Well, the bleakest season of Orange County yet continues apace, with divorce and bad parenting and vain attempts to redeem a questioned character. Could we be nearing the end of this great sunshiney reality experiment?

The winter has settled like a forlorn and threadbare blanket on the fire-blasted hills of Southern California, a great howling moan coming from the stucco mansions and the bleached swimming pools and the lazy boutiques dotting the car-filled avenues. A stillness and sadness has set in and all our beloved Housewives are trying, often in vain, to swaddle themselves against it. But their faces are weak from all the surgeries, so they cannot hold the smiles. Their hair has gone limp, their chests lumpy and dull. I fear they may be giving up. But they haven't just yet! Even if last's night hour was, in some ways, the saddest of all.

We'll begin with Tamra, an acrid pineapple of a person, who used to have it all. The other wives often like to whisper about how Tamra had the 'trashiest' upbringing — she came darting out of a trailer park or something one day, with one jeweled-eyed goal in mind: Rich Husband. And after searching for a time, slipped up and birthed a runted baby that grew up to be that helpless fellow Ryan, who pops up from time to time to ogle his mom's younger friends and chew on tin cans. But that was just a minor hiccup, because soon she found Simon, a disgruntled and fading partyboy, a man of shady income who could give her the tract mansion of her dreams, who could take her in his big puffy-noodle arms and make the harsh yipping of those faraway junkyard dogs finally go quiet.

And so they did, and so everything went during a long and blissful marriage. One that produced money and a house and lots of gypsy bling and bright-hued dresses. Oh yeah, and children. Those too. But nothing gold (or orange) can stay, and now Tamra and Simon are having problems. See, Tamra's started wearing trousers. She's started wanting to learn how to drive, how to read, how to book plane tickets and walk around town unescorted by a male family member. Tamra is becoming independent, and Simon is going broke. This is not a good combination. The whole devil's bargain of their relationship was that Simon is money, and Tamra wants money. And Tamra is woman, and Simon wants woman. But once the money goes away, and once Tamra starts to realize that she isn't, in fact, Simon's property... Well, then we have a problem.

The reason that Tamra has all of a sudden begun to throw her hands up at me is Vicki. Ah Vicki, that cockled and curious blend of sawdust and spirit gum, the bubbly-yet-stern matriarch of this, the original Housewives. See, she has her own business and doesn't let her husband give her any guff (she instead gives him no small amount of guff) and she has befriended Tamra and has been whispering things to her, a plastic Claudius pouring man-hating poison in TamTam's ear. And now Tamra is all "I want to go back to work" and Simon frowns. And then she wants to go on a girls' weekend to Florida, and Simon glowers. And then, the last and final straw, she won't stand to be treated like an obedient straw puppet anymore. Simon hates this! He lectures Tamra about how terrible Vicki's marriage is — because Don, Vickles' lovely bearded husband, actually defers to her sometimes and treats her like an equal. "We have the good marriage," he insists to Tamra. A good marriage is the man telling the woman what to do. "Be happy." And so she was happy. Except, these days, she's not. That spell doesn't work anymore.

So those two are headed for catastrophe. But Vicki and her 'awful' marriage? Why it couldn't be better. Sure she and Don have had their ups and downs in the past — mostly because Vicki is an insane person who does and says insane things and sometimes falls down (ohhh how I tried to find a clip of that old gem, but I couldn't) — but now they are going strong. I guess it's that kind of empty nest thing, now that the kids are gone they were forced to stand in the quiet house and regard one another, to figure out where to go from here. And as it turns out? They actually really like each other and want to be together forever. Which is nice. Really nice for this sad and wistful season.

Vicki decided to surprise Don with a trip to the Turks & Caicos, sand dollop islands in the warm sunset-purple seas of the Caribbean. It was, in grand Vicki fashion, a lavishly-appointed resort, complete with pleasing dark-skinned native host boy who feinted and bowed and did all an aboriginal is supposed to do for his conquering heroes.

On their first day in paradise, everyone ate conch-cock. Yes. After having their traditional morning rum drink, Vicki and Don stumbled over to a table that was full of conchs, those curlicue, O'Keefeian shells that hold a secret mussel inside. A kindly fellow showed them how they pry those suckers out of their cool pink homes and of course Vicki shrieked and shrieked and shrieked, as she's wont to do. The most intriguing part of the conch was that it had boy private parts, just as a person would have one of those. And there was something called, grossly, the 'pistol', that is supposed to act like a natural Viagra. Vicki made lots of dribbly jokes about this and Don kept slurping those things down and we all thought, Slow down, man! You're not going to be able to walk pretty soon. But he kept doing it and pretty soon everyone was eating conch-cock.

