What happened to Helen Patterson?
Seriously, though. When we were initially introduced to the matriarch of the Patterson family, she was a totally different character. She was battling lupus, stayed in bed most of the time and could barely comb her hair by herself. Every other sentence she spoke she was coughing up phlegm. In spite of all of her health issues though, Paul Patterson was there to remind her of her beauty and her youthfulness. He was there to deal with her mood swings and keep the issues of the kids (very much grown but troubled kids) on the low. And even when Helen thought he was cheating (a family friend was extra flirty and had to be set straight by MJ), he was faithful and still in love with his wife. We even saw one of the few love scenes between older actors on TV happen with these two characters, Helen and Paul embracing, lost in one another. What initially freaked viewers out ended up being a heartwarming testament to the type of love we all want when we get up there.
So how did we get to “Feeling Ambushed” and Helen compromising a marriage of more than 40 years for an old flame? My guess? New writing team.
Nonetheless, that’s what I was left trying to figure during the last episode, “Feeling Hashtagged,” when all signs pointed to the fact that Helen had something to hide when it came to old family friend Frank. All of a sudden she had an extra spring in her step. She was exercising. Whipping up complicated meals when she thought he would come around. Making herself look fancy so she could go to his hotel room and pretend to believe that she could tell him that what they had years ago was over and done with. By the time we entered the first few minutes of “Feeling Ambushed,” a supposedly over and done with Helen was getting dressed to go meet Frank at his hotel to talk, lying to Paul about her planned whereabouts. One minute they were dancing and reminiscing about old times, the next minute, they were having sex in his hotel room. It was the second love scene between actors over 50 on the show, but this time, not between husband and wife.
Helen tries to fake the funk when she returns home. Despite knowing that what she did was wrong, she’s feeling good. She returns to her doting husband, who, while she was laid up with Frank, installed a new microwave to match all of the rest of the appliances in the kitchen. He continues to show affection towards her, even when he grows suspicious of her. And after Frank made a surprise appearance at their home for dinner, Paul can tell that they share energy because they’ve shared something else. After the man leaves, Paul confronts Helen and tells her to look him in the eyes and tell him she didn’t sleep with Frank. When she can’t, he grabs luggage that ends up belonging to her and in shocking fashion, kicks her out.
After spending so much time building up her strength and becoming the sassy, authoritative woman she wanted to be while stuck in the bed during Season 1, it’s interesting to see Helen forced back into a state of weakness, standing by herself, tears streaming down her face, knowing that she messed up big time. But this time, she wouldn’t have Paul to help her get through such a vulnerable moment, or her kids, or her grandkids (all recovered from drug dependency, life dependency in Niecy’s case, and no longer living in Atlanta).
I was initially a bit upset at the way this character, who while irritating at times always seemed morally on point, was turned upside down all of a sudden. I wanted to say that such a shift was quite unrealistic, but is it?
In last week’s episode, if you’ll recall, Mary Jane explained to Helen that the reason she couldn’t be with picture perfect Lee was because of the fact that she felt no true fire with him. Justin, on the other hand, ignited that passion within her, and while she could go for Lee, she didn’t want to cheat herself out of what she was truly feeling. In response, Helen got quiet and congratulated her daughter on truly knowing herself and listening to her feelings, because many of us don’t. One of those many people included Helen. Hence the reason she acted on her desires with Frank, though she would come to realize that the passion of what she thought she missed out on with him in no way was better than the love she did have with Paul.
To me, as crazy as things unfolded with Helen, she is like what many of our mothers and grandmothers would have been like if they’d made rash decisions based on what they thought they wanted. Like the mother or grandmother who wonders what life could have been like if she left her marriage, if she’d stayed with her previous husband, or if she’d hadn’t started a family. Helen temporarily wanted to know, what if? There’s nothing wrong with wondering, but where she went wrong was taking the advice of her lovable but all over the place in love daughter.
I don’t know how much of her parents’ issues Mary Jane knows, as marital strife was alluded to earlier in the season when Helen spoke about a link to MJ’s relationship woes. But maybe she’s what Helen fought the urge to be all of these years — a person who goes after thrills and lust over true love and stability. And while her choice to cheat isn’t so unrealistic, the fact that she took a page out of her daughter’s book and leapt, and did so during her golden years, is what makes it so hard to comprehend.