So, is it obvious yet that Blanche is my favorite Golden Girl? I think I realized this a few weeks ago when I thought about how all of the episodes that I really love and want to write about usually involve Blanche in the main story line. Someday I’m sure I’ll write a whole essay about this, but for now let’s focus on the “Sisters and Other Strangers” episode from season 5. There are so many things I love about it!
This episode is also sort of a coda to the “Letter to Gorbachev” episode from season 3 because it features Stan’s cousin from Czechoslovakia, Magda, and there’s lots of talk about Communism. Cousin Magda’s visit starts off as the A story line in this episode with Dorothy and Rose cooking in the kitchen as they await her arrival. I can offer absolutely no justification for Dorothy’s extremely odd purple top with gold buttons and trim. It’s boxy and weird, and I think it would’ve looked better had it followed her usual long vest shape instead of buttoning all the way up to the neckline. Sorry, but I’m just not a fan of this one. Rose’s dress is also interesting. I never could decide if it’s ivy or some other sort of leafy plant. It’s certainly a busier pattern than we usually see in her dresses, which tend to be solid colored or larger floral patterns.
But first, Blanche bursts in with news of her sister, Charmaigne’s visit. She’s going to be in town for a book signing of her new novel. Can you imagine being named Charmaigne?? I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody by that name. Blanche’s rant about Charmaigne, who she’s been estranged from, is interrupted when the doorbell rings. This is just the first instance of the brilliance of the writing and comedic timing in this episode.
I really love Blanche’s outfit in this scene. She wears bright colors throughout this episode, but the way she sets off the watercolor effect of the jacket and bright red pants with a white blouse is particularly lovely. The gold triangle shaped earrings also perfectly complement the look.
So cousin Magda arrives, ostensibly just for a visit, but we quickly find out that she actually needs a place to stay because Stan was charging her rent over at his place. Can you believe someone would actually travel half way around the world just to visit Stan? I can’t. The man is a yutz, as Sophia would say. But whatever. We’ve all traveled somewhere at least once because we could crash with somebody for free, right? Anyway, we can’t really see much of what Magda is wearing in her first scene other than the dark brown trench coat.
Charmaigne and Blanche are out on the lanai in the next scene, chatting about skinny dipping with boys when they were younger. Charmaigne is every bit as fashionable as Blanche, and I think her character’s name is perfect for an author of a trashy romance novel, that happens to be titled Vixen: Story of a Woman (which Blanche of course pronounces woh-mun). The 1980’s was the heyday of this type of novel, although it certainly has a long history. I think of books like Lace by Shirley Conran and Scruples by Judith Krantz (originally published in 1978 followed by a sequel in 1992), and we can’t forget the grand dame, Jackie Collins. My all time favorite is Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann, which isn’t really a romance, but it certainly set the bar for stories featuring groups of women who battle it out to win or lose at life and love. I happen to love this genre and tend to turn to it any time I need a break or just to escape. If you’re a fan of the Real Housewives franchise, well, these authors practically invented the script! The Golden Girls actually share a lot of qualities with this genre, but that’s an essay (or perhaps a short history piece) for another day.
Charmaigne’s style is sort of classy boho. She’s paired a blue, oversized blouse with a long mauve skirt and concho belt. I really love the way the cowl neck of the blouse drapes over her shoulder. Blanche is wearing an orange blazer and an abundance of gold jewelry, perhaps to emphasize that she doesn’t want to be overshadowed by her sister. Orange is never really my favorite color on her, but she insists on wearing it sometimes. Charmaigne signs a copy of her book for Blanche so she can read it before the signing event, and they also have a discussion about Big Daddy’s pocket watch because Charmaigne wants it back. You may also remember the actress who played Charmaigne, Barbara Babcock, from another of my favorite television shows from the 90’s, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, in which she played the character of Dorothy Jenkins. She also starred in several episodes of the original Star Trek series, among numerous other roles in her career. Marian Mercer, who plays Magda, was also a well-known actress best known for her role on another Witt/Thomas television show, It’s A Living. She also won a Tony award in 1968 for her performance in the Broadway premiere of the musical, Promises, Promises. So, yes, while the writing of this episode is great, credit must also be given to the stellar, accomplished actresses who brought it to life.
Rose and Magda come back from the mall. Shout out to Hickory Farms and Slurpees! Turns out Magda loves both, even if she drives the Girls (especially Dorothy) crazy with her critiques of American capitalism. In this scene, I love that they went to the trouble of getting an actual Slurpee cup, but for the shopping bags they just decided to use gift bags.
Rose is wearing a gorgeous, seafoam-y green cardigan over a green jewel tone dress that she wears often. I think the embellished bow pattern of the cardigan is so pretty. Magda has on what looks to be a pretty blouse, but it’s covered up with a heavy black sweater, because Communism I guess. After she leaves, the conversation turns back to Charmaigne’s book, and Blanche is pissed because she thinks it’s all about her! On the surface, this seems like a very predictable storyline for Blanche, but the rest of the story gives her a nice arc at the end. Meanwhile, Dorothy and Magda also have another little spat about Communism.
