Ugly Betty: Season 4 review

After four years and 85 episodes, the braces came off and Ugly Betty, the fish-out-of-water PA from Queens, finally became Betty Suarez, publisher of her own magazine in the UK.

Staying true to its three key principles of personal growth, beauty being on the inside and always believing in yourself, it was inevitable every character would arrive at a happy, schmaltzy, personally fulfilling ending straight out of the I’m OK, You’re OK manual. To be fair the final episode, Hello Goodbye, walked the tightrope beautifully  – but it was a rare high point in the second half of a season which seemed to collapse under the burden of too many disjointed ideas and the need to tie up loose ends.

A season of two halves

This final run of 20 episodes divided neatly into two distinct chunks, to the extent they could effectively have been two standalone mini-seasons.

The first nine episodes focussed mainly on self-contained storylines. Betty’s struggles to establish herself in her new role as a junior editor as ex-boyfriend Matt, now her boss, is petty and mean to her. An emotionally vulnerable Daniel Meade is drawn into a cult as he tries to deal with Molly‘s death. A ludicrous murder side-plot involving Nico Slater, which triggers Wilhelmina leaving Mode.

A few ongoing plots are also teed up. Amanda starts to think about her future. Claire Meade sets off in search of the son, Tyler, she had with Cal Hartley but was forced to give away. Hilda hooks up with Bobby Talercio, an old high school flame. Each of these becomes significant down the stretch, but are only touched upon initially.

More haste, less speed

Haste is a recurring theme through much of the final 11 episodes, and not in a good way. By this point the producers would have been aware that cancellation was a looming threat. And that skittishness shows, as a succession of plotlines are shoved aside with almost indecent haste. By the end of Back In Her Place, the second episode after the mid-season break, Hartley is bought out of Mode, Matt leaves to do charity work in Africa, and Wilhelmina returns almost before she has left the building.

Cal Hartley (centre, played by David Rasche) is rapidly pushed out of the picture (image courtesy of channel4.com)

Boom! Decks cleared. Reset button pressed.

Such rapid and sweeping change would have been understandable if the writers had some exciting new story arcs to replace them, but it soon became clear they were simply throwing out lots of random ideas – and quantity does not necessarily beget quality. Too much of an emphasis on standalone stories meant continuity took a nose-dive as characters were shunted hither and thither in order to meet the demands of that episode’s plot.

Marc and Amanda, both now on definite career paths, veer on a weekly basis between maturity and the kind of bitchiness more in keeping with the first two seasons. Marc’s growth is generally more consistent, as he finally receives the editorship he has always craved and becomes a mentor to Justin. But Amanda goes from the reception desk to becoming (briefly) Daniel’s PA, to discovering her talent as a stylist and leaving Mode in virtually no time at all, while her attitude towards Betty seems to jump about with almost schizophrenic plot-driven randomness.

Hilda loses her foetal baby, but by the next episode she is back to her usual self, as if it never happened. (Seriously – what?!?) At least her relationship with Bobby progresses in a quick but credible fashion – but as good a character as Bobby is, I couldn’t help but think back to the prematurely killed-off Santos.

Too much filler, not enough content?

In between the longer-term plots, there are too many disposable stories which feel like little more than filler. Wilhelmina’s drag queen impersonator (a scene-stealing appearance by Vanessa Williams‘ brother Chris). Betty accidentally burns down Hilda’s salon. Betty and the fireman. Betty’s blog. Betty and the hot playwright. Indeed, although Betty is involved in plenty of stories, she effectively treads water through the middle part of the season as other characters develop around her.

Wilhelmina's drag queen impersonator Wilhediva Hater (played by Vanessa Williams' brother Chris) in Chica and the Man (image courtesy of channel4.com)

Meanwhile, we see a return to season one’s clueless, petulant Daniel. He bumbles, he whines a lot, he fights with half-brother Tyler – and he generally has little else to do. Having lost Betty as his PA, he becomes increasingly peripheral, and it becomes all too apparent the writers had no real plan for him.

