TV Article

The Butterfly Effect

On ''Ugly Betty,'' when our heroine shows up at work in costume, the other characters reveal a little more of their true selves

America Ferrera, Ugly Betty | THE WORM HAS TURNED A new romantic interest may get Betty out of her cocoon
THE WORM HAS TURNED A new romantic interest may get Betty out of her cocoon

''Ugly Betty'': Halloween masks

On paper, the decision of Ugly Betty's writing staff to turn its Halloween episode into an examination of its characters' various disguises sounds like an obvious exercise. And yet, as last night's typically mesmerizing hour reminded us, it's foolish to make snap judgments about anything (or anyone) in the Betty universe.

Take, for example, office vixen Amanda, whose hard plastic mask — that of Mode's resident man-eating Mean Girl — momentarily evaporated during her bathroom breakdown. Sure, we've seen cracks in the facade before — the stress bingeing, the unlikely alliance with Betty during Isabella-gate — but when Betty revealed that Daniel couldn't remember his Monday-night conquest, the passing shadow of pain across newcomer Becki Newton's face gave us a startling peek at the real Amanda: She's just a trollop, standing inappropriately in her lingerie in front of her boss, asking him to love her.

Of course, even more fascinating was the chance to watch Amanda put her mask back on — wiping away her tears and delivering an ice-cold ''this never happened'' to a startled Betty. That flinty desire to prove to the world that she's completely together makes sense, really. Because in front of Daniel, the one person who really matters to her, Amanda is completely disarmed, her weapons of choice — the sex-kitten poses, the charming invite to watch the Peanuts Halloween special, the last-ditch plea of ''Hey! We could just talk!'' — dropping clumsily to the elevator floor at the denouement of her story arc. It's hilarious stuff, sure, but with a hiccup of heartbreak.

Likewise, we discovered last night that beneath the layers of Botox and base and bitchery that define ''Wilhelmina Slater: Editor'' lies another woman, an actual human being named Wilhelmina. Her visceral response to Marc's Betty in Guadalajara Poncho Halloween costume — ''That is the absolute cruelest thing I've ever seen!'' — seemed to take even Willy herself by surprise (another example of the way Vanessa L. Williams upgrades every line reading in what she's correctly treating as the role of a lifetime). But Wilhelmina's wicked follow-up, ''Someone's getting a raise,'' was the kind of split-second recovery that allowed her to regroup, to maintain her terrifying public persona. Only later, when she said to Marc, ''Take off that ridiculous costume — I can barely stand looking at the real one,'' did she find a compromise, a way to spare Betty such viciousness while sounding absolutely vicious doing it.

That's Wilhelmina's beauty, though, and Ugly Betty's, too — the ability to operate on multiple levels; nowhere was that more apparent than watching Marc and Christina try to squeeze their boss into a size-2 dress for the Halloween ball. There was Christina's unvarnished honesty in observing that ''the lack of pulleys and several burly men is the problem.'' (Hooray for letting Ashley Jensen's plucky seamstress out of the fashion closet.) There was Marc's panicky desire to rescue Wilhelmina (and his job), by making excuses for Christina: ''It's the beer talking.'' And then there was Wilhelmina, juggling the urge to dismiss the woman kneeling on the floor and stitching her bustle (''What are you saying, Carlotta?'') with the urge to simply scream. If you hooted with delight while getting a copter's-eye view of Manhattan during Willy's shrieking discovery that she's now a size 4, please raise your hand.

(Okay, everyone, you can lower 'em.)

Perhaps the only funnier moment last night was seeing little Justin do a soft shoe while dressed as Gene Kelly in On the Town. Interestingly enough, it's the youngest character in Betty's life who doesn't see the need for airbrushing away life's messy details, and his individualism is inspiring. I love the way Justin's family responds to his super-size flamboyance; you can see their only hesitation is the fear that their little boy could get hurt by a potentially unkind world. Ana Ortiz, in particular, plays mother Hilda as a fierce lioness who's discovered she's raising an adorable little impala; her roar of ''There is no twirling in the armed forces'' was imbued with exasperated love.

The episode's other mother-son relationship provided a far more complicated waltz, with Claire (the fabulous Judith Light) negotiating for a sip of wine during her clinic furlough and Daniel shockingly sabotaging his mother's 26 days of sobriety to get the dirt on his father's affair with Fey. I'm not sure how much more Claire the writers are planning to give us, but I won't argue against a return appearance by a character who, decrying her inability to carry perfume into rehab, notes, ''Bad enough I can't bring liquid eyeliner on first class, now I have to walk around smelling like...people.''

Finally, there's Betty, who's straddling the line between sophisticated Manhattanite and home-cooked Queens gal. Okay, maybe not straddling the line — not with that butterfly costume — but at least aware that such a line exists. Mind you, from a career standpoint, Betty has never paid attention to limitations; even from the opening moments of the pilot episode, she's been convinced she's got what it takes to succeed in the world of publishing. But in terms of her personal life, the caterpillar-to-butterfly metaphor is apt. Sparks were indeed flying — from Betty's braces all the way to her stapled wings — as she flirted with Henry From Accounting (Jake 2.0's Christopher Gorham), particularly during that adorably awkward lunch. (Line of the night: Amanda's ''And this concludes another episode of True but Dull.'')

No matter, though, our heroine isn't willing (or at least isn't able) to disguise her inner dork, a gal who looks at a sushi menu and notes that ''No. 4 looks like an autopsy photo.'' Neither is Henry, as his charming unveiling of that hidden Superman T-shirt revealed. Too bad the tiresome Walter busted in with his net and put the kibosh on the little chemistry experiment. Call me cranky, but here's hoping that in the coming weeks, Betty will choose to spread her romantic wings rather than get trapped in the net of a guy who has the audacity to offer her his apartment key within weeks of cheating on her. Anyhow, deep down, Betty's a fab single gal who needs time and experience to figure out what and who will make her happy; anything less would be mere dress-up.

What do you think? Is it time for Betty to play the field (or at least date Henry)? Were you surprised to discover Amanda's vulnerable side this early into the series' run? And are you looking forward to Fey Sommers' coming out of seclusion?

Originally posted Oct 27, 2006