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When two ‘Wives’ go to war

Don’t get between a ‘Desperate’ mother and her murderous son. By Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
/ Source: msnbc.com

On Wisteria Lane, two "Desperate Housewives" are caught in sickening maternal dilemmas. Betty Applewhite, the street's newest resident, leads a life still cloaked in mystery, but one thing seems clear. Her son, Caleb, is wanted for the murder of Chicago teen Melanie Foster.

Bree Van De Kamp, so outwardly flawless, tried to welcome Betty into the neighborhood, but admittedly Ms. Applewhite wasn't exactly putting out a welcome mat. So when Bree spotted Caleb, now a fugitive from justice, hiding in Betty's upstairs, she was prepared to spill the beans to her poker pals. But Betty wasn't going to let go of her son without a fight. Armed with information son Matthew learned from Bree's daughter, Danielle, she revealed her own cards: If Bree tells on Caleb, so, too, will Betty tell on Andrew. In an almost-forgotten plot, he once ran down Carlos Solis' mother, resulting in the hospitalization during which she died.

They're an interesting pair, Bree and Betty. Of the many women on Wisteria Lane, they're perhaps the most secretive two, yet in distinctly different ways.

On the surface, Bree had it all: Beautiful home, handsome children, doctor husband. Yet from the very first episode, her problems roiled. Her marriage had long since fallen apart, with Rex seeking sexual satisfaction (via domination) elsewhere. Daughter Danielle seemed content to warily circle her mother, but Andrew was looking for out-and-out war, especially after he was sent to a kind of teen boot camp.

Betty's mysterious pastBetty's life is more clouded with mystery. She moved onto Wisteria Lane at the end of last season, seemingly in a desperate hurry, buying a house she'd never seen in person. She arrived with Matthew, who appears to be her teenage son, but the way she touched him in an early episode had some viewers clucking about their real relationship.

DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES - \"That's Good, That's Bad\" - Lynette takes charge of office politics, Gabrielle is jealous of Carlos' new 'holier-than-thou' confidante, and Betty tries to help Caleb, on \"Desperate Housewives,\" SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 27 (9:00-10:01 p.m., ET) on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/PETER \"HOPPER\" STONE) MARCIA CROSSPeter / ABC, INC.

Her husband? We don't know him yet, but she told her doctor that his name is Virgil, and that he beat their young son to death for spilling soda. When the doctor said he hoped Virgil was punished, she tightly announced "There was retribution, I made sure of that."

Unanswered questions abound with that revelation. How did Betty seek revenge on Virgil? Did Virgil really kill a son of theirs? A more likely scenario, given what we've seen on screen, was that Betty's exaggerating abuse into murder, and that the son in question is really Caleb.

Perhaps Virgil did beat their son, but rather than killing him, caused the brain damage that seems evident in Caleb's shambling, simple manner. It would help explain, certainly, why Betty's extra protective of Caleb. Even if he did kill Melanie, she may be willing to excuse his actions, feeling that if only she had protected him when he needed her, he'd never have suffered the damaged mind that led him to murder. Mothers, especially guilt-laden mothers, can excuse anything.

Bree's son's crime is harder to explain away. Andrew ran down Carlos Solis' mother after he'd been drinking, then fled the scene. Bree's first reaction was to hide the car (Andrew's was to suggest fleeing to Canada). She tried talking to him about what he'd done, but was floored by his uncaring reaction. "She's an old lady!" he reasoned.

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In the end, it was only partly Andrew's fault that Juanita Solis died. He did put her into a coma, but in true "Housewives" fashion, she spent her comatose time being tormented by dreams of daughter-in-law Gaby cheating on her son, Carlos. When she abruptly awoke from those dreams, it was a fall that actually took her life. But that doesn't mean Andrew's off the hook. Even if he'd only bruised the older woman, his complete lack of empathy is what sent his mother over the edge.

Keeping secrets and keeping up appearancesWe don't know much about Betty's early life, but if even a little of her story about Virgil's abuse is true, it sounds like she traveled a pretty rocky road to Wisteria Lane. A one-time concert pianist, she seems to have given up any dreams of performance and instead gives the occasional lesson.

She's also been known to use her musical talents to distract an audience from something she doesn't want them to see or think about, whether doing so at a block-watch meeting or in the common room of a psych ward. Yet as far as we know, everything she's done to date has been to try and protect a son who needs her, whether his condition came from abuse or was with him from birth. Her other son, Matthew, certainly seems to be a model of loyalty and good manners — but then, Bree, too, can point to one mostly obedient child, Danielle.

Bree hasn't always had it all cashmere and prep-school ties, either. In one episode, she revealed that her mother was killed in a car accident when she was young, and in true Bree form, she washed her own mother's blood off the street. From her earliest days, then, she learned to bury her own feelings and instead concentrate on keeping up appearances.

"Desperate Housewives" writers were smart to take these two matriarch-led families and smash them together. Betty's son, Matthew, and Bree's daughter, Danielle, are the street's latest dating couple. The fact that he's African-American and she is oh-so WASPy only promises to make things more interesting.

When the relationship was brought to her attention, Betty shocked Bree by slapping Matthew. It's unlikely that the slap came because Danielle is white, or because of anything else particular to Danielle. Betty knows that the better she gets to know her neighbors, the better chance that they might learn her secret, and she's not willing to take that risk.

Bree may have figured that spotting Caleb in Betty's house was just fodder for the gossip mill. Instead of calling the police and reporting that she'd seen Gabrielle's intruder (who was also the man who inadvertently led to her miscarriage), she called her gal pals instead. Betty was lucky she learned, through Matthew, about Andrew's own crime in time to confront Bree, perhaps the one woman on the street who can keep secrets, when forced.

"Maternal instinct is one of nature's most amazing gifts," Betty calmly announced to Bree when revealing that she knew about Andrew's hit-and-run. "It drives ordinary women to do extraordinary things." Bree knew a threat when she heard one, and she's seemingly backed down for now, keeping Betty's secret as long as Betty keeps hers.

But Betty got one word wrong: Neither she nor Bree are really ordinary women, they're "Desperate" mothers. The battle that stretches before them is sure to keep Sunday evenings interesting for some time to come.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's Television Editor.