The native host gobbled some down. Three small children who were building sandcastles nearby came over and devoured a few. A paraglider dipped out of the skies and grabbed a briny handful. Snooki the Sand Flea came burrowing up from the ground to chomp some up, mandibles clacking joyously. Even the Countess Crackerjacks de Lesseps showed up, trundling down the beach in a soiled and tattered tankini, her eyes glistening like watery emeralds. She ambled up, saw the table of shells, let out a gravelly hooting chuckle, clapped her hands, and bellowed "What're we havin', Clamdicks? Serve 'em up!"

The only person that didn't eat any clamdicks was Vicki, who quietly took one of the conch shells, put it to her lips, and blew a long low note. Bwwaaaaammmmmmmmpp, it went. And then suddenly all the creatures of the sea were making their way to her. All the whales and dolphins and horseshoe crabs and terns and sandpipers, all these marine lives heeding this primal call. Startled, Don turned to see a New England Aquarium's worth of sea creatures gathered around his glistening bride. "Happy anniversary!" she squealed.

Back in Borange (ha!) County, the newest Housewife Alexis was communing with God. This involves jiggling around her house and trying to wrangle the nanny to wrangle the children so she could get them ready to go to Church, Inc., the local worship hut she and her piggish husband attend. She spoke of how God is the true meaning of it all, how the world is about him, but how you can also ask him for favors. She spoke about how, every morning before he goes to work, her terrible husband 'lays hands' on his wife and children by way of blessing them. Yes, they're one of those families, who place Dad as the more-blessed center of the universe. And that dude eats that shit up. Is Alexis's husband, who I've taken to calling Ed Hardy, not the worst person that's ever been on this show? I mean he is really spectacularly awful. He's some dumpy pudgy nerd who was so sexually thwarted in high school and college and beyond that he grew a seething resentment for women. These bitches were all bitchy bitches and fuck them and when I get rich — which he somehow did — I'm gonna marry some hot ass, titty ass wife and I will own that blonde bitch. And somehow he did. It's one of the most pathetic relationships I've ever seen, with Alexis boinging her sad farty looks around and her fleshy husband stomping along in his ridiculous "cool clothes" — his ripped and frayed jeans, his aging rockstar shirt, his belt buckles and ludicrous shoes.

And worse still is that they go to a "cool" church. One full of awzom Christian rock and hip young people and a Joel Osteen-gone-wild pastor, a Red Bull-gulping swindler of a man who gets everyone frothed up into nü-Christian fervor and then probably robs them blind. Alexis and Ed Hardy lapped it up (after dumping their kids off into some child God-prison located elsewhere in the office building of a church). Ugh I don't like them! I don't like them at all.

No one likes Gretchen. She's another person that no one likes. She has this image of herself — this young vivacious life-grabber-by-the-hornser who has a secret soft and wise side — that is just so incorrect. I don't doubt there's a good person lurking in there, somewhere, but for the purposes of this show, she's just... Well, here was the setup. Everyone knows that Gretchen dated that old sick guy who bought her lots of things and then died. And everyone knows that she's dating the horrible Slade, who I call Doug because no one is really named Slade. And Gretchen knows that everyone knows that she's kinda shady in the man department and so she's trying to save her image. By saving a troubled teen!

You remember Lynn, right? Lynn is the sad stink-bug in the corner, the one with the confused eyes and the hardened Magic-Shell face. Well, she's often befuddled and slightly frightened by the world, so she spends a lot of her time just wandering around her rented house, staring at walls or dust motes for hours, making a soft purring or humming noise. Unfortunately this doesn't leave her with a lot of time to spend with her two teen daughters, precarious little dumplings who demand crazy things like expensive cars and plastic surgery and some modicum of parental guidance. Gretchen had taken a selfish interest in this phenomenon. She'd heard one of the daughters, we'll call her Alexa, tell her disinterested mother (Lynn had been floating face down in the bathtub at the time) that she was "depressed." Aha! This was Gretchen's in. She figured she'd take the girl shopping and command her to open up about her depression and then she'd be St. Gretchen, rescuer of troubled teens, rather than Devil Gretchen, dater of dying men. Being that she's bumbling Gretchen, of course it backfired.

