Posted Sunday night, March 26, 2017.
This is the kind of question that keeps fans of TV shows up at night: Why was Darrin such a pill about Sam using her magic?
I wasn’t really a fan of Bewitched. I don’t remember watching it regularly when I was a kid. I’m not sure we Mannion kids were allowed to. It was on pretty late on a school night. Thursdays at 9. I know I was watching the night Martin Luther King was killed. I remember going into the kitchen to tell my parents after the news bulletin, I felt like I was fulfilling a solemn and very grownup duty.
Most of the episodes I saw I saw as re-runs during the days when I was home from school sick or it was a rainy day during a vacation. It wasn’t a show I looked forward to, more one I enjoyed mildly while waiting for a real favorite to come on. Dick Van Dyke, Andy Griffith, Gilligan’s Island, Get Smart, The Beverly Hillbillies, My Favorite Martian, or The Addams Family or a good game show like Password. I watched those shows for their own special sakes but with the hope that today they'd show one of my old favorite episodes again. I didn't have any favorite episodes of Bewitched. The episodes I enjoyed best featured Aunt Clara, Doctor Bombay, and, especially, Uncle Arthur---he was played by Paul Lynde, after all.
I didn’t like any of the episodes with the second, fake Darrin except the ones that included Doctor Bombay or Uncle Arthur.
There were no episodes featuring Aunt Clara and the fake Darrin. Dick Sargent took over for Dick York in the sixth season. Marion Lorne who played Aunt Clara died in 1968 after the fourth season. She won a posthumous Emmy that year.
At any rate, I don’t recall being particularly bothered by Darrin’s priggishness about Sam’s magic. But I was aware that it did bother some fans and I did wonder about it myself. I understood why he didn’t want her “help” designing and pitching his ad campaigns (He did, however, value her advice and suggestions) and why he didn’t want her to magic away living expenses. But it seemed mean that he expected her to do the housework and cooking by hand and puritanical that he wouldn’t let her treat them to a secret night out on the town in Paris or a weekend getaway to Hawaii. It made sense that he would want her to be careful never to be seen using her magic. (And there was good reason to worry she would be, considering their pathologically nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz. Gladys gave snoops a bad name.) Basically, Darrin was afraid of witch-burners, figurative and possibly literal, coming after his wife and daughter.
Later, I learned there’s a feminist reading of the show and that Samantha Stephens was a crypto-Second-wave feminist. Her witchcraft was symbolic of all the ways she was superior to Darrin and his mortal male colleagues and Darrin’s objection to her magic making and insisting on her sticking to homemaking like all the other guys’ wives was the patriarchy at work keeping women in their subservient place. Sam’s sneaky and clever ways to practice her magic despite him and then convince him to go along and not mind or even admit to the wisdom of her “disobedience” were subversive acts. The joke was on the husbands who were watching the show with their wives and would look over at the woman they were tricked into imagining as a closet witch and wonder what secret “magic” they possessed and what schemes to put their magic to work they were cooking up.
Wives, of course, identifying with Samantha, would start wondering why their husbands wouldn’t let them use their magic.
Both husbands and wives and the children watching with them would wind up rooting for Sam to rebel and for her rebellions to succeed.
I could see this, although it wasn’t until college that I was presented with the idea. I can still see it but I’m not about to go looking at old episodes for examples.
When I was a kid, though, I’m pretty sure that after a few cursory thoughts I shrugged it all off and just accepted the sitcom logic at work. All TV marriages had their trouble spots and the contention over when, how, and why Sam should use her magic was the Stephens’. It was the premise of the show. It’s what set up and drove the plots of each week’s episode. If Sam was free to practice magic openly it would have produced different plots and Bewitched would have been a different show.
But like I said, Bewitched wasn’t one of my childhood favorites. I don’t have any significant feelings about it, not even nostalgic ones. It’s important to me only because of that memory of Martin Luther King’s death and because my first high school girlfriend looked like Elizabeth Montgomery. (No, that was my second girlfriend who looked like Scarlett Johansson, although it’s better to say Johansson looks like she could be her daughter. At the time, she just looked like herself to me. But my first girlfriend’s resemblance to Montgomery was noticed and remarked upon. She didn’t see it herself. She thought she looked more like Jane Fonda. Sunday in New York-Barefoot in the Park Jane Fonda, not Klute Fonda and definitely not Barbarella Fonda. And she wasn’t wrong.) I don’t have any desire to watch old episodes. I didn’t think much about it back then and I don’t think about it much except accidentally when somebody or something reminds me of it and gets me started. That happened tonight, obviously. And the somebody who got me started was...Salman Rushdie.
