Desperate Housewives is commonly known for being a family show that breaks taboos, and thus it is made up of, among many other things, recurring themes that can be found in between the lines of its ongoing and/or episodic stories. A rundown of some of the most remarkable themes of the series can be read below.
Betrayal is one of the major sources for conflict on Desperate Housewives, playing a key part in most of the series' romantic relationships and ongoing stories of friendship and family.
Whether by relatives, friends, lovers or business partners, the main characters have all in some way been betrayed in the past, and have reacted in different ways to such treasons.
The most notable adultery storyline of the series would likely be the one led out by Gabrielle Solis and her teenaged gardener, John Rowland, the affair that started Gabrielle's storyline. Karl Mayer is arguably the most notorious serial adulterer of the show, however.
Conflict is one of the most influential driving forces for storylines on the show. Despite the strong bonds shared between the main characters, the ties of friendship and the family obligations, the people of Wisteria Lane often find themselves at odds with one another, engaging in fights, arguments, and vengeful acts. Examples of this would certainly be the constant discussions between the leading housewives, who, despite their strong friendships, constantly have their liaisons hit the rocks. Susan has feuded with Edie over their attraction to both Mike and Karl, with Bree over Orson's mysterious ways, with Gabrielle over their children's school-related activities, with Katherine over her obsession with Mike, with Angie over the strangling of Julie, with Renee over her attraction for Tom, and with Lynette over the naming of their shared granddaughter, for example. Lynette has feuded with Bree over the spanking of the former's child, with Gabrielle over Lynette's concealment of her forth pregnancy, and with Renee over her involvement with Tom. Bree has feuded with Gabrielle over the latter's shoddy parenting skills, with Edie over her involvement with Orson, with Katherine over her secret recipes, with Renee over the landing of Keith, with Angie over her candid ways, and with Betty over her dangerous sons. Gabrielle has feuded with Renee over the secrets they shared with each other and with Angie over a lasagna casserole she made. In addition to this, the four main ladies' ties were all torn asunder in the final season, due to the big secret they shared (the murder cover-up) and Bree's incapability to hold everything together in the times that followed.
One of the most prominent causes for controversy when the series premiered its debut season in the United States was the fact that most of the main characters, if not all, had, at some point, engaged in criminal activity. In fact, most characters on the show have broken the law at some point, oftentimes in situations that are played for laughs, which reflects the dark comedy of Desperate Housewives. These crimes are perpetrated relative to the seasonal mysteries, as a way of overcoming obstacles and/or short-cuts, for purposes of betrayal, to reflect the characters' sinful natures, etc.
One of the most common crimes is also the one generally regarded as the worst: murder. A lot of the characters who have died at some point in the series' timeline were murdered.
- See main article: List of deaths
Death is a major part of the series, as a total of over 40 characters have been killed off on the show, and more than 50 deceased characters have been featured. Character deaths usually serve as either a catalyst in a plot, a means of driving the story further along, or as a 'full stop' in said story, meaning a character's story is ended with their death and it serves as a convenient climax.
When more important characters die, the remaining living characters often find themselves dealing with the psychological and real-world repercussions of said demises, and certain episodes have even revolved around dead characters, such as, for example, the 100th episode, centered on the death of local handyman Eli Scruggs (special guest star Beau Bridges), or "Women and Death", dedicated to the memory of Mike Delfino, among others.
The financial being of the main characters often serves as the center of many plots of the series, generally becoming cause for conflict and/or personal drama. Some characters (e.g. Bree, Edie, Renee), are portrayed as always being wealthy, having several possessions, and never being in financial worries. Others (e.g. Susan, Lynette) are often depicted as being shaky in economical terms, having to cut down on luxuries to get by. The Solis family is arguably the one with the most inconsistent state of wealth, as they are often regarded as one of the richest families on the block, but have perhaps dealt with the most financial problems over eight seasons, particularly in seasons 1, 5, and 8.
Season 5 is the one that deals the most with this recurring theme, putting several of its main characters (Susan and Mike, Gabrielle and Carlos, Tom and Lynette...) in financial burdens, having to resort to getting new jobs and making several sacrifices to afford the things they need and/or want. The episode "Mama Spent Money When She Had None" revolves around that theme.
- See main article: List of families
Desperate Housewives is known for being a family show, in the sense that the main characters' family lives take the center stage in the unfolding of the series' main long-running and episodic storylines. Whereas the show has featured a total of 10 titular housewives, the majority of the main and supporting regular cast consists of several of their family members, from spouses to children, mostly. Their families also often intertwine. The many family dramas that occur behind closed doors, that range from adulteries to demises, passing through rebellious children, precarious financial situations, illnesses and fights, among many other factors, provide the vast majority of the intrigue of this serial drama, as we're provided insight on the core of their family ties, of their relationships, and of their struggles to live as members of shared homes.
