Wings: Joe and his mother

I posted a while back about Wings, and mentioned in passing the fascinating relationship between Joe and his mother, who only appears on the show once. It’s worth a post on its own.

The unnamed mother of Joe and Brian Hackett left them eighteen years before the show starts, when Joe was twelve and Brian probably a couple of years younger, because she was “suffocating” from the wife-and-mom lifestyle. Then she went to California, got a job at a bank, and embezzled $850,000. Then she went to jail for several years. Then she got out, and was next seen nicely dressed in Palm Springs, watching a golf tournament in which former president Gerald Ford was playing. In all this time, not once did she attempt to get in touch with her sons. Because Joe and Brian’s father was fairly useless (possibly due to whatever mental illness he died of), this left Joe in charge of “two kids: Brian and Dad”.

When Brian invites Mom to the island, Joe can barely be civil to her. Finally, she confronts him in the airplane hangar, in what has to be one of my favorite TV scenes of all time. She’s sorry, but not really repentant. After all, what’s done it done, right? Never mind that Joe inherited her “suffocating” job when she left to go enjoy herself. Never mind that Joe has “taken crap my whole life for being a worrier” because of that premature responsibility. Never mind that she could’ve gotten a divorce, or left but gotten in touch with her kids. As she openly admits that “you were a part of my life, and I hated my life”.

It’s not until Joe tells her he thought she left because he broke a cup that morning, and he’d never seen her so mad, that she begins to realize the full effects of her actions. He went to school that day and made a replacement cup in art class, but when he got home she was gone. Finally, her sympathy is aroused, and she apologizes meaningfully. Joe brushes off the apology, but it turns out he still has the pottery cup in his desk drawer after all these years, just in case she ever came back. He brings it to her, and she takes it and says it’s never leaving her side. She puts it in her blazer pocket.

Joe never forgives her. In the end, she stops asking. But she does ask for a hug, even though she says she doesn’t deserve it. He gives it to her… and the cup breaks between them, in her pocket. I always liked to believe the hug was something the studio or network required of the writers, but the writers wanted to make it real instead of TV sugar, so they found this beautiful bittersweet compromise. Acceptance rather than forgiveness.

In the end, Joe’s mother is very flawed, but human. I came away understanding how she felt without condoning her actions. Not every writer is capable of writing something so subtle and real, which is why so many rely on stereotypes to get them through. And the normal stereotype for a bad parent is Dad, who dumps the family to go merrily on his way. Wings proves how well this role can work for a mother.

It’s worth noting that when Wings was produced, the US was pretty focused on deadbeat dads who tried to cheat their own children out of support payments. To show the other side, Wings risked being accused of a misogynistic backlash in portraying a deadbeat mom. But because Wings skipped the stereotype and developed Joe’s mother to the point that she clear represented no one but herself, there was never any doubt they were doing anything but telling a very human story. Not a man’s or woman’s story.


  1. scarlett says

    I love shows which portray women as human, and by extension, deeply flawed. That’s probably why I spent my study break watching reruns of Blue Heelers and season one of BsG.

  2. Gategrrl says

    oh, your article brings back memories. I am going to order Wings now. I was waffling – but it was a geniunely good show, like Bob Newhart and Mary Tyler Moore, etc that was true comedy – *human* comedy with real people (or as real as it gets on US television).

    BTW, what about some articles on the MTM show? I think Bob Newhart also was unusual in that his TV wife, a teacher, had no interest in having children: none of the other women in the show had children (although were looking for men to date) and it did gently push gender boundries. Remember Ted, the airheaded “blond” newscaster, who ended up marrying Georgette, who although blond herself, was no pushover and really wore the pants in her family. :-)

  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    Oh, that would be great! Unfortunately, it’s been so long since I’ve seen either of those, I wouldn’t trust my memory. But if you want to write it, or want to collaborate, lemme know.

  4. says

    Ditto! My friend Karen wrote an article about women-as-actual-humans recently (see the whole thing here) that put it really well, I think: “Women aren’t ministering angels of sense and sensibility; they’re people.”

  5. Glaivester says

    I assume you are talking about The Bob Newhart Show and not Newhart? Although actually, his wife had no children in Newhart either. I think in his third (this time unsuccessful) sitcom, Bob! he had a daughter, but she was grown up.


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