I just started reading Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights and came across a passage that gives the answer or, at least, an answer to the question. Darrin doesn’t want Samantha to use her magic because that would mean she’s a witch and he did not fall in love with and marry a witch. He fell in love with and married her---the girl he supposed her to be because that’s the girl she led him to believe she was. From the point of view of the folks at home, Darrin was demanding that Sam repress the most wonderful parts of her nature in order to live a lie. From Darrin’s point of view, he was asking her to be her true self and be true to that self and to him.
Rushdie’s novel opens in Moorish Spain in the year 1195 CE with the story of Ibn Rushd, a physician, philosopher, and early scientist who marries a genie. He marries her not because he dreams of genies. He doesn’t believe in them. But despite evidence, he doesn’t realize she’s a genie---jinnia is the correct word, a female member of the Jinn---a princess among the jinn, in fact, because she doesn’t let on and he “being a man of reason...did not guess she was a supernatural being”.
Ibn Rushd and his jinnia wife, who calls herself Dunia, keeping her jinn name secret, are poor because he’s been disgraced and is living in anonymous exile. Dunia could of course make them rich by magic, granting him a wish he doesn’t know he could ask for but she doesn’t. The narrator anticipates our question...
Why did the jinnia princess not cry Open at the door of a treasure cave and solve their financial problems at a stroke?
And answers for us:
Because she had chosen a human life, a human partnership as the “human” wife of a human being, and she was bound by her choice. To have revealed her true nature to her lover at this stage would have been to reveal a kind of betrayal, or lie, at the heart of their relationship. So she remained silent, fearing he might abandon her.
So maybe that’s the key to Darrin’s obstinacy. The lie at the heart of his and Samantha’s relationship. She didn’t tell him she was a witch before they got married because she knew from long, sad experience that humans hated and feared witches and she was afraid he would break up with her. Unlike Dunia, however, she can’t keep her own secret.
I’d have to watch the pilot to see if Samantha confesses because her conscience won’t let her continue to pretend or because her meddlesome and intrusive family just make it impossible for her to keep her secret. Probably it’s both. But whatever her reasons for owning up, Darrin is right to feel deceived and even betrayed. It would have been understandable if he’d demanded a divorce on the spot. Of course, then there’d have been no show, but it wasn’t out of the question for him to consider it. His making her promise not to use her magic is his price for not leaving her.
It would also have been understandable if he’d gone into denial.
Witches aren’t real therefore Sam can’t be a witch therefore she shouldn’t act like a witch.
Instead, he tries to understand and cope. But he’s still within bounds to think she isn’t a witch anymore and not because she married him and he doesn’t want her to be a witch. Because she chose to leave the world of witches and warlocks and stop being a witch herself. That’s why she met Darrin. He’s not wrong to think she doesn’t want to be a witch and that in marrying him she promised herself she’d given that life up. And she does try or at least seems to want to try. But she’s a character in a sitcom and the plot requires that she can’t give up witchcraft.
As far as I recall, she didn’t often use her magic for the fun of it or to solve every and any problem that came along. Mainly she had to resort to it to undo trouble and mischief caused by her family or by characters and creatures from her pre-Darrin past butting into her married life, the equivalent of old boyfriends and friends who hadn’t grown up and wanted to drag her back into arrested adolescence with them. I forget how old Samantha was supposed to be, but she was the witches’ equivalent of twenty-something, several years hundred years old---she was a teenager at the time of the Salem Witch Trials, I think---and had quite a past to catch up with her. Her magic wasn’t her true nature expressing herself. Magic was a tool like any tool a desperate and resourceful heroine might reach for in a moment of danger and distress, and the skill with which she put that tool to work not the tool itself was the expression of her resourcefulness, intelligence, and pluck. When the trouble was cleaned up, she went cheerfully back to living her new ordinarily mortal life, generally to her family’s disgust, disappointment, and dismay. It wasn’t Darrin who didn’t respect her as a person in her own right. It was her mother Endora and the rest of the lot who expected her to be what they wanted her to be.
The exception was Aunt Clara. He love for Samantha was completely accepting and uncritical. She loved Darrin and he loved her, exasperating as she could sometimes be. Not only that, she liked visiting her niece’s home because it was a home for her. She came there to escape into normalcy. In her old age her powers, apparently never great to begin with, were waning and she was losing whatever little control of them she once had. Back in the witches’ world she was seen as incompetent and bumbling. But when she was Sam and Darrin she was just taken for herself, their lovable and loved if slightly dotty Aunt Clara.
