Waxing Episodic: Darlene’s tearjerking ‘Roseanne’ episode

In HitFix's new feature “Waxing Episodic,” we reflect on an episode of television we'll never forget.

One of the great strengths of “Roseanne” was the casting of its child actors, from mini Roseanne lookalike Michael Fishman as the apple-cheeked D.J. to Lecy Goranson as petulant eye-roller “Becky No. 1” and especially Sara Gilbert as snarky, sarcastic tomboy Darlene, who could dole out zingers with the timing of a seasoned comedy pro. While Goranson always felt painfully exposed as Becky and had a number of episodes built around one or another of her social embarrassments (most memorably Season 2 opener “Inherit the Wind”), Darlene — while always charmingly insouciant — was never properly dimensionalized until the Season 2 episode “Brain-Dead Poets Society,” which climaxes with one of the most quietly moving moments I've ever seen on a traditional family sitcom.

Written by Joss Whedon and directed by John Pasquin (who helmed every single episode of the show's terrific second season), the episode finds Darlene winning a class poetry contest and being chosen to read her piece aloud at the school talent show. Her refusal to do so results in a clashing of wills between Roseanne and Dan, the latter of whom is inclined to let Darlene off the hook while Roseanne insists on forcing her to participate. Their mid-episode mini-blowout in the kitchen rings entirely true because it zeroes in on an issue faced by parents the world over: whether to force their children to confront their greatest fears and risk screwing them up, or allow them to back down from their greatest fears and also risk screwing them up. It also incisively reflects the essential give-and-take that comes with raising children in a two-parent household — a tension realized with typical wit and insight during the following exchange:

Roseanne: “We owe it to Darlene to make her do this, and she's doing it!”

Dan: “That's funny, cause I thought Darlene had two parents, and this was a decision that both of them should be involved in.”

Roseanne: “Well look, okay, we obviously disagree and we have to come to some kind of a decision. And one of us is gonna be wrong. Now you just give me the chance to be wrong this time! [Pause] Look, no matter what we do, we're gonna screw our kids up! You let me mess up Darlene, and you can have Becky.”

The mother-daughter confrontation that follows this scene is equally effective, as Roseanne cuts to the core of Darlene's fears with the wise, lived-in observation: “I think you're afraid that your poem really is good. I think you're afraid to let everyone see that you've got a brain because then they'll expect you to use it.”

More conservative critics in the past have painted the Conners as bad parents, but the problem with those criticisms is that they're couched in obviously unrealistic “Father Knows Best” ideals that were effectively rendered ridiculous by the time “Roseanne” premiered in 1988. Every parent is wrongheaded in his or her own specific way, and as this episode demonstrates it's not about whether you screw your kids up — it's how badly. Anyone who has effectively moved beyond the rigid, damagingly conservative ideals of mid-century parenting will in fact recognize Roseanne and Dan as good parents, if obviously not perfect and occasionally negligent and dismissive. Roseanne in particular consistently demonstrates a willingness to sit down and listen to her kids despite being pulled in all directions by the demands of housework, parenting and keeping her marriage intact, all while perennially dancing on the knife's edge of financial ruin. This is not to mention the daily stresses of her myriad soul-crushing, low-paying jobs outside the home, from clocking hours at a plastics factory to working as a waitress at a local diner.

“Braid-Dead Poets Society” also deftly reveals a new dimension to Roseanne, whose own love of writing is illuminated through Darlene's preteen-angst storyline.* Tellingly, the episode begins with Darlene making plans to watch the basketball game with her dad while simultaneously highlighting Roseanne's utter ignorance on the subject of athletics — a plot thread that would be picked up again in Season 2's penultimate episode “Fathers and Daughters,” in which Dan and Roseanne each attempt to bond with the daughter they have the least in common with (Becky and Darlene, respectively). Forcing Darlene to read her poem in front of the school could be read as Roseanne's frantic attempt at bonding with a daughter whom she is suddenly and perhaps for the first time seeing something of herself in.

And then we have the final scene, which pays off the conflict in an unexpectedly moving climax that not only demonstrates Darlene's precocious talent for the written word but lays bare all of her heretofore unrevealed insecurities. Pasquin makes an intimate directorial choice during the reading that is exactly right, framing Darlene in close-up as she sheds the defensive layer of cynicism we have come to know her by. This is intercut with Roseanne and Jackie's tearstained reactions, which mirror the audience's as we collectively come to understand the painful forces that have shaped her wisecracking persona. The poem (presumably) crafted by Whedon also deserves special mention here for its perfect mixture of youthful silliness (“To Whom it Concerns/ Darlene's work will be late/ It fell on her pancakes, and stuck to her plate”) and adult-like sadness (“To Whom it Concerns/ Darlene's great with a ball/ But guys don't watch tomboys, when they're cruising the hall”). While it's clearly the work of a gifted 12 year old, it never feels like something that would be beyond the scope of a middle-school student. The power of the scene is enhanced by the unsophistication of the opening stanzas, which serve as something of a fakeout in relation to the world-weary melancholy of the poem's latter half:

“To Whom it Concerns/ I just turned thirteen/ Too short to be quarterback, too plain to be queen/To Whom it Concerns/ I'm not made of steel/ When I get blind-sided, my pain is quite real/ I don't mean to squawk, but it really burns/ I just thought I'd mention it/ To Whom it Concerns.”

*Roseanne's skills as a writer would be carried through all the way to the show's series finale, in which it was revealed that the bizarre and much-maligned final season was in fact a season-long dramatization of fantasy scenarios penned by Roseanne to deal with Dan's death.