involving Richard and Laura. As we saw back in Home is For Healing, Richard is getting a bit fidgety and looking to have a little affair. He tried unsuccessfully to screw Lucy, and he’s back in the saddle this week. See, we start off with Laura saying she wants to go to Pittsburgh to see her father (who I think we actually see physically in an upcoming episode), and she wants to take Jason along. At first, Richard is all like, “No, no, no, no, no.” It’s classic asshole Richard, who I believe is sipping a cocktail as he delivers the line. There’s really no reason in the world to forbid Laura from seeing her dad, but he’s just doing it because he can, because she will listen to him, because we are still at the point in the series where Laura is weak and does whatever Richard says (oh boy, will that ever change).
I also have to note that Richard is once again rocking his fabulous Hef attire. In addition to drinking his awesome cocktail (which, I think, is just brandy or maybe bourbon; it’s something brown, in any case), he’s also wearing the red robe with the chest hair showing, looking like a boss. The only Hef-instrument missing is the pipe, which is a shame, as we actually saw Richard smoking a pipe back in Pilot. We know you own a pipe, Richard, so where is it? The Hef ensemble is not complete without the pipe! Anyway, Sid gives Richard a call and asks him to come over and look at the documents. Richard takes his little drink and his amazing robe and heads over to the Fairgate house, where he meets Susan and everyone watching at home can actually hear the sound of his penis hardening. Why look, this woman is the perfect person to have an affair with! Richard returns home and immediately tells Laura that of course she can go to Pittsburgh and see her daddy, how nasty it was for him to forbid her beforehand. Isn’t that kind of Richard? Laura is all like, “Oh Richard, thank you!” We obviously know that Richard has some ulterior motives to this sudden act of generosity.
Susan probably can smell Richard’s horniness dripping off of him, but she still has eyes only for Sid. If I recall correctly, the next attempted act of seduction is when she visits him at Knots Landing Motors and gives a soliloquy that lasts, oh, let me look at my notes here, approximately seventeen hours. This speech also revolves around the theme of “Same old Sid,” with her extolling the virtues of his tremendous work ethic and general kindness and human decency. The scene concludes with her basically laying the cards out on the table, saying how she would like to sleep with Sid, but she doesn’t intend to steal him away from Karen and his children; all she needs is one night of unbridled Don Murray passion. Even so, Sid does not bite, and good for him.
I’ll take this moment to say that I would also not sleep with Susan, either. Sorry, Claudette, but Michele is just so much hotter than you, that’s all, and this is actually news to me. In my entire experience of watching KL the first time, I loved Karen and she was my favorite character from first episode to last, but I didn’t really think of her as sexy, you know? However, watching these early episodes again, she is really quite the babe, particularly when she got all dressed up and sexy in Let Me Count the Ways. I would take her over Claudette any day of the week, no question (if I haven't mentioned it yet, I should probably take a second to say that I am, in fact, gay, and wouldn't actually sleep with either Michele or Claudette but I would definitely sleep with Pat Petersen circa 1985 or so, and if any of you are wondering why, look no further than the photo below). Of course, Sid is a much more ethical man than me, and he’s not rejecting Susan because she’s not hot enough for him. No, he’s rejecting her because he loves Karen and does not want to destroy the life they’ve built together.
While we’re on the subject, this episode really helps us to understand a bit more about the relationship between Karen and Sid. We learn that they’ve been married for seventeen years (so they got married in 1963, presumably), and that, as we already know, Annie is a product of Sid’s first marriage to Susan. We realize officially that Diana, Eric, and Michael are Karen and Sid’s children biologically, which makes sense as I think Diana is fifteen or sixteen at this point in the series. We also learn, and this is most interesting, that Susan left Sid. If we’re gonna be in any suspense about whether he will cheat on Karen or not, this is the most important thing to note. Perhaps he still has feelings of love for Susan that never went away? Perhaps he still feels rejected when he looks at her? Certainly Susan refers to the Fairgate lifestyle as “Middle class,” and even though she tries to say it like, “Oh, how nice,” we can sense the true tone underneath, that she is a richie rich and thumbs her nose at “Middle class.” Why have a cozy neighborhood cul-de-sac when you can have a mansion and a butler and lounge around drinking by the pool all day?
The most startling scene of this episode, in my opinion, occurs when Karen looks Sid in the face and says, “Whatever you need to do, do it.” Um…..huh? Is Karen encouraging an affair here? Is she telling Sid to get the affair out of his system so that they can all move on? Or is this just a continuing part of her testing? Is she trying to push Sid to the very edge to see if he succumbs to Susan’s seduction? I’m really not sure, but the scene is very striking.
Before we get to the climax of the episode, we have to wrap up the little story about Eric and Ginger. In conclusion, the story goes pretty much nowhere. He comes over with a record, all excited to spend time with Ginger, and then she pretty much deflates his boner with one simple suggestion: That he should meet and go out with her fifteen year old sister. As soon as Eric hears this, he runs home like a little whiny bitch and, well, that’s pretty much it. Again, I must ask if the writers were playing the long game, because we do finally see Ginger’s sister way near the end of season two, and Eric does indeed date her briefly, in the episode called Man of the Hour. Were the writers really looking that far ahead? Doubtful, but it’s still interesting to note that Ginger’s line about her sister does plant seeds for an episode that won’t air for about another year.
