Episode Title: Arsenic and Old Waste
Season 07, Episode 26
Episode 156 of 344
Written by David Paulsen
Directed by David Paulsen
Original Airdate: Thursday, April 10th, 1986
The Plot (Courtesy of TV.Com): Ben's really upset about Cathy leaving. He tells her that he isn't the twins' father. He goes to the beach house with a gift for her and they make out. Val is worried because she feels Ben slipping away from her. Jill tells Gary that she can't see him because she's in love with him, but doesn't want to be. Peter apologizes to Sylvia for his threats. Mack finds out that the reservoir at Lotus Point is loaded with arsenic. Abby admits that Galveston dumped arsenic at Empire Valley. Greg tells Laura that Galveston left Gary the land because he knew it was polluted, but he wants to buy it anyway, because he hates to lose. Everyone argues over who is responsible for cleaning up Empire Valley. Gary thinks Greg should, as Galveston dumped the chemicals. Greg thinks Gary should, as his explosion started the leak.
When we last left off, Eric was deathly ill and in critical condition at the hospital after suffering arsenic poisoning. I wasn’t particularly invested in Eric’s sickness and don’t really care all that much about the storyline, but whatever, it’s gonna keep going this ep and, I would argue, become more interesting than it was in the previous couple of eps. Let’s just go ahead and dive right in and get started with our last lap of season seven eps. So yeah, we open up right away on sick Eric lying in a hospital bed, looking like a wreck. Again, I attempt to wash my brain out from all prior knowledge of what happens on the series and pretend like I am watching it for the first time and I ask myself: Would I think Eric is going to die? I think I would stick with “probably not,” but I’d also feel like it’s not outside of the realm of possibility, as we all remember what happened roughly five years ago when Sid Fairgate checked into a hospital. At the same time, I don’t think I would care all that much, and that just boils down to a problem I’ve had since day one in which I fail to feel invested in Eric, even though he has cool moments and I have no problems with his character.
We can add to the Sumner Cigar Counter good and quick, as we see Sumner enjoying Cigar #14 out on the patio of his sexy office when Laura comes to visit him. This is a lovely little scene between the two, as Laura says how she waited something like an hour for him to show up and he never did, and when he says how he got a little tied up, she says, “You’re standing here doing nothing.” “Nothing?” Greg replies before adding, “I’m conducting, making sure the cars go in the right direction, softening up the noise of the sirens, maybe adding a crash or two.” A funny line and good delivery, but I think we can all see that something is bothering Greg and that something has been bothering him for weeks or even months. It’s not too hard to figure out what’s eating at him; I imagine he feels like his whole life is something of a failure. In this ep, he sorta recaps his adventures over the last three seasons and reminds Laura about how he gave up his seat in the senate in order to work on Empire Valley and then that all went up in smoke quite literally, so perhaps he’s feeling some reticence to attempt a new project, fearing it could end up an equal failure to his others.
Meanwhile, Abs is still debating over how to handle her knowledge of what’s infecting the grounds below Empire Valley, but she does the right thing this ep by telling Karen and Mack the truth pretty quickly. Actually, maybe I’m being a smidge too generous with her, because I just went to double check and it’s actually at about the thirty minute mark in this ep that Abs lets it all out, so she still keeps mum for more than half the ep. However, realizing that Eric’s health is seriously at stake and that this is not a problem to be taken lightly, she pulls Karen and Mack aside at the hospital to level with them, telling them the arsenic is coming from discarded hazardous materials at Empire Valley, courtesy of Galveston Industries. This is an interesting scene, because Karen gets angry and says, “Why didn’t you tell us this before?” and Abs says, “I am telling you,” and Mack actually kinda comes to her difference by saying, “She is.” Karen is still mad and points out that Abs has been sitting on this info for a couple of days, to which Abs replies, “Don’t you dare accuse me of sitting on something like this.”
