Sharpen your No. 2 pencils, kids, because it’s time to go to school. On this week’s episode of Army Wives, Roxy is cramming for her GED test, with a healthy dose of geometry as her main course. Roxy’s learning all about how to calculate the area and volume of shapes, with the calculation of the area of a circle her crowning achievement. Fortunately, Roxy has the kind and gentle Roland for a teacher. If she had me, she’d be faced with the diabolical challenge of taking the area of that circle and being asked to construct a square of the same area.
It’s called "squaring the circle," and it’s one of the most famous problems in mathematics. It’s famous because it sounds innocuous enough, but it is in fact impossible. You cannot draw a square with the same area as a given circle. You can approximate it, but you can never get it exactly right.
I love the metaphorical idea of squaring the circle, less because I am a math geek – though assuredly I am – but more so because it’s one of those wonderful scientific concepts that’s even better in real life than it is in a science textbook. Metaphorically, the idea that it’s impossible to square a circle is such a rich visual picture. Once your metaphorical circle is broken, it’s awfully hard to get it back. Go back to school once again. Think about your circle of high school friends. Chances are you thought you’d be friends with those people forever. But once that circle is broken, chances are you’re never going to square it back up. It’s the same with any group, really. Once a circle is broken, squaring it back to normal is really hard.
I mention this because it’s the problem that Army Wives is facing these days. The circle of friends which was at the heart of this show originally is usually scattered these days, everyone off in their own disconnected plotlines, and that’s problematic. Some of these individual character plotlines are good, some are not so good, but they’re all generally isolated from each other in any case. It’s downright surprising that this episode offers two scenes in which the principal circle of friends – Claudia Joy, Roxy, Pamela, Denise and Roland – are all together in a single scene. That only rarely seems to happen these days, when it seemed like it happened all the time in the first season.
I was struck by that idea in the past week when pondering the fact that Claudia Joy really hadn’t had a plotline of her own in the last several weeks. Kim Delaney is theoretically the lead in the ensemble, so you expect Claudia Joy to be prominently involved in her own plotlines more than anyone else, but the character had taken a back seat in the past few weeks. I was expecting a new Claudia Joy plotline to come down the pipeline, and indeed that happens in this episode. But really, that’s the wrong thing to be asking for, looking for plotlines for individual characters. The show isn’t necessarily operating at peak proficiency when it’s doling out individual plotlines to everybody. The show is probably at its best when a Claudia Joy plotline is a Roxy plotline is a Pamela plotline – that is, when the characters are more closely connected to one another, facing the world alongside one another. Though I’d say that the writing in season two has ultimately been stronger and crisper in season two than in season one, it’s still disappointing that the show seems to be having trouble with what should be its core competency, which is the focus on communalism that makes life on an Army post so inspiring. The circle is fractured. Squaring it up may be a difficult task.
As far as that Claudia Joy plotline goes, her mother arrives in town, and Claudia Joy starts stressing out, as any child does when a mother is coming to town. This visit is more stressful than most, however, because she is showing up largely unannounced, only making her presence known the morning of her arrival. She also arrives without Claudia Joy’s father, much to the confusion of Claudia Joy.
It turns out that she ran away from home. She has left Claudia Joy’s father, and is planning on getting a divorce. Claudia Joy’s mother keeps pushing her away and not opening up about what exactly happened, but eventually Claudia Joy wears her down and learns that money is the root of the problem. Specifically, Claudia Joy’s parents don’t have any. They’ve gone broke, which Claudia Joy’s mother attributes to Claudia Joy’s father developing a gambling addiction. Claudia Joy is confused about the whole thing – the divorce, the bankruptcy, the gambling, all of it.
Gambling is something of a theme in this episode. Roland’s storyline reveals how serving in the Army can be quite the monetary gamble in itself. Roland counsels a student of his, a young man named Jake whose father has recently died in Iraq. We learn about the "death gratuity," one of the odder turns-of-phrase you could come across. It’s a $500,000 payoff to the family of a soldier who dies. "Seems like a soldier’s worth more dead than alive," Trevor notes.
The death of a loved one and the grief it puts people in aside, having the government sign over a huge check to you is a little like winning the lottery. And much like regular lottery winners, recipients often get themselves into trouble with their new money. Jake starts going on a spending spree, buying Roland an expensive watch and then buying himself a fancy new convertible. He’s just a kid; he doesn’t know financial planning.