We are about to go to our last commercial break, but before that, we have a dinner sequence featuring Karen, Sid, Susan, and Richard. Laura has been nicely shipped away for the time being (I think we even get a scene of Richard on the phone with her, encouraging her to stay in Pittsburgh longer), so he’s ready to cheat. But first Susan and Sid dance and she, again, tries to seduce him and, again, fails. Sorry, Susan, but you were married to the guy and you know he’s decent and you know he won’t cheat. Sid handles her like a pro and she instead goes off with Richard, who takes her on a nice drive and to a classic make-out spot where they can observe the beauty of California at night. Of course, after this, they drive off to a motel and, well, you can imagine what happens there.
The next day, we see Susan and Richard in the cheap motel, getting dressed after their night of passion. There’s a lot of boner-deflation going on in this episode, and we have one here, as well. See, Richard is like, “So that was fun, how about we start having an ongoing affair like the one I’m gonna have with Abby in season two?” Susan completely rejects this and reminds him that all she needed was one night of passion, and now she’s satisfied (more or less; obviously she truly wanted to screw Sid) and she can return home. Richard is left feeling, well, I dunno, maybe a little rejected? In any case, I think this I notable as the first affair we see Richard having on the show (his first affair ever, though? Who’s to say?).
Next up, we have another just-give-Michele-her-Emmy scene, and this one is very very great. See, it takes place in the cozy Fairgate kitchen. Like a good hostess, Karen gives Susan some coffee and lets her sit down at the table to visit, but then she gives this tremendous speech about how she truly feels about Susan. Michele plays this scene perfectly, as she’s really quite cutting towards Susan, but it’s not in a mean or nasty way; it’s all very calm and mature. She basically shuts her down completely and insures that she will be leaving town, but she just does it with such elegance and grace. Oh Karen, how I love you, and Michele, how I love your brilliant brilliant acting.
Anyway, Susan leaves town and, spoiler alert, we’re never gonna be seeing her again (but, again, I remind you that Sid will only be with the series until the very start of season three). Our final scene of the episode is a lovely and touching one between Sid and Karen. I’ll go ahead and say that, at this super early juncture in the series, Sid and Karen are my favorite couple (although they are getting strong competition from Laura and Richard, who I find endlessly fascinating) so I cherish every sequence between the two. The episode ends in a very loving way, with Karen confessing that she was being a bit of a schemer, testing Sid even though she knew he would pass the test. So why test him at all? She’s wonderfully frank about this, and apologizes for any hijinks she may have caused, and Sid reminds her that the last seventeen years have been very happy for him. The two kiss, we freeze frame, and the episode concludes.
I note with interest that this episode aired on Valentine’s Day of 1980, and I have to believe that was intentional. The entire theme of this episode is love, marriage, fidelity, all that crap, so it’s very fitting that it air on this particular holiday. Not only is that theme prevalent with Susan/Karen/Sid, but also in Eric’s crush on Ginger and Richard’s cheating on Laura. I think all three stories from the episode tie into the same general theme about love, which is nice and tidy.
As I said at the head of this essay, I didn’t really remember much about this episode one way or the other, but I’ll say now that I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. Perhaps this is the result of watching it directly after Land of the Free, which would make anything look better by comparison. If there’s a flaw to the episode, I’d say it’s that I felt no suspense, but perhaps that’s just because of my familiarity with the characters? I simply can’t believe that Sid would ever cheat on Karen, no matter what. I have this same problem much later in the series when they seem to return to “Will Mack have an affair with fill-in-the-blank?” over and over and over again and, once again, I don’t see Kevin Dobson’s character ever hurting his wife in such a way. It’s the same here; Sid would never do this, so I’m not watching with my breath bated to see what happens.
But is that a flaw? I don’t think this episode is about suspense; I think it’s just about characters. Since I love these characters so much, I could probably watch them do anything and I’d find it fascinating. With this episode, it’s interesting to see how Karen behaves while testing Sid, and it’s interesting to see how he reacts to Susan’s obvious attempts to get him. Even Susan, who is just a one episode character, is pretty interesting to watch. Claudette Nevins plays her not as a vamping sex-pot, but sorta a pathetic, washed up middle aged woman desperate for attention. I feel the other nighttime soaps would make her this really sexy lady, a true temptress for Sid, but KL is deeper and better; it presents her more human, a real character and not just an obstacle faced for this episode.
I probably could have gone with a little bit more to the Ginger/Eric storyline, some sort of culminating point, but if I imagine the writers just planning way ahead, I find the storyline much better. Also, I love that we get the first Richard affair in this episode and I also love that it’s played so blasé. Again, the other nighttime soaps would probably make a big thing out of this affair, but in this episode, it happens and then we move on, knowing that Richard will likely cheat again.
While this isn’t the greatest episode ever and is not a classic like Let Me Count the Ways, I was surprised by my level of enjoyment of the episode and I thought it had plenty of good qualities worth talking about and discussing. Will I feel the same way about our next episode? After all, this will be our first, gulp, Ginger-centric episode, and we all know how I feel about this character. But let’s talk about that when we talk about that, next week, in a discussion of our next episode, The Constant Companion.