Before this scene, however, we have an Abs scene that is even more interesting. See, there’s a scene of Karen, Olivia, and Abs all gathered together, observing sick Eric in his hospital bed, and then Abs gets reflective for a moment and says, “He reminds me so much of Sid,” and then goes on for a moment about how Sexy Michael looks more like Sid than Eric does (which I would highly disagree with), and then she says, “Maybe it’s his sweetness; Sid was always so sweet, so strong,” and she adds how sometimes, when she’s alone, she’ll find herself thinking about Sid. Wow, do I have a lot to say about this small, quiet little scene. First off, as I always point out whenever Sid’s name pops up, I admire that this character is never completely forgotten; he will still be mentioned in 1986 even though he died on the series way back in 1981. Most other shows, at this point, would probably assume nobody remembers this character anymore, but he still comes up in conversation right up to this point, and I’ll keep my ears open in future seasons to see if he gets mentioned again (I read that we get a mention of Sid as late as season fourteen). Also, I note that this ep was written and directed by David Paulsen, so I appreciate the fact that he does a good job of bringing up past histories and events that occurred well before he was ever involved on the series; this shows that he was paying attention and making sure to show respect for the stories that came before. Finally, I just love that this is a moment of true, genuine, 100% honest emotion from Abs. She is not bringing up the memory of her late brother for any duplicitous purpose or to try and get away with something, but rather because the memory comes to her and she starts speaking aloud about it. I can imagine some television suit asking the writers to ditch this scene, probably saying something like, “That character’s been dead for five years and this little speech has nothing to do with the main plot,” but I’m glad the scene is here because it keeps Abs fascinating to watch. If you removed this scene, you would lose a great look into Abby’s naked emotions, and it’s those glimpses that keep her so multidimensional and fascinating to watch.
Eric’s health eventually improves enough that he is able to open his eyes and speak to his mother. This is an important scene, see, because for a good chunk of the ep, the characters are running around trying to figure out what’s wrong with their water, thinking that their entire supply of water, including the drinking water, is tainted. Everyone has been assuming that Eric was swimming in the pool and that’s where he got the arsenic, so they’re confused when they test the pool and discover there’s no arsenic to be found there. After waking up, Eric informs Karen that he wasn’t swimming in the pool, but rather a reservoir out closer to the Empire Valley area. Hmmmm, well that certainly helps explain things, no?
J.B. and Gary are still not seeing each other, although Gary remains confused over what exactly lead to J.B.’s abrupt exodus from his life. Fortunately, J.B. decides to show up at his hotel in this ep just to further confuse him by saying how she was in love with him, but she doesn’t really want to be in love with him, something like that. “I fell in love with you. I don’t want to be in love with you. I can’t. I need some time, Gary.” Gary looks confused and annoyed by this declaration, but perhaps he’s actually wondering why J.B. showed up at his hotel looking so awful. For whatever reason, J.B. has decided to wear a trench coat that would be right at home on some fat white guy driving his van with no windows over to the local elementary school, plus she seems to have just recently showered and not dried her hair, so that’s not looking too good either. I don’t mean to pick on J.B.’s appearance since I generally find her very beautiful and luminous to look at, but this creepy trench coat and wet hair is hardly her best look.
Probably the last story to explore in this ep is the burgeoning romantic relationship between Ben and Cathy. When we first catch up with Ben this ep, he’s in the shower, tuned out as Val talks to him from outside, looking distracted and upset. He’s in a classic angry man position in the shower, both of his hands plastered to the wall directly in front of him while he stands motionless with the water pouring down over his head, not moving or speaking. Val is standing at the sink and talking about Cathy’s decision to go on tour, how it will probably do her good to get away from everyone for awhile. Val says something like, “She’s been through a lot and the writers aren’t giving her anything to do, so maybe it’s better that she go away for awhile; don’t you think, Ben?” and she only gets crickets from inside the shower. When she points out how he seems so quiet, Ben attempts a bit of humor by flinging the shower door open and singing opera, or something. I didn’t really love this moment because I didn’t find it very funny, but then I thought more about the context of the scene and whether it’s actually supposed to be funny, and now I think I like it better. Ben is distracted and thinking about adultery, so when Val calls him out for seeming distant, he tries to act goofy and silly the way he often does, as a way of saying, “Why look, everything is so fine that I’m acting goofy and funny, just like my usual self!” The fact that he isn’t funny really just helps to sell that he’s got a lot of stuff on his mind.
