Spoilers below for the latest two episodes of The Conners, so be warned!
Just when you thought it was safe to celebrate The Conners bringing horror scream queen Danielle Harris back into the franchise fold as Roseanne's Molly Tilden, the ABC sitcom said "Hold up now." A week after the guest-casting news broke, Harris appeared in Episode 315 – "An Old Dog, New Tricks and a Ticket to Ride" – and lit an inspirational spark in Darlene that reminded her to try and enjoy life when possible. And then Molly went and got killed off.
Indeed, when The Conners opened up the very next episode, Molly's mom informed Darlene that Molly died after suffering from brain cancer, an ailment she had not disclosed with her old friend. (Danielle Harris has an amusing story behind her performance, too.) When CinemaBlend spoke with The Conners' showrunner Bruce Helford and executive producer Dave Caplan, I asked what the idea was behind bringing back an old school character like Molly specifically to seal her fate in such a way, and here's how Caplan explained it:
Obviously, we were really interested in the Molly character as she pertained to what Darlene is going through in her life generally, and in her relationship with Ben. The end of Molly's arc really was intended to do something very specific in that Ben and Darlene relationship. So that's the way we were really thinking about it. As much as we love Danielle and would love to have her forever, she was serving a greater purpose here, and that was to push Darlene into a mental state that made her question a lot of the things that she took for granted in life: how she lived her life, how she managed her relationships, and what she wants going forward. That's one of the things we love about writing these characters is that they're still so alive, and they're still changing and growing and trying to figure out, you know, what they want. And the Molly character helps push Darlene to some new dimensions in that.
Even though Molly and Darlene's rekindled friendship was short-lived (quite literally), it was precisely the kind of game-changing Conners situation that Sara Gilbert's character needed at this stage in her life. Not a whole lot of things have been going so great, from sacrificing funds to help Dan pay the mortgage to having Ben harping on and on about moving in together. Throw in "constant bickering with Becky" and "Harris' growing independence" and it's almost surprising that Darlene hasn't been responsible for anyone else's death.
As a stubborn woman within an extremely stubborn family, Darlene isn't a character known for being self-serving or for making huge lifestyle changes, which is why The Conners' writers couldn't just make a magazine article be the inspiring catalyst to flip Darlene's status quo around. I asked the EPs if it was difficult to convince themselves that having Molly die was a better inciting incident than something that didn't involve killing characters off, and here's how Bruce Helford put it:
It needs to be something significant. It was also the irony. Back in the day in the fifth season of Roseanne, before they became enemies, Molly was the neighbor who was trying to get Darlene to kind of get out of her shell – she took her to her first concert. So we thought, all right, this is an interesting person to come back into her life. And they were such polar opposites, you know? Darlene was a little dark cloud, and Molly Tilden was this ball of energy. We thought she really could still be that person, and if she brought that into Darlene's life now, of all ironies, these two bitter rivals become close, because their lives were similar. We decided that Molly had also gone through bad relationships and kind of never got her life started. She started getting serious about a mate young, like Darlene did, and didn't really ever have her 20s and 30s. So since they shared that, we thought that would really be a way to motivate Darlene if something happened to Molly. So it was definitely very much forethought to have this cap in this way, and it was really effective. Because she now kind of looms over the universe of The Conners in a way that you see made Darlene change. I mean, you really see a big change in Darlene for a few episodes here, where she is all about joining in, like a Darlene you've never really seen before.
In the same way that Becky's sporadic problems with alcoholism are an important and ongoing part of the character's psyche, it sounds like Molly's death will continue to serve as a motivational beacon of sorts for Darlene as this season (and possibly others) goes on. That definitely adds more meaningful justification behind offing Molly, as opposed to having her death projected through a "Very Special Episode" prism. Plus, it was nice that the character died on good terms with Darlene, as opposed to there being a renewed quarrel over David or Ben or some other dude.
Dave Caplan continued, pointing out that the unexpected death of someone close can often be an alarm bell.
We needed to shock Darlene out of her complacency, and this was a way to accomplish that. One of the joys of getting older in life is that you realize that time is not infinite, you know? Nothing hits you in that regard as when somebody that you know goes too early. But it shakes you up and makes you look at your own life in a different way. And that's what we needed to accomplish with Darlene.
The Conners fans got to see a small sign of how Molly's death affected Darlene, perhaps most notably in the way she fought for her right to keep the tickets to Hawaii that Molly gifted her, as opposed to taking Ben's advice and getting them refunded. Plus, if Molly used a credit card, the refund would just go back into Molly's account anyway, so Ben's idea wasn't necessarily all that great. Here's hoping she held strong and hung up the phone with her tickets still intact. Maybe Sara Gilbert could get her dream by hanging out with Lisa Kudrow in a Hawaii-set episode.
With or without showing Darlene soaking up the Hawaiian sun, The Conners airs Wednesday nights on ABC at 9:00 p.m. ET.