Before Big Little Lies, there was Desperate Housewives. Sam Brooks lists all the truly terrible things these women did over eight seasons.
Fourteen years ago, the lives of four women (plus Nicolette Sheridan) captivated the world. What secrets did these suburban ladies have? Why did their best friend kill herself and hang around, narrating her friends’ lives like a ghostly subtweeter? Why did they try and pretend that Eva Longoria was the same age as the rest of these women?
It can be hard to fathom just how huge Desperate Housewives was at the time. It was the biggest show on the planet for about two years. It made household names of its stars and racked up a truly ridiculous amount of awards. Now it looks like somewhat of a relic – a prime time network soap opera that aired 22 episodes a season, ricocheting between heaviness (suicide, sexual assault, murder) and wackiness (Susan falling over lots) between scenes. It featured almost no household names – the most famous person on this show was Teri Hatcher, people!
I’m not here to talk about whether or not it was a good show, or what long term cultural impacts it’s had (although I’d argue this show paved the way for the likes of Big Little Lies, Orange is the New Black and even Riverdale). No, I’m here to talk about all the terrible things these monstrous human beings did over eight seasons. There’s a lot because these characters are truly nightmarish gargoyles. They make the characters on Grey’s Anatomy look like paragons of professionalism and the kids on Glee look like moral compasses set to the truest of norths.
Let’s get into it.
Content warning: Desperate Housewives touched on suicide, sexual assault, murder, emotional abuse, physical abuse, and just about every unkind or illegal thing a person can do to another person. These are mentioned below.
What’s this season’s mystery? Why did Mary Alice kill herself? Turns out it was because she was being sent blackmail notes after someone figured out that she and her husband Paul had murdered the biological mother of their adopted son, Zach. They also buried her under the pool. This is about as hinged as the show gets, plot-wise.
- Mary Alice, the narrator for all eight seasons of the show, is inexplicably interested in the lives of her terrible friends after her suicide.
- Susan thinks her neighbour Edie is sleeping with Mike, the new mysterious plumber who has moved onto Wisteria Lane. She breaks into Edie’s house and accidentally sets it on fire.
- Gabrielle, a 5’2 woman who was apparently a runway model, has an affair with her 16-year-old gardener.
- Bree poisons her husband with onions after he asks for a divorce.
- Susan’s neighbour, Mrs Huber, finds a measuring cup Susan left at Edie’s house when she set it on fire. She, of course, blackmails Susan.
- Bree breaks into her therapist’s cabinet and steals a recording of not only her husband’s session but her dead friend’s session.
- Bree tells everyone her husband cries after he ejaculates. Thanks, Desperate Housewives, for making me write that sentence.
- Carlos hits the cable guy because he thought the cable guy was sleeping with his wife, Gabrielle. But instead of saying that, he lies and says it was because he thought the cable guy was gay.
- Paul claims his dead wife wrote her own blackmail note.
- Gabrielle sends her mother-in-law, Juanita, to the casino so she can have sex with her underage gardener. Her mother-in-law is a gambling addict.
- Paul commits his own son to a mental asylum (not the politically correct term, but absolutely the term this show uses).
- Lynette gets addicted to her son’s ADD medication.
- Andrew, Bree’s son, gets drunk and hits Juanita with a car. Bree covers it up. This is the first car-related incident on Wisteria Lane.
- Paul kills Martha Huber because she stole a blender from their house after his wife died. Which is less an eye for an eye, and more an eye for a head.
- Bree reports her own son to his school for smoking weed.
- Lynette tries to get into a yoga class by saying that her son has cancer.
- Bree shoots her boyfriend in the foot.
- Gabrielle kisses another underage gardener to make him realise he’s gay.
- Bree sends Andrew to a deprogramming camp for being a ‘bad son’.
- Susan tries to get her mother to move back in with her abusive boyfriend.
- Carlos tampers with Gabrielle’s birth control pills. He then physically forces her to sign a postnup.
- Bree tries to get a priest to convert Andrew into heterosexuality.
- Bree spoonfeeds George, her new boyfriend, at his request at a restaurant.
- George poisons Rex by changing up his prescription. Rex straight-up dies. This is still not as bad as being spoonfed at request in a restaurant.
- Carlos beats up an underage gardener for not being gay.
- Zach holds Susan hostage.
- Lynette sabotages Tom’s promotion at work, Tom finds out, quits and makes Lynette go back to work so he can be a stay-at-home dad.