Later, Val and Lilimae have a little chat in the kitchen while Lilimae prepares something delicious for dinner. Val is upset that Ben is busy all hours at the television station and that he hasn’t bothered to call, but Lilimae reminds her that there were plenty of times when Val got too busy and didn’t call, either. Lilimae also lets loose one of her more laughable whoppers by saying, “You know that I don’t interfere with you and Ben.” I had to snort at this line, because I’d say Lilimae is remembering a very different version of events concerning her behavior throughout, well, nearly every episode ever since Ben was first introduced onto the series. I can vividly remember Val and Ben having a real hard time getting to know each other back then because of the interference of a certain mama, and I think we can all remember her screaming, “Get out of here, Ben Gibson!” at him during the sordid events of Chip Roberts’ death, and then of course she’s been a huge pain in the ass for him throughout season six and a good chunk of season seven, as well. Is Lilimae saying how she doesn’t interfere with Ben and Val now? I guess you could argue that’s true, since she’s been a lot nicer to him since the whole “guardian angel named Joshua” speech back in Irrevocably Yours.
Next up, we see Ben hanging around Pacific Cable Whatever on Saturday, saying something about how it’s easier to get things done on the weekend without a bunch of people around. This is probably true, but I’d be curious to know exactly what work Ben has to do, as he appears to just be sitting around, moping. After awhile, he makes his way to a room with a piano and starts playing a bit, only for Cathy to come walking in a second later. I like the little detail in this scene where Cathy sneaks up on Ben and scares him; this made me flashback to her vacuuming and getting scared by, um, Val (?) somewhere in season six or so, and it’s just a nice little thing to put in the scene. You could easily just have her walk in and be like, “Hi, Ben!” and then let the scene play out the same way, but having this little accidental scare adds a special something to the scene. After scaring the shit out of Ben, Cathy reminds him, “You never danced with me at the fundraiser even though I was wearing that super sexy and weird looking bikini thing that exposed pretty much my entire body except for my boobs.”
This leads the two characters into a slow dance together set to soft piano music. At first, I wondered if Ben was working with one of those self playing pianos and if this music was a continuation of that piano, but now I feel pretty comfortable saying the music we hear is the score of the show and not music that the characters can hear. Anyway, we cut back real fast to Val and Lilimae (they’re watching TV and Val declares, “That’s a stupid program; I don’t know why you watch it,” making me wonder exactly what 1986 show they could have been watching, and then in my brain I just decided to make it Miami Vice and I’m gonna go ahead and stick to that belief) and then we cut back to Cathy and Ben dancing. To be clear, this is definitely the dance of two people about to have an affair; it’s slow and romantic and tender and thoughtful, not just two people dancing together for a little bit of fun. It all feels very intimate, and then it gets more intimate when Cathy brings up, GASP, Val’s babies. She talks about what Greg said at the fundraiser, how he implied the babies weren’t Ben’s, and she asks why he would say that. We get an agonizing several seconds of silence before Ben finally answers, “Because they’re not,” and then we go to a commercial.
Yikes! I liked this scene and I liked Ben telling Cathy the truth about the babies, but I also felt like the punch this scene was probably supposed to provide was, um, lacking. Part of this might be my own knowledge of events to come. Try as I might to fully wash my brain out of future proceedings, it’s not always so easy to do. In this case, I know that Lisa is on her way out of the series, that she just has four more eps after this one and then she will be leaving the show forever. Also, because of my memories from my college watching, I also know that Cathy doesn’t use this information for any bad purpose and/or go around telling other people about it, so I know that this is going to lead to basically nothing. Even so, let me try and pretend that it’s 1986 and I’m watching the series week to week and I don’t know that Cathy is about to leave the series and I’ll try to see what possibilities I might have theorized for future series events.
Well, being that Ben and Cathy are obviously about to have an affair, I would probably theorize that the truth about Val’s babies would lead them to getting together for more than just an affair, perhaps forever. I imagine I would have a strong suspicion that Ben was about to leave Val and declare that he no longer loves her and has fallen in love with Cathy. I would also theorize that, maybe just maybe, we would wind up seeing a more wicked and calculating side of Cathy’s character, that perhaps all this could lead to some sort of verbal showdown between her and Val in which Cathy winds up using her knowledge about the twins’ paternity as some form of blackmail against Val. My third theory (and the one that would probably wind up being closest to being true) is that Ben and Cathy would have their affair, decide they love each other, and quietly leave town together, never to be heard from again. Based on my own research, I think this is actually the storyline that was originally planned out, that both Lisa and Douglas were gonna take a hike after season seven but, for whatever reason, Mr. Sheehan decided to stick around for one more season after this. I’ll talk more about this development as we get closer to the end of the season, especially with how this so obviously seems like what is meant to happen as we conclude season seven.