One of the most iconic aspects of Desperate Housewives is the strong bond shared between the series' four main ladies, Bree, Gabrielle, Lynette and Susan. Several friendships have been formed and disbanded in the show, but theirs is inarguably the most notable. Despite the occasional fights and feuds, this quartet manages to somehow overcome every obstacle to their ties and remain the best of friends for the majority of the whole series. They often engage in conversations with each other in which they share details of their private lives and ongoing problems, usually over drinks or poker games. Nevertheless, they never share every secret about their lives, and these tend to come out sooner or later and eventually cause more strain on the relationships. Therefore, the process becomes somewhat of a vicious cycle.
One of the strongest criticisms aimed at the second season of the series was the lack of scenes in which the women interacted with each other. In the very ending of the series finale, the women each go their separate way, as they all leave Wisteria Lane, accompanied by their respective families, and Mary Alice Young tells us they will never again all meet at once. This provided the bittersweet factor to the ending alluded to by series creator Marc Cherry: even though they all in some way get happy endings, with promising futures, their friendship, one of the main driving forces behind the women's stories over the years, and the basis of one of the show's main recurring themes, dissipates.
Irony is a rhetorical device in which there is a sharp incongruity or discordance that goes beyond the simple and evident intention of words or actions, and it serves as a recurring theme on Desperate Housewives.
Ironic statements (verbal irony) are statements that imply a meaning in opposition to their literal meaning. On this show, those statements are usually given as one-off funny lines uttered by the characters, posing as minor laugh-inducing tactics during the scenes, some even being used as punchlines (e.g., in 8.05, when kitchen aid Donnie, who works at the homeless shelter, tastes Bree's bisc and says "Holy crap!", Bree responds with "Finally, a blurb for my next cookbook.", closing the scene). Sometimes, these ironic statements can even be mixed with metaphors (e.g., in 5.16, when Mike tells Orson that his housewarming party has run out of alcohol and that he's sent Edie out to get some more, Orson replies with "Ah, so you sent the mouse to buy the cheese. Excellent.").
Situational irony occurs when there is an incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result. A notable example of this would be when, in 4.04, Susan 'kidnaps' Bob and Lee's dog Rafael, hoping to later on pretend to rescue him and come across as a caring 'heroine', and winning over Lee, who despises her. However, her plan backfires when Mike opens the door to the garage where the dog was being kept, and Rafael is thus set free and ruins Bob's outfit by smearing it with the paint Susan had in the garage, all the while leaving a track of footprints leading to said garage.
Dramatic irony occurs when a character is driven to speak or act erroneously, out of ignorance of some portion of the truth of which the audience is aware. An example of this would be when, in 7.10, Paul Young convinces the Hunter-McDermott couple to sell their house to him, thus giving him the vote he needs for the Homeowners Association to get him to be able to open a halfway house on the street. Bob and Lee do this unbeknownst to the fact that Paul was tricking them, and their sell has consequences, leading the entire neighborhood to turn against them.
One of the most ironic aspects of the series comes in the form of its featured ironic deaths, in which characters, often villainous, suffer the consequences of their own misdeeds by falling victim to tragic untimely demises. For instance, Barbara Orlofsky's wreckless parenting caused her child to grow up to become a serial-killer, and, in 6.20, she herself eventually became one of his victims. When, in 3.07, Nora Huntington tried to make her rival Lynette out to be a 'bad guy' during the most inopportune of times - a hostage situation, the table turned on her when Lynette revealed to the betrayed hostage taker that Nora had seduced Tom, which led the shooter to kill Nora for being a 'whore'. Ironic deaths don't always occur as karmic retributions to villainous deeds, however. Karl Mayer's death was rather ironic because he fell victim to the plane he hired to propose to his lover Bree, which wound up falling on Wisteria Lane and hitting him. He also had planned to redeem himself and be devout to Bree, but his death never allowed him to do right by his words, and therefore he was remembered as an adulterous 'dog'.
On a less technical level, the series itself is generally regarded as in ironic soap opera, constituting a satire on life in suburbia, featuring characters that keep up appearances in their seemingly perfect lives, taking place on the most beautiful of streets, but with everyone keeping dark secrets and unhappiness behind their closed doors.
See main article: List of mysteries
With mystery being one of the three major genres of Desperate Housewives (the other two being comedy and drama, which ultimately outrank mystery), every season has presented a long-running mystery storyline, generally focused on a new character having arrived to Wisteria Lane. The series' main mystery, triggered by the suicide of housewife and mother Mary Alice Young, served as the catalyst for the series and as a means of introducing all of its main characters. In the subsequent three seasons, new mysteries would be introduced in the season premieres and generally solved in the finales (with the exception of season 3), with several twists and turns presented through the run of the seasons to throw viewers off-track and for shock value.