A normal person, if genuinely concerned about a potentially troubled youth, would have taken an interest in the young lady but not aggressively demanded that she fess up about why she's such a depressorama all the time on the first friend date. A real person would have opened the door and waited patiently for the girl to walk through it herself. But not Gretchen! Those cameras aren't gonna be around forever, so she's on a tight schedule. Because almost everyone on this show is broke, she took the young lass to a thrift store. Alexa seemed a understandably confused about why any of this was happening, but ever since her mom came home with that flummoxed expression on her face and said "Camera... crew...", nothing has really made sense, so she went along with it. Gretchen fondled a few garments and said "Oh this is cute..." for a few minutes until she pounced. "SO WHY ARE YOU SO DEPRESSED?" she bellowed in the small clothing store. Alexa, being a teenage girl, just about died. Anyone would have died. It was embarrassing.

It didn't go quite as Gretchen had planned. She'd been expecting tearful and beautiful revelations, instead she got a forced, stuttered explanation from the girl and then awkwardness. Ah well. At least the cameras had documented her making her concerned face. For her part, Alexa fled miserably to her mother's side. Her mother, when not murmuring softly to the curtains or investigating a line of ants marching toward the kitchen counter, is always at the gym. There she was trotting on an enormous treadmill, heaving great weights into the air with alarming ease, drinking powdered protein milkshakes, hurling a medicine ball around the room. Alexa made a weary attempt to follow her mother's regimen but quickly gave up. "Gretchen's weird," she said, as Lynn lifted a Kia over her head and did an exercise jig. Lynn nodded, unfazed. "She is weird," she said lazily. But then slowly it dawned her. Gretchen was being something of an undermining fink, wasn't she! Trying to backseat parent Lynn's precious daughter, Whatshername. The girls talked about how annoying that was of Gretchen and then Lynn just walked out mid-conversation, disappearing into the afternoon sun to places unknown, even to her.

Back at the crumbling mansion that is Tamra's life, things were not good. She'd gone looking for houses to rent as her family is broke and downsizing, and Simon — home sulking and nursing his wounds — hadn't come. She'd gazed wistfully at an old house they'd lived in once and said quietly "That was when I was happiest..." She laughed and said bitterly, "Now I'm miserable." That actually happened on the show! And it was sad.

She then went to lunch with her thistly mother, a woman made weary and awkward by her daughter's strange and flashy life. I'm pretty sure they were at a fondue place or something, but all they were doing was eating the little squares of bread with their forks, not dipping them in cheese or anything. I think they misunderstood the assignment. Anyway, the two women talked about Tamra's dad and how things hadn't worked out in that marriage and Tamra held it together as long as she could but finally burst into tears. She wailed out the word "divorce" and, though you'd expect the clouds to have gathered and darkened, a pinprick of sunshine actually gleamed through. Maybe Tamra will get out, we all thought. She's got a lot of work to do, but leaving Sour Simon would certainly be a good start. Who knows.

As some sort of cruel juxtaposition, Vicki and Don were having a grand old marriage-reviving time down in the Turks and/or Caicos. They'd been fattened by mussel-member and now it was time to renew their wedding vows. Yes, Vicki had surprised a tearful Don (so much crying! I love him!) with a little beachtop re-wedding ceremony. So they stood in the floury sand and read kind words to one another (most of this episode was about Vicki reading sappy love notes to Don) and then Vicki presented him with a final gift. It was a glorious new wedding ring, since they'd been poor long ago and skimped on his commitment jewelry the first time around. It was a big gaudy washer of a ring, but Don was happy. The late-setting sun twirled and hummed and it was a very nice moment. Until, of course, Vicki had to go and sorta ruin it by tearfully saying "It's 10 karats, princess cut diamonds, me and Betty Parker designed it." Hah, oh Vicki. Always with the classy talk, with the talk of goods and things purchased, always with this money. But it was OK. Don didn't care, or maybe he did and loved her still. The kindly priestman smiled and blessed their re-union and the two folks strolled off, hand-in-hand down the beach, warm waves lapping the shores, an eternal round of gushy applause.

And though they didn't notice — how could they, so huddled and safe in their little binary world — Lynn was there, bobbing by on the horizon. She'd ended up somehow back in the ocean. She carelessly and casually floated by, her skin browning and tightening in the natural sun. The waters below her fathoms deep and mysterious.

Somewhere down there in the murky and life-giving abyss were the conchs. All the pearly piles of them. Conchs breathing and eating in shells. Conchs struggling along in their own slow way. Conchs cuddling up together, conchs "making love" (as Vicki put it), conchs birthing and mating and dying. Like all of us up here in our own sandy muck.

Conchs just being conchs, as best as they can.