Settling down to watch the last season of a favourite programme which has already been cancelled is something of a bitter-sweet experience. On the one hand, there is a desire to savour every moment before the end; on the other, there is a sense of lowered expectation, weariness and inevitability.
Overall, final seasons are rarely satisfying, either because there is a sense of loose ends left untied, or an acceptance that the spark of originality and quality that made a series so watchable in the first place has long since dimmed.
So it was with a certain air of trepidation that I embarked on the fourth and final season of Ugly Betty. Here are my thoughts on the first nine episodes, which aired in the run-up to Christmas 2009.
Change and growth
One of the series’ strengths has always been that it has allowed its characters to change and grow over the course of its run, and this is underlined in the season’s opening double episode, The Butterfly Effect. Betty discovers she is once again a fish out of water in her new job as a features editor. Meanwhile, other pieces are subtly moved around as Daniel struggles to come to terms with his wife Molly‘s death, Amanda gets a worrying glimpse of her possible future, Wilhelmina becomes embroiled in a (tedious) murder mystery involving her daughter Nico, and Hilda‘s son Justin struggles to fit in at high school, leading to him forming a bond with Marc.
Betty’s arc through the first half of the season is relatively uninteresting. She is picked on by a still-bitter Matt (now her boss) and ostracised by her workmates. The ending of The Butterfly Effect offers a promising start by showing that Betty cannot always burn the candle at both ends and still save the day, as her United Nations photo-shoot collapses around her. But subsequent episodes bounce her all over the place, establishing a briefly flickering love triangle between herself, Amanda and Matt, being a mere stepping stone to get Hilda back with her former flame Bobby Talercio, and extricating a vulnerable Daniel from the hands of a cult. Betty’s journey is less about her personal growth than it is about enabling her friends and family to grow.
Daniel’s grief over Molly is nicely handled, and it seems entirely plausible how he is drawn into and derives a degree of catharsis from his time with the Community of the Phoenix (which bore more than a passing resemblance to the Church of Scientology). His season arc seems to be about moving on, not just from his wife’s death, but also as a talented professional in his own right as opposed to the beneficiary of Bradford Meade‘s nepotism. The barely competent, carefree playboy of season one has already been left far behind, and he no longer relies on Betty to get him out of every jam.
Speaking about moving on, Hilda is drawn towards Bobby, ending her safe relationship with city councillor Archie. Like the departed Santos, the more edgy Bobby is a better and more credible fit for Hilda’s fiery nature.
Betty and Hilda’s father Ignacio has once again been largely ignored thus far, other than being given a hastily-introduced new girlfriend. Is the ground being laid for the Suarez sisters to become fully independent of their father, who will finally find a companion to replace the girls’ mother? We will have to see.
There seem to be two clear character development boxes to tick for perennial receptionist Amanda. She has come face-to-face with what she might be like in 20 years’ time, and she realises for the first time that she cannot do what she has always done in perpetuity. In her interactions with Claire Meade, we have also seen hints that there may be some kind of resolution between the two over the death of Amanda’s mother Fey Sommers. And her growing maturity is underlined by her response to a one-night stand with Daniel in the Bahamas.
The greatest degree of character development so far has been with Marc. Initially resentful towards Betty for getting the editor’s job he craved for so long, he has gradually come to terms with it and embarked on a path which has seen him step out of Wilhelmina’s shadow, while still getting more than his share of the funniest scenes. It is a tribute to the talents of Michael Urie, who has taken what could have easily been an immensely unlikeable caricature and turned him into arguably the show’s best and most-rounded character.
Wilhelmina’s arc has been the most tiresome of all. She proves she will do anything to protect her daughter Nico, who it transpires is merely scamming her for money. She resorts to comfort food and clothing while grieving over the supposedly dead Connor (in a hurried and ham-fisted plot twist which makes it immediately evident that he is still alive). She leaves Mode. We all know she will be back eventually. Yawn.
Overall though, the various character arcs have been fairly engaging. Whatever happens, it is clear that the writers set out this season to create some significant shifts for all the major players. As we approach the final episodes, expect the pieces to move quickly towards their final positions, which should all be markedly different from how we first found the characters four years ago.
Up and down
The overall quality of the episodes remains somewhat hit-and-miss, although it feels like there have been more good episodes than during a lacklustre season three. The promising character reset of The Butterfly Effect was followed by the dismal Blue On Blue, which undid much of the good work of the premiere with pedestrian exposition and a return to the Betty versus Marc and Amanda farce which was done to death (and done better) in the first two seasons.
Things picked up with the four episodes (4.04-4.07) aired during November sweeps, giving us the hilarity of Betty and Marc in hot dog costumes and, thankfully, the pair coming to terms with their rivalry (two big pluses) and the somewhat forced romantic triangle between Matt, Amanda and Betty (a big minus).
Backseat Betty introduces Bobby, who seems set to play a major role in Hilda’s life, and balances the feelgood moment of Justin turning the tables on his high school tormentors with Daniel’s continuing estrangement from his family and friends as he becomes increasingly drawn into the sinister cult. This comes to a sudden and satisfying resolution in Level (7) With Me, when Betty, Marc, Amanda and Claire stage a farcical and ultimately successful Mission Impossible-style attempt to rescue Daniel before it is too late. And the tiresome Nico storyline is jettisoned like the excess baggage that it was, having accomplished its key job of extricating Wilhelmina from Mode.
The final two episodes of this initial first half run further moves everyone into new positions ready for the back half of the season, with Marc moving over to become Daniel’s PA as Wilhelmina starts plotting her return to Mode, Amanda helping Claire to track down the son she gave up for adoption, and Betty and Hilda hooking up with Matt and Bobby as Hilda discovers she is pregnant (but not before Betty confuses her sister’s positive test with her own negative one).
Without ever quite touching the heights of its debut episodes, this has been a solid start to this last season with, on balance, more ups than downs. Let’s hope the final shows build towards a satisfying conclusion for all the characters.
Ugly Betty: season 4 ratings
4.01/4.02 – The Butterfly Effect (4/5)
4.03 – Blue On Blue (1.5/5)
4.04 – The Wiener, the Bun and the Boob (3.5/5)
4.05 – Plus None (3/5)
4.06 – Backseat Betty (4/5)
4.07 – Level (7) With Me (4.5/5)
4.08 – The Bahamas Triangle (3.5/5)
4.09 – Be-Shure (3.5/5)