What’s this season’s mystery? Why is Betty keeping her son Caleb chained up in the basement? It turns out he’s intellectually impaired (oof) and accidentally murdered a girl in Chicago (oof) and they’ve fled before anybody finds out. But actually, Betty’s other son, Matthew, murdered the girl after she made fun of Caleb’s intellectual disability in a fit of rage, and he let Betty believe that Caleb murdered the girl. Also, the Applewhites are black. This is not a great season of the show, to put it bluntly.
- Gabrielle swaps her paternity test results out because she’s worried that the father of her child might be her underage gardener.
- Susan hits Edie with her car. This is the second car-related incident on Wisteria Lane.
- Betty starts drugging her basement-son.
- Lynette lets a rat loose in the house to teach her husband a lesson.
- Gabrielle vandalises a woman’s rose bush after she sees her underage gardener go inside with her.
- Lynette spills hot coffee on her boss when she can’t take her son to his first day of school.
- Andrew tells George about Bree’s sex life with her husband, who George also killed.
- Lynette kills her son’s imaginary friend.
- Susan wears her mother’s wedding dress without prompting.
- George throws Bree’s therapist off a bridge after he tells Bree not to marry George.
- George sets Bree’s ex’s car on fire.
- Lynette stages a mock kidnapping to teach her kids a lesson.
- Carlos hires Gabrielle a grief counsellor after she has a miscarriage without her knowledge.
- When George attempts suicide, Bree says she’s called the ambulance when she hasn’t. George dies.
- Lots of homophobic stuff with Bree, which is a terrible concept for a spinoff.
- Susan gaslights a doctor so he’ll date her.
- Carlos throws someone through a window after he blackmails Gabrielle with her nudes.
- Gabrielle sets fire to a nun, one of the lesser-known Adele hits.
- Betty slaps her non-basement son, Matthew.
- Lynette’s boss hazes her by getting her to eat raw bacon.
- Susan tries to marry a gay man to get health insurance. She later tries to commit insurance fraud with her ex.
- Bree slaps her son after he calls her a drunk.
- Gabrielle declares she only wants to adopt a ‘hot baby’.
- Lynette weans a five-year-old off breastfeeding by giving him chocolate milk.
- Gabrielle steals a baby.
- Bree tries to have sex with her Alcoholic Anonymous sponsor, who is also a sex addict.
- Felicia, Martha Huber’s sister, tries to bully Paul, who killed her sister, into killing himself.
- Caleb attempts to rape Danielle after being lied to by Matthew and persuaded to kiss her. Betty’s solution is to poison Caleb.
- Edie sets Susan’s house on fire in revenge for setting her house on fire a season ago.
- Andrew sleeps with Bree’s AA sponsor. Bree leaves Andrew at a gas station in the middle of nowhere in retaliation.
- Felicia fakes her own death via blood dumping and cutting off her own fingers, to frame Paul. It is somehow successful.
- Bree breaks out of a psychiatric ward after checking herself in.
- Zach murders his own grandfather so he can get his inheritance.
- Orson, a new character who will spend far too long on this series, runs over Mike on purpose. This is the third car-related incident on Wisteria Lane.
- It turns out that Matthew, the non-basement son, murdered the girl that Betty thought Caleb murdered because the girl made fun of Caleb. A lot of dumb stuff happens, and Matthew ends up being shot and killed by the police. This is not the most racially sensitive season of Desperate Housewives.
What’s this season’s mystery? What’s up with Orson? Turns out he was in a psychiatric hospital after his father committed suicide and was forced to marry his pregnant girlfriend after she miscarried. She then faked her own death after he had an affair, then his mother killed the woman he had an affair with. He then realises that his mother, Gloria, killed his father and that it wasn’t suicide at all. Also, he hit Mike with his car because he did some plumbing for the dead mistress. That’s reason enough for me to not want to get into a proper trade.
- Bree thinks she’s had a stroke. Jokes! It was just an orgasm. Also, Bree dates Orson.
- Gabrielle threatens to deport her eight-month pregnant surrogate. Somehow, this is not the last time that Gabrielle will do this!
- Lynette sets the recently divorced Carlos up with her husband’s secret ex, Nora.
- Edie gaslights Mike, fresh out of a coma after being hit by a car, about his relationship with Susan. Also, she makes him believe that she’s his girlfriend.