Next it’s time for the big scene in the bookstore! I love this scene because the set reminds me of B. Dalton and Waldenbooks in the malls of my childhood, and it’s just another superb example of Ed Stephenson’s production design on the show. Michael Hynes is credited as the art director, so I’m sure he had a lot to do with these scenes as well. In fact, it’s so well done that it makes me wonder if they didn’t film it in an actual bookstore! Maybe there was one on the lot, though, since they were featured quite frequently in sitcoms throughout the 80’s and 90’s.
The fashion in this scene, however, is a pretty mixed bag. Rose and Magda are wearing the same outfits. Dorothy’s actually wearing the same outfit from the previous scene, too, but now we can see the wide leg pants. I’m not a fan of the drab, muted army green on her at all, but the long shape and shawl collar of the jacket are flattering. The button closure detail at the waist is also interesting. Sophia is wearing what looks like a pretty thick sweater that fastens at the neck with a large gold button. I guess it was cold at this mall? Blanche is definitely the standout here in a matching bright fuchsia jacket and skirt.
Before she storms in, Sophia heads off to the Bitter Children of Celebrities section while Dorothy and Magda are arguing yet again, this time about whether so many books with different opinions are a good idea or not. Dorothy gives her two book recommendations, one of which is Vanna White‘s autobiography because it’s “just a hell of a book!” Ha! I love that even Dorothy can’t resist the pull of some good celebrity trash! Although this was probably the peak of Vanna’s fame, her book, Vanna Speaks, had been out since 1987. Pat Sajack himself even wrote the forward, so I can’t imagine that it was all that salacious, either, even if it did come out at the same time as Playboy put her on the cover (without her consent using photos she’d taken in her early days in Hollywood). It seems to me that she probably wrote the book more to defend her character in the aftermath of the Playboy issue. Did you know that Vanna was awarded a Guinness World Record for being the “most frequent clapper” in history in 2013? Put that in your useless trivia pipe and smoke it! The scene closes with Blanche confronting Charmaigne. After she says the book is “tawdry trash” and “nothing but a vulgar collection of perverse sexual acts that are sheer and utter filth,” the other customers in the store all go wild grabbing at the stack of books! This scene is just so genius, and one of my very favorites of the whole series.
Back at home the Girls are around the table, and Magda’s drinking yet another Slurpee. Or maybe it’s the same one. Who can tell? I guess she’ll make good use of that socialized medicine when she gets back home to have her blood sugar checked.
This scene is a great piece of writing, too. We’re treated to a classic St. Olaf story, and Dorothy still has a lot of resentment toward her sister Gloria about her favorite doll named Mrs. Doolittle. Charmaigne calls, but Blanche is upset and refuses to talk to her. Magda says she had a fight once with her sister and turned her over to the secret police.
The next day picks up in the living room. Rose is wearing a purple shirt with a dot pattern that reminds me of one of Blanche’s Devarobes. She doesn’t seem to wear this color often, but I think it’s nice on her and offsets her blonde hair. Dorothy wears a brighter shade of green this time, at least on the jacket. She paired the look with a pretty sandal, too, which you unfortunately can’t see in the photo below. This scene also features a few of Dorothy’s signature withering glares towards Sophia about the doll.
Magda, Slurpee still in hand, enters and announces that, of all things, Rose’s St. Olaf story from the day before has inspired her to return to Czechoslovakia “to be part of the future” of her country, which I’m sure means persuading the powers-that-be to install Slurpee machines. Auf Wiedersehen, Magda! Just when Rose is about to launch into a story about Hans Fliegelfleister, the doorbell rings and Charmaigne is back. When Blanche still won’t give up that damn pocket watch, Charmaigne dashes off to her room to find it. This is another reason why I love this episode because we’re treated to a scene in Blanche’s bedroom!
Charmaigne sports the same boho style only this time in a dark, burnt sienna shade. It looks like it’s a dress since it’s all one color, and it has shoulder pads. I like how the neckline crosses at the bodice, though. Blanche’s outfit in this scene is quite interesting. The matching gold blouse and pants belted at the waist are pretty par for the course, but the shirt she wears on top caught my eye. I included a photo from the previous scene to show the floral pattern of daffodils, tulips, and other flowers better. The other pattern is more intricate and, when she turns around, reveals the floral pattern in a drapey cutaway hem. So interesting!
Also, did you notice anything different about Blanche’s bedroom? In the pilot and other earlier episodes that chest of drawers was originally a large mirror! I’m not sure at what point it was replaced, but I think it really works! I love the use of the wallpaper on the inset walls and by the closet doors, too. Maybe it was just for this episode to highlight Charmaigne’s rummaging for the pocket watch. I’m just not sure. If any readers happen to notice when this update to Blanche’s bedroom happened definitely please let me know!
The episode ends with Blanche and Charmaigne deciding to be friends and then hilariously looking up together at the mirror on the bedroom ceiling to fix their makeup. Barbara Babcock notes in Golden Girls Forever that she and Rue McClanahan came up with this gag during rehearsal that week.
This is just one of several episodes where we get to see Blanche work through her emotions and issues with her family in the series. I think her character evolves over time more than the other Girls, and this is truly what makes her my favorite. It’s easy to see Blanche as one-dimensional and obsessed with men and sex, but she’s so much more than just those qualities.