Screenshot: Bravo

Despite its attempts to convince us of genuine authenticity, The Real Housewives is still a heavily produced, often guided drama. As viewers come to recognize this, the franchise has slowly inserted boom mics and producers into the background of various scenes. And as blog posts and Instagram DMs continue to guide the Housewives’ personal lives, this blurring between the production and the action has never been more apparent! Imagine my surprise when an entire film crew ran across frame last week to chase the women of The Real Housewives of Potomac, along with the rapidly fading sunlight.

As this season caught up to the long-awaited drama surrounding Ashley Darby and her husband, there was, on the part of the cast, an unnerving cavalierness to the flood of blog posts and TMZ push notifications the morning the news broke. Robyn ate a bowl of fruit and excitedly screamed, “Oh my god!”—while Gizelle’s reaction was evident in the near-constant text messages to Robyn. In an interaction likely cut from Ari Astor’s horror masterpiece Hereditary, Ashley was informed of the news in a discount party supplies store in last week’s episode, while Katie did her best impression of a rack of greeting cards. Her wig, as askew as my grasp on the unfolding events, cemented the scene as one of the Housewives’ most iconically absurd.

TMZ first reported that Ashley’s husband Michael Darby was charged with sexual assault in September 2018. The news rocked the general community of Housewives fanatics, as the allegations were unprecedented in the franchise’s 15-year history. A cameraman had accused Darby of groping him during a party, filmed for this current season, at cast member Monique Samuels’s house. According to the initial court filings, Darby grabbed the cameraman before turning around and giving him a “flirtatious look.” Orville Palmer, who filed the allegations, later told his supervisor. Production subsequently suspended filming.

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It’s taken nearly a year for Bravo to air the footage surrounding the event and its immediate aftermath. Expectedly, battle lines have been drawn and friendships torn asunder. But even in the most serious of circumstances, this is still The Real Housewives. During a group trip after the news breaks, Karen Huger can’t help but exclaim: “Karma is a bitch, honey! Clankity clank!” The internal logic of the franchise dictates morality and ratings stand as equals. And despite the obvious production interference, Real Housewives of Potomac has proved it’s the only franchise capable of tackling such issues with equal measures of levity and seriousness.

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Most of the promotional material and buildup this season alluded to the assault allegations primarily through the use of dramatic flash forwards and flashbacks to Michael Darby’s past behavior. I dreaded it; the Housewives franchise is notoriously terrible in dealing with sexuality. Throughout the season, viewers have been reminded of the many comments Michael had made about other men’s bodies, including the moment he was overheard admitting he wanted to “suck the sausage” of a (still) unnamed husband. Bravo even resurfaced an encounter from the first season, during which Michael “playfully” groped Katie Rost’s ex-fiancé. (Ashley, in each of these moments, vehemently denied wrongdoing.) Knowing where this season’s storyline was building—the “unmasking” of Michael Darby—I was hesitant to engage with the preceding accusations outside the context of the recent assault. After all, Andy Cohen has commented at reunions quite frequently that his court of embattled women have no grasp on contextually navigating gay as an identity outside of the hairdressers and makeup artists they keep on retainer.

In fact, the Housewives approach to sexual identities that fall outside the prescribed heterosexuality ingrained in the show’s ethos has been well-documented. When husband’s find themselves embroiled in “gay rumors,” there’s generally a season of feverish whispering on the sanctity of heterosexuality peppered with outdated jokes about “putting it in the butt.” The list of women whose husbands have endured “the blog cycle” include: Tamra Judge, Kim Fields, Porsha Williams, Cary Deuber, Alex McCord, and Joanna Krupa.

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Surprisingly, it seems Housewives is evolving with the times, based on the last two episodes of RHOP. Instead of the usual homophobic candor, the women stress that sexuality and preferences did not factor into their hesitation in engaging with Ashley after the news about Michael broke. Gizelle, multiple times throughout Sunday night’s episode, says some version of: “I don’t care if it’s a man or a woman, I care that it’s disrespectful to you.” But Candiace, the nemesis of Ashley this season, who isn’t content with Gizelle’s approach of “supporting” Ashley from the sidelines. In the closing moments, Candiace comically exclaims: “But he could go to jail! What are we even talking about?”

Ashley has maintained her husband’s innocence throughout the season. It’s important to note that the charges against Michael were dropped in the months following the alleged assault. Viewers are experiencing it from a vantage point where the outcome has already been decided; the women did not share in this privilege last September. In recognizing that, I found myself overcome by a terrifying captivation for this storyline’s eventual climax, and shocked after Karen threatened Michael with a metaphorical bar of soap (which was itself a petty callback to Ashley’s remark about Karen’s husband’s tax issues). When Candiace threw a butter knife in the direction of Ashley—midway through revealing the aforementioned sausage-sucking comment—I couldn’t look away! Monique, speaking on behalf of me personally, screamed: “I will drag you, pregnant and all!” Despite its overproduced nature, there was something so human in the strife the news bred amongst the cast.

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Some women, like Candiace and Karen and Monique, immediately expressed their abject distrust of Michael. They also called into question Ashley’s continued support of her husband, asking how anyone could stand by someone whose actions could very well put him in prison. Monique’s husband, Chris Samuels, summarizing their couples’ night, decrees: “If Michael did it, and he’s guilty, he needs to be roasted.” Another unlikely alliance between a begrudging Gizelle and the “totally fine” Ashley, desperate for support as the blogs waged war against her personal life. The scene at the Darbys’ “Australian themed” restaurant Oz is a striking portrait of how one might react if assault allegations sprang up about a friend’s partner. Gizelle, although firm in her belief that Michael is guilty, stresses her commitment to “supporting Ashley”—even if Ashley’s claim that she and Michael are “stronger than ever” is, quite frankly, absurd. Pressing the issue, Gizelle asks the most important question of the episode: “Is Ashley okay with the butt squeeze?”

As for Ashley, I felt nothing of her reaction but a deep and troubling sadness. Speaking to a therapist, she admits that she is sticking up for him so that it can “strengthen our relationship” and, eventually, their desire to have children together. (Housewives, please stop hiring therapists and “life coaches” willing to read you on national television.) She also admits that she sees Michael as a paternal figure, and it’s here that I recognize the power imbalance baked into their marriage. Remember, before she was a reality TV star with a larger income, Michael was financially supporting both her and her extended family. His fights with Ashley about the home for her mother (which he’d paid for) were excruciating enough last season. Hearing her admit that there is a paternalism at the core of their marriage makes it worse and puts her defense of her husband into perspective.

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There’s almost half a season left to watch these women sort out the allegations and the shifting alliances they’ve been thrust into. As expected, conversations around consent and assault continue to evolve and bleed into our late-night viewing. But as Real Housewives of Potomac has illustrated so far this season, the public still has quite a distance to travel before we understand how to approach such discussions when they enter both our entertainment and our personal domain. As women debated bars of soap, prison sentences, bisexual cheaters, and “swinger” marriages, I was forced to think of how I might react if my close friend’s—or coworkers’—partner found themselves embroiled in assault allegations. My job as a cultural voyeur requires that I move like Candiace and dig for the truth. Even messily, and even when it gets me dragged by my pregnant best friend at our enemy’s farmstead hoe-down.