- Gabrielle pushes Carlos out of a window after he finds out she wants to postpone their divorce so she can get more money out of it.
- Laurie Metcalf (the mum from Lady Bird) holds everybody up at gunpoint at a supermarket. For some reason, Lynette tells Laurie Metcalf that Nora slept with her husband, so Laurie straight up shoots Nora dead. Laurie also shoots herself dead. Lynette then has to raise Nora/Tom’s kid.
- Gabrielle pulls a girl whose mother has just died out of a pageant because she’s not pretty enough. She later dates the girl’s father.
- Gabrielle holds a flower shop owner hostage so she can find out who is sending her flowers.
- Bree throws a dinner party to prove to the neighbourhood her husband didn’t murder his wife.
- Lynette flashes a guy so he’ll give her husband’s pizzeria a liquor license.
- Orson’s mother Gloria lets his ex-wife Alma, the one who faked her own death, drug and rape him. Gloria later locks Alma in the attic.
- Gabrielle embarks on a relationship with her stalker… who is Zach! Zach is her dead friend’s son.
- Orson’s mother tries to kill Bree and frame it as suicide. She later has a stroke and dies.
- There’s an episode that focuses on the men, which is disgusting.
- Edie and Carlos have an affair. They have sex that’s so bad they injure each other.
- Lynette has an emotional affair with someone who works at her husband’s pizzeria, where she now also works. She fires him.
- Gabrielle’s new boyfriend hires thugs to beat up a meter man who gave her a ticket.
- Edie gets Carlos evicted from his house so he has to live with her.
- Bree fakes a pregnancy on behalf of her daughter. She also hides her daughter away at a nunnery. Nunneries exist in the Desperate Housewives multiverse.
What’s this season’s mystery? What’s up with Katherine Mayfair! Okay, so Katherine used to live on Wisteria Lane but left in a shroud of mystery. She returns with a new husband and a teenage daughter, who she has lied to all her life saying that her husband died. It turns out that Katherine’s ex-husband was super abusive, and her daughter died young in a freak accident. So she adopted a girl from Romania who looked like her daughter and raised her as though nothing had happened.
- Gabrielle has an affair with her ex-husband, Carlos.
- Bree breaks into new neighbour Katherine’s house in order to steal her lemon meringue pie recipe.
- Gabrielle flirts with Katherine’s husband Adam (Nathan Fillion?) so she can make Carlos jealous.
- Edie turns Carlos into the IRS because he cheated on her.
- Gabrielle and Carlos accidentally knock Gabrielle’s new husband overboard, presumably drowning him. He’s fine, but tries to kill Gabrielle, as one does on Wisteria Lane.
- Armie Hammer???
- Multiple people die in a tornado, including Gabrielle’s now murderous husband, a woman Adam is having an emotional affair with (Ida Greenberg), and an old woman who sacrifices herself to save Lynette’s family.
- Bree pimps her son out to her contractor so he’ll finish fixing her house faster.
- Carlos hides the fact that he lost his sight in the tornado. Gabrielle finds this out and pranks him.
- Gabrielle exploits Carlos’ disability for better parking.
- Lynette’s twins, Porter and Preston, set Rick’s restaurant on fire because of last season’s emotional affair.
- Gabrielle uses Carlos’ seeing eye dog to help around the house, and then when the dog can’t do anything for her, she tries to take her back to the training centre.
- Edie kisses Orson when he stays with her because Bree found out he hit Mike with her car. Edie, is, of course, Bree’s neighbour and supposed friend.
- Lynette’s new stepdaughter, Kayla, turns out to be a sociopath whose idea it was to burn down Rick’s restaurant. She convinces Preston to jump off the roof.
- Lynette hits Kayla after she threatens her daughter.
- Susan lies about her financial situation to prevent her daughter from getting an internship, ensuring that she stays at home over the summer.
- Gabby steals $118k from her tenant, who is a drug dealer, and who also has that amount of money in cash!
- There’s a five year time jump, because that actually wasn’t dated at the time.
What’s this season’s mystery? What’s up with Dave? Okay, literally buckle in for this one. It turns out that during the five-year time jump, Mike got into a car accident that ended up killing Dave’s wife and child (the fourth car-related incident). Now he’s come back for revenge, which ends up with him staging an elaborate death trap where he holds Susan and MJ (her and Mike’s son) hostage on the same road that his family died on, and orchestrates it so that Mike will have to hit them with a car. At the last moment, Dave lets MJ leave the car, and there’s a harmless collision. Somewhat ironically, this is the only time someone on this show who has been around a car hasn’t been hurt by that car.