Ben and Cathy’s romantic dance made its way into the thirty second preview, but it’s yet another example of the preview kinda tricking us, because nothing sexual actually happens during the dance. However, a little bit later, Ben pays a visit to his old Plant House, where Cathy is now living, and finds her dressed in, well, almost nothing. All she’s wearing is what we learn is one of Ben’s shirts and no pants. Now, I’m fairly certain that she’s wearing underwear, although I don’t recall us seeing an actual shot of it. Perhaps we can all make this scene a little steamier by imagining that Cathy is actually going commando, sorta like Julianne Moore’s fabulous bottomless scene in Short Cuts. Also, note the way that Ben responds when Cathy asks who’s at the door. He says, “Your landlord,” which is sorta a funny line, but he says it super quiet, super stoical, sounding very sad. I think what we are seeing here is two people giving in to their raw carnal desires, and I think we can tell that Ben is feeling rather shitty about that even as he finds himself helpless to avoid it. Ben also tells a little story about how he was at work and he went to her dressing room to tell her something but, “The room was empty; all the Cathy things were gone.” He delivers this line in the same sad tone, adding to the complexity of it all. Maybe Ben doesn’t necessarily want to cheat on Val, but he’s feeling truly sad that Cathy is going away. I’m not sure if I believe Ben is in love with Cathy or not, but certainly they have a special friendship and have had that special friendship since late season six, when Ben first started to come to her defense against the tyrannical abuse of Joshua.
The moment of embrace is possibly the most interesting part of this whole sequence. See, Ben is standing off in a corner and Cathy approaches him somewhat timidly. It’s in this part that we learn she’s wearing his shirt, as Ben observes so and says, “I’ve been wondering where that shirt went.” Then they start to get close and Ben sorta whispers, “I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy; I love my wife.” Cathy says, “I know,” and then Ben says, “I love my children; I have a good life,” and Cathy says, “I know, you shouldn’t be here,” but it’s too late. Ben has put his hand on Cathy’s shoulder and now Cathy is touching Ben’s arm and, wouldn’t you know it, now they are kissing, and that’s how we end this ep.
Do I like this affair storyline? I’m actually gonna have to get back to you on that, and I’ll refrain from completely answering the question until I’ve finished talking about the whole season. If I’m not mistaken, this storyline is fairly unpopular with most fans, yet I honestly think I might like it. First off, I’m not one of those people that condemns other people to Hell because they have an affair or an isolated indiscretion. I think these things are complicated and that the reason men might want to cheat usually boils down to them feeling stifled by monogamy. Also, the fact that they have been planting the seeds for this affair for so long really help it in my eyes. My memory was that the affair just came out of nowhere in the closing hours of the season, but really Ben and Cathy have been flirting with having an affair for the whole year, pretty much, so it feels much less abrupt upon this viewing. Perhaps one of the reasons fans don’t like this storyline is because it soils characters who are inherently good and ethical people. Ben is a good person and so is Cathy, so maybe people just don’t like watching two good people have an affair? In any case, I think I actually like this storyline, but I’ll have to wait awhile before I make up my mind definitively.
Okay, that oughta about do it for Arsenic and Old Waste. This episode was fine, but also nothing too terribly special. I fear that I might just keep making that statement for the rest of the season, as things sorta wind down and we get ready for the start of a new era of KL, that Latham/Lechowick era of five seasons that I designated as the third era of the series, spanning 1986 to 1991. I’m actually pretty eager to get started with season eight, since I think it will kick things into gear a little more after the somewhat meandering storytelling structure of the latter part of season seven. Anyway, this episode was good and all, there was nothing really bad about it, but it also was just kinda there, not really doing a lot to elevate it up and make it superb. There were plenty of things I liked, which I made sure to note, most especially that callback to Sid via Abs, but it also felt a little lifeless.
We’ve got just four eps left in the season, so without further ado, let’s move right along to A Change of Heart.