However, in the following three seasons (5-7), mysteries were generally solved earlier, usually within the first half of the season, and later replaced by ongoing vendetta storylines, complete with mini-mysteries, carried out by the mystery stars. However, these vengeance stories are still regarded by most as the seasonal mysteries.
In the final season, the four protagonists of the series finally found themselves as the mystery stars for a change, all being involved in a dramatic storyline that found them burdened by a horrible murder cover-up and a continuous blackmail. Once the mystery was solved, the focus shifted to how the ladies, particularly Bree, would get themselves out of trouble with the police.
Despite it not being a subject that's directly addressed in the series on a regular basis, a supernatural element is always present and can be found at the core of the show, considering that its central character, series narrator Mary Alice Young, is dead. From her evelated point of view (it was assumed she was in Heaven), we see it all through Mary Alice's eyes, as she introduces us to the lives of her friends, neighbors and family members on the idyllic Wisteria Lane. Two other deceased characters (Rex Van de Kamp and Edie Britt) have also temporarily taken over the role of narrators.
In addition to this, the characters are often faced with moral implications serving as consequences for their actions, most of which could be deemed 'sinful' when in accordance to those characters' particular religious beliefs. Bree Van de Kamp comes across as the most religious character, a Presbyterian Christian, and some of her stories over the run of the series have included a religious/moral focus and/or underline. Most regular characters believe in God and in Heaven in some way, judge others based on their beliefs, and practice certain religions.
In the series finale, as Susan Delfino leaves the lane, the ghosts of several people who had had ties to the street watch as she drives off. It is unclear whether this means the ghosts are trapped in a sort of limbo situation, as everything prior to that had pointed to Mary Alice narrating from a higher level, or if they can just move between realms.
One of the more notable sub-genres of Desperate Housewives could be given as "romance", as several of the main long-running stories revolve around the main characters' romantic relationships. The series' supercouple (a key element of most soap operas) consists of the Susan/Mike pairing, as their on-again/off-again relationship is at the center of most of the intrigue regarding those characters' stories over the course of 8 seasons, and they were introduced as the pairing viewers were meant to root for when the show started.
Tom and Lynette Scavo have often been credited with being the most stable, consistent and perfect couple of the series, and thus deemed as 'original' and 'inspiring' (considering most soap opera pairings don't last for long at a time), with a reputation of having endured through many threatening obstacles without resorting to longtime separations. However, this came to an end in late season 7 and all throughout season 8, provoking a mild uproar in the fan community between those who commended the couple's relationship.
The third main couple of the series would be the Gabrielle/Carlos pairing. Co-protagonist Bree Van de Kamp remains the character with the most romantic pairings over the course of the show, and several other romances have blossomed and/or withered, many of which carried on by the housewives themselves, when paired with different people.
Every main character of the series has, at some point, kept secrets. It's one of the most recognizable and iconic aspects of the show, the idea that everyone has secrets, even if they put on an earnest appearance. The series is triggered by the mysterious suicide of housewife Mary Alice Young, a seemingly happy wife and mother whose secrets weighed heavily on her. Mary Alice, serving as the omniscient narrator and comment-provider of the series, uses "secrets" as one of the most common themes in her voice-overs, alluding to the complex layers of problems and feelings the characters try to keep from each other, and the series finale makes great use of this theme by capping off the entire series with the arrival of a new housewife on Wisteria Lane, who brings with her a box with a secretive content, one that will never be revealed to the audience.
During its premiere season, Desperate Housewives' adverts (promotional images and videos) often featured a sexual component to them, and the series itself, with its spicy stories that broke taboos, and increasing popularity and recognition for allowing women over the age of 35 and housewives in general to be portrayed as sexual beings on television, became associated with a sexual image, one of that bled into the series' episodic and long-running stories, particularly Gabrielle Solis' illicit affair with her underaged gardener. The women of the cast were idolized as sexual icons, often making it to lists of the sexiest women in the world, and a similar thing happened with the male castmembers as well, with relevance given to Eva Longoria and Jesse Metcalfe.
Story-wise, sex was always one of the main recurring themes in the series, either used as the center of a story (e.g.: the beginning of Bree Hodge's extra-marital affair with Karl Mayer, at first merely of a sexual motif), or used as a throw-away joke (e.g.: Gabrielle offering Carlos midday sex in exchange for the family's purchase of a ski chalet ("A Little Night Music")). Sexuality itself, in the sense of sexual orientation, was also an oft-explored topic in the show, with, for example, Andrew Van de Kamp being commonly praised by television critics and fans alike for being an unconventional homosexual teenager, due to his sociopathic tendencies and unstereotypical behavior, and with supporting housewife Katherine Mayfair dealing with confusion regarding her sexual preferences during a mid-life crisis.