Tyler seemed little more than a MacGuffin – a device whose sole purpose is to move us from one element of the plot to another. He becomes a catalyst for conflict, or at the very least an excuse to give Claire, Daniel and Wilhelmina something to do, but without contributing much to the overall story. At least that was the case until the penultimate episode – more on that in a minute – but it was hard work getting there.

The same could be said for the other members of the Suarez clan. Justin, at least, has a tangible arc, as his friend Austin yanks him out of the closet – although it was sad to see this once joyful character consumed by so much angst as he discovers and then conceals his sexual identity. But Ignacio too often comes across as a grumpy and lonely old man, desperate to hold on to a family which has outgrown their need for him, before he comes full circle at the very end. It could have been a touching and poignant progression, if only Papi hadn’t been portrayed as so cantankerous so much of the time.

As a result, momentum was rapidly lost in a morass of inconsistency and confusion. The annual Fashion Week episode (Smokin’ Hot), so often a season highlight, was merely okay. For every good episode (Fire and Nice) there was at least one really bad one (Chica and the Man).

Which brings me on to Million Dollar Smile. With just four episodes remaining, this should have been a landmark hour – the removal of Betty’s braces marking the beginning of the end. Instead we are subjected to a poorly executed ‘parallel universe’ episode, which spun the characters off in random, throwaway directions that gave us no real insight into them.

The alternate universe Betty's perfect smile hides an ugly character in Million Dollar Smile (image courtesy of channel4.com)

As a standalone episode, this would have been reasonably diverting if it had happened a year or two ago – ‘what if?’ is a box every long-running series must ultimately tick – but so close to the end it was an indulgent waste. Quite possibly the worst episode of the entire series.

The next episode, London Calling, starts to set up the finale, as well as giving us a sentimental excuse to welcome back Christina and ex-boyfriends Gio and Henry (although their return emphasised the non-appearance of Rebecca Romijn‘s Alexis, who is only ever mentioned off-camera this season). But this story was heavy on exposition and low on content. From the hopeless stereotyping of the British – Union Jacks, flat caps and poorly researched car licence plates that will not exist until 2020 – to the quite implausible stupidity of Claire (set up a really elaborate lie for Tyler, and then don’t let Daniel in on the secret), this was a surprisingly lazy effort.

Hello and goodbye

And so on to the penultimate show, The Past Presents the Future, as the writers compensate for their random wanderings by shoe-horning four or five episodes’ worth of plot into the first half-hour. As she prepares for her wedding, Hilda discovers Justin’s homosexuality. Betty is reunited with Henry, who helps her realise she needs to accept the job she is offered in London. Daniel realises he’s not the dumb playboy he used to be. Ignacio is back with Elena. (When did that happen?) Amanda sets a client up as a date for Marc. Tyler becomes drunk, disillusioned and dangerous.

Hilda and Bobby tie the knot in The Past Presents the Future (image courtesy of channel4.com)

There is nothing wrong with any of these strands, but the way they are suddenly pulled, rabbit-like, out of a hat with little or no foreshadowing only serves to underline how wasteful the previous few episodes had been. The final quarter of an hour, though, is Ugly Betty at its best. Betty accepts the job. Justin finally decides it’s okay to come out, dancing with Austin at the wedding reception.

And then we get two wonderful soap opera twists at the very end. Marc discovers the tattoo which reveals his ‘date’ is Amanda’s long-lost father. And an angry Tyler inadvertently shoots Wilhelmina with her own gun after she races to Mode to warn Claire.