- Gabrielle tries to make her daughter lose weight by getting her to chase after a car.
- Bree feeds her vegetarian grandson meat.
- Susan pushes Gabrielle’s daughter, Juanita II, after Juanita pushes her son MJ to the ground.
- Orson pretends to go to work every day to make Bree think he’s not a loser. Orson is, even among these people, the worst.
- Lynette sets off the fire alarm at Bree’s Business Woman of the Year Award ceremony, purely out of spite.
- Lily Tomlin???
- A woman who hired Carlos as a masseur tries to climb into bed with him and Gabrielle.
- Dave, a new neighbour, sets a club on fire. In fairness to Dave, adults were doing a Battle of the Bands type thing there, so I’m willing to let this one slide.
- Gabrielle is concerned at how she looks, so she tries to get Carlos to postpone the surgery that would give him his sight back.
- Lynette pays her son’s girlfriend-slash-teacher to go to another town. She is pregnant with his child. Jokes! She’s lying!
- Lynette lets one of her twins stand trial for the other.
- Mrs. McCluskey, a plucky elderly neighbour, nags Beau Bridges into a heart attack.
- After Bree hires him at her catering business, Orson hacks into her computer to find out how much he’s making compared to her son.
- Orson becomes a kleptomaniac… for no reason? Maybe spite?
- Susan kisses someone who is at her house to evaluate her parenting.
- After robbing a house due to his spite-induced kleptomania, Orson runs into the street. Edie swerves to avoid him and hits a utility pole. She’s electrocuted to death because Desperate Housewives had budget cuts and showrunner Marc Cherry had issues with Nicolette Sheridan. This is the fifth car-related incident on Wisteria Lane. Also, the woman whose house Orson robbed dies of a heart attack, because Orson is still the worst.
- Bree tries to get her divorce lawyer to break the law when handling her divorce.
- Bree fakes a robbery in her own home and tries to pin it on Orson. When Orson finds out, he blackmails her into staying with him. Honestly, I’m still on Bree’s side here, even though she’s… a monster. Everybody on this show sucks, and if you ran into them on the street, you’d cross over to the other side.
What’s this season’s mystery? Who is Angie and who is the strangler? Angie, her husband Nick and son Danny move onto Wisteria Lane, and things get dodgy immediately, with Julie getting strangled in the bushes and put into hospital. It turns out that Angie is an eco-terrorist on the run from the cops as well as her abusive ex, Patrick. It also turns out that the strangler is Danny’s friend, Eddie, and he’s been doing it to a lot of people.
- Susan tries to crush Angie’s son Danny with a car because she thinks he strangled her daughter. This is the sixth car-related incident on Wisteria Lane.
- Katherine keys Bree’s car after Bree fires her from her catering company.
- Susan accidentally shoots Katherine with Danny’s gun.
- Bree lies to a client about being Italian, then lies to Angie about her friend being set on fire (?) so she can get her Italian recipes.
- Katherine stabs herself and tries to frame Mike for it.
- Orson, once again, blackmails Bree with insurance fraud.
- A fucking plane crashes into Wisteria Lane, a couple of years before it happened on Grey’s Anatomy. It kills Mona, who was blackmailing Angie, and Sue’s ex-husband, Karl, who happened to be having an affair with Bree at the time. Lynette also miscarries one of her twins.
- Susan pretends to be a doctor so she can get Katherine’s daughter Dylan to commit Katherine to a psych ward.
- Orson, now paralysed from the waist down, continues to blackmail Bree.
- Bree sprays Orson with a hose when he asks to be washed.
- Orson threatens to kill himself if Bree leaves him. Just great behaviour all around, guys.
- Bree’s ex-husband’s secret son Sam joins the family.
- Eddie, Danny’s friend, strangles Porter’s Russian girlfriend after she makes a joke about his appearance. He later chokes his mother, played by Diane Farr (remember Numb3rs?) to death.
- Angie’s ex, Patrick, holds her hostage so she’ll build him a bomb like the one she built in New York.
- Eddie holds Lynette hostage, then helps her deliver her baby, somehow saving the baby’s life.
