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Army Wives is one of the most recent productions of the cable network Lifetime. It is also a relatively successful one, given that it premiered on June 4, 2007, and by the third episode it had already attracted more than 3 million viewers. Based on the book Under the Sabers: The Unwritten Code of Army Wives by Tanya Biank, Army Wives takes place in army post Fort Marshall in Charleston, South Carolina, and it tells the story of four women and one man (Claudia Joy Holden, Denise Sherwood, Roxy LeBlanc, Pamela Moran and Roland Burton) that are brought together by their common bond of having a husband/wife in the military.
The Colonel’s Wife
Claudia Joy Holden has been married to Colonel Michael Holden, whom she presumably dropped out of law school to be with, for 17 years when the series starts and she has two daughters with him: Amanda, who will be starting college in the fall, and Emmelin, who looks to be about a couple of years younger.
Near the end of the season, however, we find out Claudia Joy’s real reason for dropping out of law school: she was driving home one night after hours of continuous studying and fell asleep at the wheel, killing a student from her university. She managed to keep this a secret for 20 years, until a rumour started by the vindictive Brigadier General’s wife forces Claudia Joy to come clean and admit this to our main gang.
Despite all this, Claudia Joy is most definitely the leader of the main five. Being a highly ranked officer’s wife gives her a certain seniority that makes her the go-to person for most secondary characters, and sometimes the other main army wives themselves, when help or guidance is needed. She is also the main organizer of community events with and for the other army wives in the post, such as afternoon tea parties, fundraisers and picnics, so her name, in and of itself, carries a lot of weight. Still, this doesn’t stop her from building a tight friendship with initial outcasts and relative newcomers Pamela and Roxy or maintaining an iffily platonic relationship with fellow army life veteran, Denise.
The Major’s Wife
Denise Sherwood is a self-proclaimed “wife” and “mother”. Early on in the season, we learn she quit nursing school to marry Major Frank Sherwood, with whom she has an 18-year-old son, Jeremy, and that she has been a full-time housewife ever since.
At the beginning of the season, Denise had been suffering for a while from constant abuse by Jeremy while her husband was deployed for 3 months and even before that, though it wasn’t clear exactly for how long. This prompted her to seek help in Claudia Joy and Roxy, though the relief was only temporary, as the abuse continued for a short while longer.
Eventually, Jeremy himself comes clean to his father about hitting Denise and Frank kicks him out of the house, prompting Jeremy to enlist. So, having her son away and her husband home only for a short time, Denise finally decides to go back to school and finish her nursing studies. This causes a bit of friction between her and Frank at first, as he is not used to having her out of the house for so long. Nevertheless, they get through it, and by the end of the season Denise obtains her RN license, finally looking after herself, for a change.
The most immediately noticeable aspect of the Claudia Joy/Denise relationship is the excessive, and sometimes unnecessary, physical contact and the overtly loving and longing gazes going on between them at all times.
These start as early as the first episode, “A Tribe is Born”, when Denise goes to Claudia Joy and her husband after Jeremy hits her again, making them the first people she confesses the abuse to. In a weirdly emphatic close-up, we see Claudia Joy caressing Denise’s forearm with two fingers in a very intimate way, while she leans forward very close to her and looks at her deeply and soulfully: “Denise, I hope you’re not blaming yourself. This is not your fault.”
A couple other of these occur in episode 3, “The Art of Separation”. First, at the beginning, Denise offers to go with Claudia Joy to pick up Amanda from her school in Columbia after she is arrested for protesting against the war. The conversation eventually fluctuates back to Denise and she reluctantly confesses that Jeremy hit her again (which happened in the previous episode). Claudia Joy tells her that she’s there “for whatever you need” and places a hand on Denise’s elbow. Denise immediately responds by placing a hand on top of Claudia Joy’s and they stay like that for a second too long, looking at each other longingly, as if they would like to do more than just hold hands to express how much they care for the other or how much they appreciate the other for caring.
Also, Claudia Joy’s disturbed and tearful expression when Denise first tells her about Jeremy’s reoffence looks more like someone hurting because the one they love is suffering. And I don’t mean love of the friendship variety.
Later that night, after having a couple of drinks with Pamela and Roxy at a nearby bar, Claudia Joy drives Denise home. Interestingly (perhaps obviously), they both stall Denise’s going inside her house. Denise sighs, leans back and smiles contently at Claudia Joy, while Claudia Joy comments on what a beautiful night it is and they both laugh like we haven’t seen them laugh with anyone else before about the notion of finding themselves, in Denise’s words, “at a place called ‘The Hump Bar’”. Then things get serious:
Claudia Joy: Denise, I can’t imagine how hard this situation with Jeremy has been for you. But I’ve known you a long time, you are one of the strongest women I know. I’m sorry I don’t tell you that more often.
Denise: Thank you.
At this, they are just plain gazing deeply and lovingly into each other’s eyes. There’s just no other accurate description for that.