Roland and Jake’s story soon turns from a money issue into a whole other issue altogether, which is that Jake starts to latch onto Roland as a father figure now that his own dad is gone. Jake eventually more or less admits that. He and his father were never especially close. "These last couple weeks, I spent more time with you than I ever spent with him," he says to Roland. Roland realizes that what he really needs to do is fix the weakened relationship between Jake and his own mother. Mrs. Tate hasn’t dealt with her grief very well, and it’s fracturing the bond between her and her son. The death gratuity hasn’t been kind to Mrs. Tate either. She feels guilty about the money, because this kind of nasty winning lottery ticket is the family’s own comeuppance. The only reason Mr. Tate was still on active duty rather than retiring was that he needed to pass a hurdle of a certain number of years served in order to collect a full pension. It was a gamble, really, a lottery ticket. Mr. Tate lost the gamble, his family won the lottery, and it’s an awful result for everybody.
Speaking of awful results, Trevor is no longer slowly approaching one, but rather sprinting towards it. Trevor’s continuing down the druggie path. He talks to a fellow soldier, who tips him off about a local doctor who’s very liberal about writing up painkiller prescriptions if Trevor needs an extra helping. It’s a doctor who wears a Hawaiian shirt to work. I’m going to go ahead and say that a guy wearing a Hawaiian shirt is probably far less deserving of the title of doctor, and more just a pusher.
Roxy is taking the GED, for real this time, on an audio test. Roxy’s test montage is scored by Band of Horses’ "The Funeral," one of those occasional songs that’s a huge hit on TV and commercial soundtracks despite never being a radio hit. But the montage is cut short – Roxy quits on the test midway through and just walks out. She’s OK with it at first – she already didn’t have the degree, so it’s not like she’s losing anything – until she sees hidden notes of congratulations that T.J. and Finn had made up in advance and realizes she’s letting them down. She asks Roland to take the test again, and she passes.
Finally, we have Denise and Frank. Denise is grieving over Getti’s death, but it’s a confused kind of grief. She never really figured out for sure her feelings for Getti while he was alive, so him being dead just makes things even more confusing. Denise still hasn’t cleared the air with Frank about Getti. Claudia Joy says that Denise needs to make an effort to show Frank how much she still loves him. Denise already lost one man she cared about; she can’t afford to drive Frank away too, whether it’s just driving him away emotionally or losing Frank for good.
Frank finally steps into the breach. "Must have been hard on you, that doctor dying, huh?" he opens. Denise makes a swift defense, saying that his death was hard on everyone who works at the hospital. Frank won’t let her get away with that; he says that he saw Denise kiss Getti’s hand at the hospital while she was with him. "I have to ask you if he’s the reason why we fought so much while I was away," he finally asks. No, Denise says, they just fought because she was trying new experiences and he was frustrated by it. Denise is spinning things back against Frank rather than admit the truth about herself. "He was just a doctor at the hospital, Frank." Frank says he’s sorry, that he must have just been irrationally paranoid.
Denise gets a surprise call from Getti’s father, who wants to meet. Getti Sr. tells Denise that his son really loved Denise. "He wanted to tell you, but he couldn’t. So I’m telling you for him. If he had to die, I’m happy he died in love," says the father. Denise can’t handle it anymore. When she arrives home, she has to confess to Frank. "We got close. Too close. But it was over before you got back." She admits that they kissed, once, and that was the full extent of it. Frank asks if Denise loved him, and Denise can only answer honestly and say that she doesn’t know.
Frank ends up running into Michael. Frank says he wants to cut short his leave and head back overseas. Michael says that that’s crazy, for Frank to want to cut short his precious time with his family. Frank admits that he and Denise are having problems, and he just wants to get back to his comfort zone. "You and I both know that the worst thing in the field is a soldier worried about problems back home," Michael observes. Michael starts showing the sort of man-to-man leadership that undoubtedly made him a general in the first place. He tells Frank that he is a soldier and a husband, both at the same time, and he must work equally hard at both of them. "You love her?" he asks. "Then fight. For her, for your family." Frank takes the advice to heart, and approaches Denise later on to speak openly. He says that he loves her and he wants to fight for their marriage. Denise says they should consult a marraige counselor. And that’s where we’ll pick things up when class resumes. Don’t forget to do your homework.
OK, class, your essay assignment for homework is as follows: Is the dissonance between individual character storylines this year troubling, or do you think it might be more accurately reflective of an Army post, in which people are bound to share some experiences but they still have independent lives and individual struggles? Were things really more tightly connected in season one, or is it merely revisionist history and idealizing the past? Do you want the characters to be more tightly knit … or do you fear the fact that the most likely way for the characters to be brought together is to have them face a shared tragedy?