Almost all the characters of Desperate Housewives have moral and religious beliefs (see Religion), but these don't keep them from oftentimes being morally wrong in their conducts. Considering that most main characters are Christians in some way, a rundown of moments in which they have acted in accordance to the seven deadly sins is provided below. Take into consideration that many more moments have occurred, and other sins/moral wrongs, as well as crimes (see Crimes), have been practiced.
Anger is perhaps one of the most recurring sins carried out by the characters, as they are often on the receiving end of all sorts of provocation by others around them, which brings hateful feelings to the surface and is often the cause for payback (see Vengeance). An example of this is the pictured fight between Bree Van de Kamp and Edie Britt, following the former's discovery that the latter had kissed her husband. In addition to that, several mystery stars have carried out personal vendettas against fellow main characters, involving in trickery, manipulation and violence to try and achieve their ends. Fights between family members and friends brought on by anger are very common on this show (see Conflict).
Envy comes across as one of the least present sins in the series. However, it has been showcased a few times, one of the most notable being when the women, particularly Lynette, feel jealous of Bree's newfound success with her catering business and cookbook authorship. This leads to a few major "falling-outs" between Lynette and Bree throughout season 5. In fact, Bree is often the most envied character of the series, as people are often invidious of her composed behavior and etiquette, of her beautifully furnished and decorated home, of her eye for business, of her perfect façade and of her many attributes.
- Gluttony and Greed
The Solises are depicted as the greediest and most gluttonous family on Wisteria Lane, as they, particularly the matriarch, Gabrielle, strive for having the best things money can afford. Carlos has recently resigned from this habit, hoping to live a more modest life, but his wife, who's always been 'high-maintenance', strongly opposes to that. The Solis descendants follow by example, as Juanita has expressed interest in having more and better things, like a canopy bed, Ana would date random college boys for the perks (which included expensive designer dresses), and Grace took the best advantage out of her newfound relationship with her biological mother, Gaby, by coyly showing interest in her many possessions and getting gifts in return.
In addition to this, Juanita and Celia Solis are regarded as gluttonous in a sense that they are very fond of overeating, being the main cause for their borderline childhood obesity problems, and a seldom retaliation by fans who oppose to the so-called 'fat jokes' revolving around the aforementioned children.
The characters are often victims to lust, unable to help themselves but to surrender to intense passions despite the moral wrongdoings they are often associated with. Adultery becomes one of the most notable recurring sins the show dwells in, with most regulars being regarded as adulterers in some way, for having broken the sacred vows of marriage, for having engaged in extra-marital relationships, or for unknowingly being subject to adultery by their partners. Even when not committing adultery, characters have been known to give into lust in some other way (e.g.: having sex in public spaces), sometimes even in non-sexual ways.
Characters with the most possessions on the series are often depicted as the proudest and/or most arrogant ones. However, characters have also been known to take pride, negatively, in their wrongdoings. For example, in episode 6.03, Bree purposedly provoked the fall of a young woman who was dating her lover, leading the girl to sustain a severe injury, and took pride in that little moment of evil.
Following a risky murder cover-up, Bree Van de Kamp found herself distant from God, as she eventually confided to her pastor, Reverend Sikes. This disconnection led to her losing most of her morals, resorting to drinking alcohol and repeatedly fornicating with indiscriminate sexual partners. Sloth has also been experienced by characters in a sense of physical inactivity, e.g. when Andrew and Danielle Van de Kamp's lives came crashing down following the loss of jobs and/or spouses, leading them to sit around the house all day doing nothing.
In addition to the aforementioned long-running vendetta storylines that have served as seasonal mysteries (see Mysteries), vengeance is a theme that has been explored several times in Desperate Housewives. One of the most renowned vindictive characters is scheming vixen Edie Britt. For example, Edie 'brainwashed' an amnesic Mike Delfino into thinking his girlfriend, Susan, was a manipulative, lying bitch, all because Susan was somewhat responsible for Karl having left Edie. She also blackmailed Bree because the redhead had humiliated her. Vengeance is often followed by karmic retribution, with the characters who engage in vendettas getting their comeuppance. Edie's blackmail of Bree, for example, led to the four titular ladies ganging up on her and shutting her out.
Other notable vengeance-centric storylines include: Andrew's personal issues with his mother, which led him to act out in order to bring her to her knees; Katherine's nervous breakdown causing her to try and destroy Mike and Susan's relationship; and Felicia Tilman avenging her sister's death by framing Paul Young, Martha's murderer, for her own fake death.