At one point Denise breaks the gaze to look back at her house and Claudia Joy is still looking at her with the same tender expression. The sparks are such that when Denise finally gets out of the car, it feels like something is missing because she doesn’t kiss Claudia Joy goodnight. What is more, Claudia Joy continues to gaze after Denise as she walks up to her house and at the very end of the scene, she sighs contently. I honestly don’t know what else to make of that.
More touching occurs later in that same episode and the beginning of the following one, “One of Our Own”. Denise receives the news that a chopper went down in Iraq and her husband was in it while at a “wine-tasting” at Claudia Joy’s with Roxy and Pamela. Now, not only is Claudia Joy the only one that actually reaches out and lets Denise cry on her shoulder, but she also follows her when Denise storms out of her living room, calling her “Sweetheart” and not backing down when Denise rather bluntly tells her not to go with her back to her house (“I wanna come!”). She also keeps reaching out her hands to touch her and immediately backing away, unsure of how Denise will react in her state but at the same time seemingly unable to keep her hands off her.
Obviously, in a situation like that, reaching out through physical contact is something anyone would have done, but the fact that it’s only Claudia Joy who follows Denise and tries to get through to her while Pamela and Roxy just watch from a distance speaks volumes to me.
In episode 9, “Nobody’s Perfect”, Claudia Joy finally tells her friends about her accident in law school to clear up the rumours. Unsurprisingly, Denise is the only one that shares the couch with Claudia Joy in her backyard (while the others take the individual seats) and is therefore the one to reach out and take Claudia Joy’s hand when the confession starts getting too emotional for her, much like Claudia Joy did for Denise when she received the news of her husband. It’s very subtle, but extremely significant because it shows their relationship goes both ways and that the deep, extreme affection Claudia Joy has been shown to have for Denise in the previous examples is indeed a mutual feeling.
The “Undying Friendship”
As squeeful as they make me, though, the constant public displays of affection between Claudia Joy and Denise are not the only thing that makes this pairing elicit alarm bells inside my head every time they share a scene. There is an even more important aspect, the vibe they transmit through their words and actions that they affect and have an influence in each other like no one else does and that they are way too important in each other’s life.
The aftermath of the news of Denise’s husband in Iraq in “One of Our Own” is the perfect example. When Claudia Joy enters Denise’s house after going back there with her, she finds Denise all packed and ready to go to Iraq by herself in an attempt to be closer to her husband. It is clearly a dangerous enterprise, but Denise seems very resolved, not backing down even when her own son tells her she just can’t go to Iraq like that and going so far as to telling him to get out of her way. However, when Claudia Joy intercepts her right before she gets to her front door, something very interesting happens:
Claudia Joy: Denise!
Denise: Claudia Joy, I have to get to the airport!
Claudia Joy: (forcefully but not yelling) No, you’re not. You’re not leaving this house, you’re not getting on an airplane and you’re not flying to Iraq. You’re staying right here, with me.
And, just like that, we can see Denise’s expression change from blind determination to the realization that what she’s trying to do is indeed impossible. Not even Denise’s own son was able to make her stop dead in her tracks like Claudia Joy’s words did.
The “with me” epilogue of that sentence is also an interesting word choice, since, given the situation, it would have made more sense for Claudia Joy to say, “You are staying right here with your son because he needs you and you need him to get through this.” However, she chooses to emphasize herself as an important part of the picture, the person who will be staying with Denise and taking care of her. Again, it is only Claudia Joy that shows this level of deliberate presence and involvement with Denise, despite the bond between the four main army wives being portrayed as strong throughout the series. It just makes one wonder.
It seems “One of Our Own” is the poster child for the Claudia Joy/Denise love. Later in that same episode (but the following day in story time), Claudia Joy and Roland are held hostage in Roland’s office at the Mercer Army Medical Center by sergeant Peter Belgrad, a distraught psych patient demanding to talk to Roland’s wife, who is his CO.
Denise is made aware of this by a phone call from Amanda, and her reaction is quite telling:
Denise: (to Jeremy, looking visibly upset) That was Amanda. I have to go to the hospital. Claudia Joy was taken hostage.
Yes, even though both Roland and Claudia Joy are in danger, Claudia Joy is all that seems to matter to Denise. And Denise is actually very friendly with Roland, as previous episodes have shown, so, you know, it’s all the more suspicious.
When the whole ordeal is over and Roland comes out of the hospital first, we see a medium-long shot of Denise, Roxy and Pamela standing on the sidelines, cheering and smiling relieved. However, a close-up of Denise’s (and only Denise’s) face reveals a restless expectancy, almost as if she still isn’t completely convinced that everything is over because she hasn’t seen Claudia Joy safe and sound and in her arms.
I would have crossed that last part out as wishful thinking, but what happens next makes it kind of true.
