With a subject like that, this week’s Lou Grant HAD to be good, and not just good enough. After watching the episode, with a hypercritical mind after the last three failures, I was perhaps too detached but on balance the show managed to end on the right side of the line.
The central character was new reporter Sharon McNeil, played to perfection by Lynne Moody. Sharon’s a confident, intelligent, attractive black woman, working a story alongside Joe Rossi, not merely holding her own but balancing him out nicely, and liking him too. The story, investigating an alleged slush fund run by a fast food burger company, is a vehicle: it’s not earth-shattering, but it’s handled seriously and runs through the episode, and is intelligently used to frame the main story.
Rossi drops Sharon off at her apartment, to get her laundry in and then go on to the paper. She doesn’t get there: she’s attacked in her apartment by a creepy guy armed with a big knife, slapped around the face, her wrists tied together behind her. The intruder is played by Jonathan Banks, a familiar face (he’s already had two previous Lou Grant appearances and I’d see him again in Hill Street Blues). Banks is a specialist in playing villains and creepy bastards, and here he’s on edge from the start, slightly creepy, slightly disfunctional, someone not quite on the same plane as everyone else. He’s there to rob, perhaps he’s an addict, that’s not mentioned but it’s inferable from his slight spaceiness.
Sharon’s terrified but she stays calm, at least on the surface, tries to talk to him, act sensible, persuade him to leave without hurting her. Gradually, there being insufficient things worth robbing, the intruder slides towards rape. Sharon says it first, a subtle point later pixcked up upon by the Police, one of them acting as if that’s a mitigating factor in the intruder’s favour: you see, she put the idea in his head…
This goes on for over half the episode, intercut with things going as normal at the paper. The intruder has Sharon once, then again, with instructions to her to act like she’s enjoying it this time, a sick-making point that further emphasised that rape is not about sex but about power: I’m going to fuck you and not only can you do nothing to stop me but even as you’re hating every second of it, you will pretend to me that you’re loving it…
And when he’s gone, Sharon immediately locks every door, eveey window, and turns on the shower. Then she comes into work and everybody’s chewing her out for being late and not communicating. It takes Rossi, Rossi the self-centred sod, the ego-on-legs, the guy who’s interested in the story and nothing else, but who likes and respects Sharon, to be gentle enough to have her unburden herself to him.
And immediately he is the most immense support of all, gentle, kind, instinctively understanding the boundary between closeness and distance. The writing is sufficiently intelligent to open up about him being in part driven by guilt: he was with her only minutes earlier, he didn’t go inside with her, he knew she was coming in, he didn’t chase up her absence. All of it borrowed guilt, the instinctive impulse, paternalistic and chauvinistic in its way, that if only I’d done something, I could have prevented this.
Yet from Rossi it doesn’t come over as either of these things. It’s the concern of a friend who, yes, was close enough to have diverted it if he’d just done one thing marginally different. But the show had already foreshadowed this: Sharon had said a man was calling for her very shortly and the intruder had just said he would kill him.
The aftermath was handled neatly. Sharon didn’t want to be defined by having been raped, was carrying on as normal, putting it behind her, whilst evidently on the edge of cracking up. Everyone’s sympathy, their walking on eggshells around her, was making it worse.
This was further emphasised by the tertiary story, in which Art Donovan is seeing female tennis player Carol (Linda Carlson). Carol’s being a bit less eager abut going off for a cabin weekend with our in-house lothario, and this turns out to be because she too has been raped. There’s a scene with Mrs Pynchon expressing anger at this epidemic of rapes and the Trib’s inadequate coverage of the problem where she’s shaking in anger and once again we infer a personal element.
Carol though was raped two years ago and still isn’t over it. And once Art knows, he starts treating her differently. She accuses him of seeing her as tainted, but he explains that he’s having to second-guess himself over touching her or holding her because he doesn’t know if he’s helping and comforting or forcing himself on her in a way that disgusts her. Even so, he still falls into the trap of seeming to blame her for ‘asking for it’, which in context – and bearing in mind the diminished sensitivity to rape even now, let alone forty years ago – demonstrated very economically that even the good guys can be fucking thick.
Sharon’s going to snap, it’s just a question of when, and it comes when some middle-aged, smug, mildly creepy executive takes her arm unasked, and she screams at him.
It’s not catharsis, but it is the beginning of the healing. In a powerful scene that could, in lesser hands, have nose-dived into being didactic, Sharon explains what this has done to her, laying bare the fears of every woman, brought up to believe that their sexuality is a delight and a gift, to be shared with those for whom she cares, but now seeing that it, and them, and everything they are or want to be is at the mercy of a man, any man, who decides he will take it and will force it from her. It’s powerful in itself and more so as delivered by Moody, and I find it hard to believe that this was written by a male writer, not a woman.
There is no real end to this story because the programme has too much respect for the subject to suggest it can be wrapped up in 46 minutes. Sharon takes leave of absence to return to her mother in Kansas City and we get a surrogate ending from Carol, suggesting Art take her away for a cabin weekend: another stage in her journey back from what happened to her, and one we hope will be successful.
I think, after thinking about the episode at length, that I should revise my opinion and say that this WAS good. The writing covered an immense amount of ground without ever once seeming impersonal or didactic, and it was plotted with great economy. Everything that needed to be said was said naturally, without anyone hammering you over the head or being preachy, and the performances were pitched perfectly, especially that of Lynne Moody. It may only be once, but she will appear again, in season 5, and I look forward to it.