In a desperate attempt to avoid real time panic attacks watching apocalypse coverage on election night, my family and I turned on an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, which we have been casually cycling through on Netflix for the past several months.
The episode we picked, “To Tell or Not to Tell,” opens with Rob’s goofball co-writers, Buddy and Sally, entertaining a party at the Petrie house with their regular vaudeville shtick: “D’you hear about the stick-up on the bridge??” “No!” “Yeah! Who do you think threw it up there?!” Rob follows, gamely, with a mimed and narrated impression of Buddy taking his giant police dog for a walk in the park, producing a scene of physical comedy so sharply athletic I wasn't sure I wasn't watching an Olympics-level floor routine. Finally, Rob, Buddy and Sally all pull Laura from her spot tucked behind Rob’s producer boss on the sofa to put in her own performance. “No, no, I couldn't,” she demures, seemingly abashed at the prospect of bringing back for her friends even a shade of her wartime entertainment career. “I'm just a housewife!” But before the final syllable is out of her mouth, Laura is kicking and twirling and loving every (hour and a quarter, according to the punchline) minute of it.
This, it turns out, is the greatest fear of every man she knows.
“You lost a wife and gained a roommate,” Buddy tells Rob in the Alan Brady Show writers’ room the next day, immediately going on to advise Rob to go home and break every record in the house/have a second baby, and then to take Laura on a ski trip. “She doesn’t know how to ski!” Rob laughs dismissively. “She’d break her leg!” “YEAH,” Buddy rejoins, all wide eyes and enthusiasm.
The very worst thing Rob could do, according to Buddy, is support his wife’s rediscovered passion. “All career women are the same,” he explains. “They're like fire horses: one whiff of smoke and they want to bust out of the stable!” This injunction becomes exponentially harder when their producer comes into the office to offer Laura a week-long job filling in for one of their dancers.
“Don't you dare tempt her!” Buddy shouts across Mel to Rob. “Well, if you'd rather not risk it…” Mel follows up, catching Buddy’s meaning. “Laura is PLENTY happy as a housewife and mother,” Rob answers them both, so sure of his read on his wife's inner life that he does the what he clearly sees as the gracious thing and calls to tickle her with the cute idea. “I think I know my wife well enough to hope that she'll say what I know she thinks that I hope she'll say,” he mugs, as 2016 pollsters take notes.
Laura immediately takes the job.
She loves it; Mel loves her. He wants to give her a contract as a regular…he tells Rob. “I thought I'd better check with you first,” he explains, though a quick read of the writers’ room shows no explanation is needed.
And thus we get to the question in the episode's title: to tell, or not to tell? To his credit, Rob’s immediate inclination is to yes, tell—Laura is a grown woman who can make her own choices. But then there's Buddy again, the insecure everyman’s jokey id: “You tell a woman she's got a choice between a life of glamour, or pots and pans, what kind of a choice is that?”
What kind of choice is that?
It's no choice. Buddy knows it; Mel knows it; Sally, joking incessantly about her desperation for a fella, any fella, to take her away from the grind of the old career girl’s life, she knows it. Rob knows it.
And so: when Laura finally gets home that night after dancing exceptionally well in that week’s show, it’s on Rob to decide what track his wife's life will get to take - will he tell her about Mel’s offer, or not? A whole day and night to think about it, and he still doesn’t know. Even when Laura reveals that she is genuinely anxious over the possibility that she didn't dance as well as she had thought, considering Mel didn't say one nice word to her after the show at all, Rob hesitates. And hesitates, and hesitates.
Ultimately, the existential issue driving the episode’s conflict doesn't resolve. Or rather, in the way of sitcoms striving to reset the status quo before the next episode, it resolves passively, without forcing Rob to ask himself any deep questions about his own perspective on marriage, or to make any hard decisions as a result of those questions. Sure, the angels of Rob's better protagonist nature do eventually prevail, and he gives Laura the news of Mel’s offer. It turns out, however—through no goading of Rob’s—that Laura doesn't want to submit her body to the intense rehearsal and performance regimen that a contracted dance position would entail. She's flattered Mel wanted her, but one week was enough.
And thus Rob, along with The Dick Van Dyke Show’s 1961/syndication audience, is off the hook. Women, as talented across the board as they might be, don't really want to leave the home. Status quo restored. On to the hilarious trouble that follows Rob home when he unilaterally agrees to dogsit Buddy’s gigantic German Shepherd for a weekend.
It was played for laughs, but the amount of time Rob spends agonizing over whether or not to let Laura keep gaslighting herself is a nightmare - the exact nightmare my family had turned all election night coverage off to avoid, the nightmare of insecure white men asking the question, “You tell our women they've got a choice between a life of meaning and power, or pots and pans, what kind of a choice is that?” and too many other white men and women answering, “It's no question; stop asking and get back in your place.”
It was the nightmare of the most qualified person on earth for the office of POTUS being a fire horse of a career woman, threatening the easy life of an insecure majority, and the insecure majority forcing us all on a Trump-branded ski trip to break her metaphorical leg. It was the nightmare of all of us women having to wait for the country we’re wedded to to tell, or not to tell, just precisely how much our ambition and autonomy is unwanted.
I wish I had been shocked at the quantification of how much America still resents women, of how not seriously our equality is taken by the collective subconscious. But I wasn't. This is still The Dick Van Dyke Show’s country, full of both the laughing malevolence of Buddy's “break her leg” sexism, and the clueless benevolence of Rob’s “yes but she won't really want to pursue meaning outside of the home” variety.
It is also full of women, minorities, LGBT folk and immigrants who, just like Laura Petrie, have come out of this too-long slog into a misogynist, racist, xenophobic, hateful ballot box fire saying, “There isn't a bone in my body that isn't screaming, ‘For heaven's sake, lie down in a hot tub!’ I'm so tired.”
I'm so tired. But absorbing Hillary Clinton’s closing remarks on November 9, in which she reinforced her (and my) hope in our future as a nation saying, “I know that we still have not shattered that highest glass ceiling. But some day someone will-–hopefully sooner than we might think right now,” I was reminded: Laura Petrie launched the star power of Mary Tyler Moore, and the male-dominated writers room of The Dick Van Dyke Show gave way to the female-execed, woman-friendly writers room of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Well, I’m ready to start a Mary Tyler Moore Show re-watch. I’m also ready to keep fighting towards that glass ceiling, and for the civil rights and safety of every American.
What other kind of choice is there?