After Claudia Joy comes out and shares a long hug with her husband and daughters, Denise appears restless again, until she finally gives in and runs out of the barricade behind which she has been waiting for news alongside Roxy and Pamela, yelling “Claudia Joy!” When they are finally face to face, they stare at each other for a beat, both breathless but relieved and Denise finally envelopes Claudia Joy in a hug, looking up at the sky, almost in an expression of gratitude for not taking away from her another very important person in her life.
Denise then sees that Claudia Joy gets safely in the van that will take her to be debriefed, the adoring smile never once leaving her face. So, now, the only people that were worried sick about Claudia Joy so much that they needed that physical contact desperately upon first seeing her were Michael and Denise. Is anyone else seeing a pattern here?
And they just keep on coming. In episode 7, “Hail and Farewell”, after Frank kicks Jeremy out of the house for hitting Denise, she asks Claudia Joy for help, thinking Amanda might know where Jeremy is.
However, the only thing Amanda is able to say is that Jeremy is safe, so Denise asks Amanda for herself where her son is. Amanda eventually takes Denise to Jeremy and, in the process, Denise finds out that Michael told Jeremy to stay away from Amanda. As always, Claudia Joy feels the need to go over to Denise’s and apologize, not wanting, even for a second, any kind of bad blood between them but, unfortunately, she only manages to unintentionally create more:
Claudia Joy: Hi. Look, this whole situation has gotten out of hand. I should’ve told you what Michael said to Jeremy.
Denise: It would’ve made things easier.
Claudia Joy: I know, I know and I’m so sorry, Denise. I just didn’t know what to do. (Pause.) Maybe it’s all for the best.
Denise: (perks up) For the best?
Claudia Joy: (realizing she’s put her foot in her mouth) I just meant…
Denise: I know what you meant. You meant it’s all for the best that Jeremy enlisted, is that right?
Claudia Joy: (trying to get a word in, in the midst of Denise’s rant) No, that is not what I meant…
Denise: Well, it may be the best for you and it may be the best for Amanda, but I can assure you, Claudia Joy, it is not the best for me and it is not the best for my son! (Closes the door in Claudia Joy’s face.)
This argument clearly stays with Claudia Joy. Later that night, when they’re at the bar celebrating Roxy’s birthday and playing a drinking game, she looks reserved and pensive, until her turn comes and she takes the opportunity to admit her mistake and take full responsibility for it, maybe in hopes that Denise will forgive her:
Claudia Joy: I’m pissed because I made a mistake. I hurt someone and I don’t know how to make it right.
The most touching part of this is that, while Claudia Joy’s words are directed to the table at large, her eyes never once leave Denise, who immediately realizes what this is really about and lifts her eyes to meet Claudia Joy’s. For a moment, it stops being about the game and it becomes just about them and how hurt and sorry Claudia Joy is, while the rest of the table seems to disappear.
In the season finale, “Goodbye Stranger”, Claudia Joy, Denise and Roxy find themselves unfortunately inside the Hump Bar when the husband of one of their fellow army wives enters with explosives strapped to his chest, as a kind of revenge because his wife was leaving him for another man that night. As he motions to activate the switch to set himself off, we see a close-up of both Claudia Joy and Denise’s panic-stricken faces, followed by a very quick shot of their intertwined hands.
I just find it incredibly sweet that, when they are, in their minds, very close to dying, their first move is towards each other, as if they find comfort in knowing they will both be the last thing each of them holds onto. I also think it’s telling that the director chose to emphasize that with the close-up, while there is nothing of the sort between them and Roxy, who is right next to them and probably just as scared. This is not to say that neither of them cares about Roxy, but that this creates a distinction between the nature of the feelings between them and Roxy and between Claudia Joy and Denise themselves.
Given the very setup of their characters and the show itself, even if Claudia Joy/Denise were intended to be canon, a lot would have to transpire in order for them to finally be able to run off into the sunset together without any constraints, so I’m pretty sure that’s not something us shippers are actually holding our breaths for.
Nevertheless, there is still something that keeps us (or, at least, me) rooting for them with every new episode. For one, it is the obvious intimacy of their relationship, especially when compared to the friendship between Roxy and Pamela. The latter is always playful and full of fast-paced conversations and banter (“Oh, when do I get to meet this mysterious mother of yours?” “Oh, uh, first day of never, if I have anything to say about it.” “OK, so I’ll come by tomorrow.”) whereas the interactions between Claudia Joy and Denise feel slower, with deep conversations and meaningful glances and declarations of undying friendship. This is not to say that banter is never present in anything more than a friendship, but when you put these relationships side by side and add all the previous examples, the result is pretty interesting.
But the most important aspect of the Claudia Joy/Denise relationship is the wonderful ambiguity, which is, I think, the essence of their relationship. They clearly are best friends who love each other and rely on each other deeply and strongly. However, every once in a while, as we can see from these examples, there is something that pushes the boundaries between strong friendship and undying love just enough to get one wondering, and the possibilities this creates are wonderful.
The writing note about the relationship between Denise and Claudia Joy of Army Wives goes to harrisgirl