- Orson leaves Bree for giving up her company after Sam blackmails her. Apparently, it’s not okay if someone else blackmails Bree.
- The bomb that Angie is building explodes, killing Patrick.
What’s this season’s mystery? What’s going on with Paul Young, who is out of prison and has a wife? Okay, so it turns out that he’s been cleared for the murder he was the frame for (the one where the lady cut off her fingers in order to frame him). Also, he’s unknowingly married to the daughter of the woman who framed him for her own murder. Exciting times!
- It turns out that Juanita II was swapped at birth with another girl!
- Susan takes a job on at ‘Va-Va-Va-Broom’, which is one va too much, and is also a website where camgirls dress up and clean rooms.
- Bree accidentally hits Juanita II with her car, mirroring when Andrew hit Juanita I with his car. It’s the seventh car-related incident.
- Lynette scoffs at Tom’s post-partum depression, then swaps out his weed for oregano. He does not leave her immediately.
- Renee is scared of little people, so Bree hires a dwarf from her church to scare Renee when she’s on a date. Those are all words I just typed, and a plotline that serious dramatic actresses Marcia Cross and Vanessa Williams had to act out.
- The gay couple kiss onscreen for the first time, several seasons after being introduced.
- Gabrielle calls immigration on her daughter’s adoptive mother after she calls her a bad mother. This woman has to flee to Texas because of this.
- Paul, who apparently has infinite money, buys up as many properties as he can on Wisteria Lane so he can open a halfway house there.
- During a protest against Paul wanting to build sad halfway house, Bree fires a warning shot into the crowd. They riot and stampade, injuring Susan and one of the aforementioned gays.
- Bree lies to the mother of her boyfriend’s child and says that he doesn’t want to meet his child.
- Gabrielle gets obsessed with a doll as a substitute for her daughter, the daughter that she got deported to Texas.
- Lynette’s mum’s new husband has a heart attack, and makes Lynette wait until morning to ring for help so that she can get his money in the will.
- Beth, Paul’s new wife, shoots herself in the head so she can give Susan one of her kidneys. Susan is also dying of kidney disease after being trampled in the Bree-induced riot.
- Bree gaslights her son into going to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
- To cover up that she is still friends with Bree after Carlos finds out that Bree’s son Andrew hit Juanita I with a car, Gabrielle says that a red hair on her coat belongs to a clown she hugged at a party.
- Felicia, the lady who cut off her fingers, frames Susan to make it look like she is poisoning Paul. She then hooks Paul up to a poisoned IV, and promptly gets hit by a truck on the highway. This is the eighth car-related incident on Wisteria Lane (technically not Wisteria Lane, but I’m counting it).
- Everyone covers up the murder of Gab’s stepfather, Alejandro, who re-emerges after many years and who tries to rape her at gunpoint. It is unnervingly similar to the plot of Big Little Lies.
What’s this season’s mystery? This one is a different vibe. Basically, the mystery is: are the Wisteria Housewives™ finally going to get any comeuppance for what they’ve done? Even though, admittedly, killing a rapist in self-defence is probably one of the few defensible things that any character has ever done on this show.
- Gabrielle hits someone with her car after she revokes her preferential parking at the school.
- Susan does an artistic interpretation of the cover-up because she’s a painter. It gets sold at a gallery, and people get suspicious. Susan is, and I can’t emphasise this enough, dumb as bricks.
- Bree’s cop boyfriend stalks her. He’s later hit by a car, which is the ninth car-related incident on Wisteria Lane.
- Susan visits Alejandro’s family to apologise and does not apologise.
- Orson moves back in with Bree, immediately gaslights her, and is revealed to be the one who sent her notes in order to get her back. These notes also drive Bree to the brink of suicide.
- Ben, the new guy, engages in insurance fraud.
- Mrs McCluskey casually asks Bree to euthanise her.
- A loan shark kills Mike in a drive-by shooting. It’s the tenth car-related incident.
- Lynette sabotages Tom’s relationship with his new girlfriend so she can get back together with him.
- Bree’s lawyer, who is defending her on a murder charge, falls in love with her.
- Mrs McCluskey confesses to the murder because she’s gonna die anyway.
- Everyone finally moves away from this crime-ridden suburban hellhole, and Felicity Huffman goes to plead guilty for fraud for bribing her kid into college. Total Lynette move, Huffman.
More definitive lists by Sam Brooks:
political & climate reportersFind Out More
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.