Thankfully, the final episode gives us the closure we had all been waiting for, and does so with style. Hello Goodbye is as much about discovery as it is about departure, with every character getting their turn to take a final bow. Hilda, married and no longer tied to the Suarez house by her salon, gets her dream move to Manhattan. Justin finds contentment with Austin. Amanda finds her father. Daniel steps down as co-editor-in-chief to pursue the opportunity to find himself. Wilhelmina finds redemption, her lost love Connor and then, suddenly, without the need for scheming, she finally achieves her heart’s desire: Mode – a direct result of her altruistic act of saving Claire. Marc is shown the path to becoming creative director by Wilhelmina, and finds love and the possibility of a real relationship with Troy, after a lovely reversal where Justin returns the favour by turning into his mentor.

There is one touching moment at the farewell party where we linger on Betty, Marc and Amanda – the triumvirate who have always been the beating heart of the show – dancing joyfully together, all previous bitchiness put aside as their friendship is finally affirmed.

Amanda, Betty and Marc - friends at last (image courtesy of channel4.com)

Which just leaves one final, crucial discovery – that of Daniel coming to terms with how he truly feels about Betty as he wrestles with her impending departure. More than a professional relationship, more even than just good friends, we are left with the distinct suggestion that his feelings for her run to something deeper. It is one final sign of growth – one of the series’ key strengths has always been its willingness to let its characters develop and change – that bookends what the show is all about. Daniel started out looking for a beautiful new PA and was given Betty; he finishes the series appreciating – and possibly falling in love with – her inner beauty and strength. It is subtly played, but crystal clear.

The final scene in Trafalgar Square underlines this. We see Daniel finally saying goodbye and offering to take Betty out to dinner, with the open-ended possibility of developing into something more. As Betty strides confidently off into the City, we segue into a final frame which has the ‘Ugly’ melting away from the Ugly Betty title card, making it clear that her journey from ugly duckling to swan is complete.

It was a fitting end, and one which suited the series better than the ending of its Colombian parent, Betty la Fea, would have done, where Betty marries Daniel’s equivalent, Armando.

Betty has come a long way since she first walked through the door at Mode (image courtesy of channel4.com)

It was time to go

I really wanted Ugly Betty to go out in a blaze of glory, but as is so often the case after news of a show’s cancellation, the energy quickly peters out. Ultimately, while it was satisfying to see Betty lose her ‘Ugly’, this final season was sadly far from pretty. It ended with one of the series’ finest hours, but the highs were too infrequent and the overall quality too inconsistent.

As is so often the case we will look back on the frequently brilliant season one as being the show’s pinnacle. Once Betty had started to adapt to – and to a certain extent conform with – her surroundings, the series started to lose some of its offbeat, quirky charm, and its decline became inevitable as she became increasingly less ‘different’ to her co-workers. I know many fans will say that this led to the series heading downhill, but equally for her to remain as an outcast misfit forever would have felt unrealistic.

Ultimately, one of the series’ key strengths – its willingness to give its characters room to breathe and grow – ended up shortening its life-span. There was simply little else to say, short of freezing the characters’ development. As Betty herself discovered, there comes a time when there is no other option than to let go and step into the future. Bon voyage, Ms Suarez. It’s been a (mostly) fun ride.

Ugly Betty: season 4 ratings (out of 10)

4.01/4.02 The Butterfly Effect – 8

4.03 Blue On Blue – 3

4.04 The Wiener, the Bun and the Boob – 7

4.05 Plus None – 6

4.06 Backseat Betty – 8

4.07 Level (7) With Me – 9

4.08 The Bahamas Triangle – 7

4.09 Be-Shure – 7

4.10 The Passion of the Betty – 6

4.11 Back in her Place – 7

4.12 Blackout! – 4

4.13 Chica and the Man – 2

4.14 Smokin’ Hot – 5

4.15 Fire and Nice – 7

4.16 All the World’s a Stage – 6

4.17 Million Dollar Smile – 1

4.18 London Calling – 4

4.19 The Past Presents the Future – 6

4.20 Hello Goodbye – 9

Overall – 6/10

Links: My mid-season reviewIMdb, TV.comWikipedia, Channel4.com