I suppose you could argue from that, along with Sam’s apparent contentment with a life in which she’s defined as Darrin’s wife and Tabitha’s mother, that Bewitched was as conservative and conformist as any 1950s sitcom. I see it another sign of its very 1960s subversiveness. The Stephens household was a haven for what we self-congratulatory folks here in the 2010s would regard as a contemporarily liberal ideal of a modern family as being put together ad hoc and being whatever the people who make it up make it, as if we invented the idea. Accidental families are at the ending of every Dickens novel. Home, in Dickens’ world and in the Stephens’ house, is where kind and like hearts gather.
I’ll save the uneasy place of the unhappily closeted Uncle Arthur for another post. But if he was at home anywhere it was with Samantha and, grudgingly, Darrin, who, grudgingly, not only put up with him but accepted him as a part of his family.
Darrin provides Samantha with a human home and in that home she is free to be the person---the human, not the witch---she wants to be. He’s sexist and patronizing and too much a man of his times about it, but he’s not wrong to see himself as helping her escape into a life of her own choosing and devising. Together they succeed in this, just not on the terms he thinks he set at the beginning of their marriage.
The very important difference between Ibn Rushd and Darrin Stephens is that Darrin is a decent-hearted and loving human being. Ibn Rushd is selfish, self-involved, and self-absorbed. He loves Dunia but abstractly and he doesn’t appreciate her. She is young (jinnias, like witches, don’t age like humans), incredibly beautiful, and sexually voracious. But he takes in her beauty without being much moved by it, reacts to it as his due, in fact, because a man of his brilliance and renown is owed a beautiful wife, and in bed he finds her as much an overly demanding nuisance as a wildly exciting sexual partner. The real basis of his loyalty to her is her loyalty to him. What he loves most about her is that she’s an adoring audience for his philosophical musings and lectures.
In the end, Ibn Rushd does abandon Dunia, without ever learning her secret. He leaves her with hardly a thought or a trace of regret to pursue his own, separate ambitions when the Caliph recalls him from exile.
Darrin, on the other hand, who loved and appreciated Samantha from the start, grows to love and appreciate her more as, despite his wishes and her best intentions, she fails again and again to keep her promise. He’s always grumpy about it but time and time again he realizes that her magic is her specialness. It’s not her being a witch herself that he minds. It’s the trouble that follows her that drives him crazy, and he knows that that trouble isn’t (usually) her fault. It’s her meddlesome family that constantly upends his life and hers. And in that he’s just another situation comedy husband tormented by an interfering mother-in-law and the wacky neighbors, and dependent on his sensible and loving wife to get him out of jams.
At the end of many episodes, he winds up echoing Ralph Kramden, saying in his own fashion what Ralph says to Alice, “Baby, you’re the greatest!”
So there you have it, class, another example of how a cheesy sitcom can give as much insight into human nature as the best literary fiction.
But while I’m at it…
You knew I wasn’t done, didn’t you?
While I’m at it, here’s something else I’m wondering about. Why was Bewitched on so late at night? Nine o’clock was past most little kids’ and even elementary school age kids’ bedtimes. What was it about the show that persuaded the network to schedule it as if it wasn’t fare for the whole family but something parents would want to watch after they’d put the kids to bed? I don’t remember noticing when I grew old enough to notice that the show was particularly sophisticated about sex and adult relationships like The Dick Van Dyke Show surprised and delighted me by being. Rob and Laura’s sex life was integral to the show’s subtext. Plots revolved around it and not just theirs but their friends’ and neighbors’ too. They lived in Cheever and Updike Country, after all. The possibility that someone would make a mistake---or a conscious and thoughtful choice---that would ruin people’s lives was often in the mix. It was the Mad Men era and the Petries and the Drapers were living parallel lives on opposite sides of the Hudson River. The difference being, of course, that Rob and Laura were good people and Don and Betty were not. Rob and Laura were lucky in their inherent characters and in having found each other, and they knew it and appreciated and cherished their luck. But they were still human and Carl Reiner and his team of writers never let us forget it.
But not only did the Stephens live a life parallel to the Drapers’, Darrin had Don Draper’s job. He moved in the same circles. He’d have had to deal with the same people or the same sort of people as tempted and corrupted Don and Don tempted and corrupted in his turn. and that would have included the same greedy and stupid clients, greedy and conniving clients, greedy and morally bankrupt clients, scheming and unethical co-workers and rivals, pliant secretaries, and ambitious and amoral models and actresses. But it seemed only the clients ever entered the picture and they weren't morally bankrupt or all that greedy and stupid, just obtuse and and resistant to change and too focused on their companies' bottom lines. Darrin's challenge was simply to get them to see the merits of the ad campaign he'd designed for them, while Don faced the additional challenges of avoiding being used by them for their own corrupt and corrupting purposes and using them to further his own unscrupulous ends.
