If the Jenny-Marina relationship was last season’s dark, intense storyline, that dubious honor goes to Bette and Tina’s relationship this season.
Bette’s guilt over her infidelity and her struggle to win Tina back is realistically messy and well-paced: every time Bette seems to make some progress with Tina, she loses ground again, frequently through her own missteps, but just as often through events that are beyond her control. This is Bette’s primary task for the second season: to accept the fact that she can’t control everything and everyone, including Tina.
Beals plays Bette with just the right amount of edginess and despair, as a woman constantly on the verge of losing control while trying to process a jumble of emotions: guilt, confusion, longing, anger, and humility. Although Beals delivered a strong performance last season, her performance this season combined with excellent character development by the writers, make Bette a far more complicated and nuanced character.
Tina experiences a similar roller-coaster of emotions, and Holloman infuses Tina with a believable mix of confusion, longing, and bursts of strength (although it strains credibility that a very obviously pregnant Tina makes it through several episodes without anyone guessing she might be pregnant, even if it is later revealed that her friends chalked up the weight gain to depression). Tina’s journey from a quiet wife who often submitted to her partner’s more dominant personality to a woman determined to be independent is also one of this season’s highlights.
The series also does a good job of exploring the lack of legal protections given to lesbian relationships through Bette and Tina’s storyline, without being too preachy about it.
Complicating Bette and Tina’s relationship is new character Helena Peabody (Rachel Shelley), the confidant, attractive British daughter of wealthy art patron Helena Peabody (Holland Taylor). Unlike Dana’s girlfriend Tonya (Meredith McGeachie), Helena is a villain you can dislike but at least respect, and a worthy opponent to Bette. On the surface, in fact, the characters of Bette and Helena are very similar, but Helena possesses a ruthlessness that stands in sharp relief to Bette’s good intentions.
Helena’s open pursuit of Tina knocks both Bette and Tina off-balance in a way that adds dimension to the Bette and Tina storyline, and even those rooting for Bette and Tina can’t help but admire Helena’s boldness and willingness to go after what she wants.
The strain Bette and Tina’s separation puts on their friendships with the rest of the characters is an interesting subplot, and one to which many viewers are likely to relate. Bette’s friendship with Alice is particularly effected, as Alice becomes increasingly torn between her sympathy for Tina and her longer-standing friendship with Bette (whom she dated in a former life).
An unexpectedly pleasant development is the tentative friendship that forms between Bette and Jenny, who reaches out to Bette when the others shun her like the school outcast taking pity on the dethroned head cheerleader. When Bette comments to Jenny that she doesn’t know why Jenny is even talking to her, since she wasn’t very nice to Jenny when she cheated on Tim with Marina, Jenny responds “I don’t know. I guess because I know how that feels.” Their friendship brings out a different side to both women, making them each more likeable.