Meanwhile, it wasn't just the show business types they met through Rob's work on The Alan Brady Show who filled the Petries’ lives with glamour, sex, and romance. Back home in New Rochelle their circle of acquaintance included many other young and attractive married couples like themselves. That was the defining fact of the suburbs in the 1960s that Updike took advantage of in his fiction and in his own life. Adultery was apparently a community sport in Ipswich as well as Tarbox. Adultery was in the air in New Rochelle. That doesn't seem to have been true over in Connecticut where the Stephens lived.
The only neighbors Darrin and Samantha interacted with were the Kravitzes and they’d gladly have done without their attention. And as far as was ever shown---or I ever saw---their only human friends were the decidedly middle-aged Tates, Darrin's boss Larry and his wife Louise. I wonder if the irony ever crossed the mind of Mad Men’s creator Matthew Weiner that Don and Darrin both had distinguishedly handsome, prematurely white-haired bosses who were also their best friends. But Roger Sterling was a cad and Larry Tate was a gentleman. His affection for Samantha was fatherly and he would never have gotten drunk and made a pass at her in her own kitchen. Meanwhile, Louise was a model of stability and wifely conformity, too sensible, conventional, and dull to cause herself or anyone else except her husband any trouble, and the only trouble she caused Larry was fallout from the typical situation comedy wife’s habit of not taking her husband as seriously as he took himself, interrupting him at work to make him deal with minor problems at home, and spending money he would rather went unspent. Neither of the Tates was the type to inspire or encourage impropriety in their younger friends or to be inspired to it themselves by the examples of misbehaving younger friends.
As for Samantha and Darrin themselves, they were an affectionate couple but nowhere near as sexy as Rob and Laura. But Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore were singers and dancers. They knew how to move with sensuous energy and grace. Poor Dick York suffered from crippling back pain that eventually forced him to quit the show to be replaced by the bland and diffident and nearly asexual Dick Sargent, while Elizabeth Montgomery was pregnant three times during the run of the show. Two of her pregnancies were worked into the story---I suspect a lot of people forget that Tabitha eventually had a baby brother---which meant that the costumers and directors didn’t have to try to hide the fact but also that Samantha’s role as a young mother was more visually established than was Laura’s. And while Mary Tyler Moore was often dressed to accent her figure and show off her legs and made up to bring out her spectacularly gorgeous eyes, Montgomery was more often plainly and almost dowdily dressed like the ordinary young suburban housewife and mother she---and I mean both Montgomery and Samantha---was supposed to be, which I suppose served a thematic purpose but downplayed the fact that Montgomery was as beautiful as Mary Tyler Moore.
Even when she got the fun of playing Sam’s wild cousin Serena, her attractiveness was hidden. Serena’s free-spiritedness was expressed as kookiness and a childish determination to misbehave rather than a young woman’s desire to rebel, and her mod fashion choices were accordingly those of a little girl playing dress up. She outfitted herself wildly, which is to say comically, but not in a way that suggested true wildness. Serena was willing to let it all hang out but "it all" didn’t include any sign of sexual adventuresomeness. She didn’t like Darrin and wasn’t attracted to him so there was no chance she’d cause trouble for Samantha in that way. Serena was a clown and Montgomery was just clowning around when she played her, and clowns aren’t sexy..or funny, for that matter.
What I’m getting at is that it seems to me that Bewitched was comparatively tame family entertainment so its later time slot strikes me as odd. Was it simply due to the exigencies of scheduling or did I miss something I would catch if I bothered to go back and re-watch the show? Was there more subtext than I remember? Were there more episodes like the one in which Endora brings a statue of Venus to life in order to tempt Darrin into betraying Samantha? Were there more guest appearances by starlets like Francine York who looks to be obviously naked under her carefully arranged drapery?
Maybe Salman Rushdie has the answer to that one too.
Back to reading.
Oh, by the way...
Again, you knew I wasn't done, didn't you?
By the way, Tony Nelson had a simpler and better reason for not wanting Jeannie to use her magic. He was less scrupulous about it and it was easier for him to shrug it off or go along when she did because he only ever knew Jeannie as a genie and he didn't expect her or need her to act "human." But he needed her to be more careful than she herself saw the point of being. He knew that if she got caught it would mean the end of his career as an astronaut. Actually, he had two good and simple reasons. The second was he didn't want to be her master. Jeannie being a genie he rescued from captivity offered herself to him as essentially a slave and he would not at all comfortable with that. It might seem hypocritical that he let her stick around, accepting her devotion and her help while maintaining she was free to go anytime she wished. But he knew that if she left she could easily wind up someone else's slave, someone who would have no qualms about exploiting her.
How’s that? Salman Rushdie didn't help me with that one. I thought it up myself, when I was a kid watching I Dream of Jeannie in re-runs on days I was home from school sick and Bewitched wasn't on.
Now, back to reading.