Spoilers below for The Conners' Season 3 finale, so be warned if you haven't yet watched!
In closing out its third season - technically its fourth if you count the single Roseanne season - The Conners delivered two marriage proposals. One of them went quite well, with John Goodman's Dan and Katey Sagal's Louise officially getting engaged, and Sagal is set to be around more for Season 4. Conversely, Sara Gilbert's Darlene was quite a bit less successful with her attempt to fully commit to Jay R. Ferguson's Ben, as he not only turned down the proposal, but also cemented their temporary-or-otherwise break-up.
That scene was psychologically haunting in most respects, with Darlene going totally transparent with her crafty house-fun gift and the ring she bought, and Ben choosing that point to lay many of his grievances out. Even though I actively wanted the two characters to split up, it was still rough to watch, and The Conners executive producer Dave Caplan told CinemaBlend that the show's writing staff has debated Ben and Darlene's relationship woes as much as fans have. In his words:
As we've been following the Ben and Darlene relationship, there's been arguments in the writers room about, 'Gee, how far should Darlene push him?' and 'How patient can Ben be, or is Ben being unreasonable?' We love the fact that this relationship is so passionately divided amongst our audience. There are people that think that Ben's put up with a lot, and there's people that think that Darlene's put up with a lot, and we love that. Because sometimes the men and the women in the writing room see it very differently. We were always surprised when the women in the writing room said, 'Ben is just being too passive. I don't know why he's not standing up for himself,' and the men in the room would say, 'Wait a second, we thought he was being a pretty good guy!' We have wonderful debates in the writing room about the Ben and Darlene relationship.
That all sounds natural enough, since most relationships have those who champion their success, with others who seek for it to crumble. (Probably not quite as hectic a debate as the Bears and Packers rivalry that Laurie Metcalf's Jackie fed into after her Jeopardy! appearance, but still.) And within Darlene and Ben's courtship, there have been obvious pitfalls and quagmires that made things difficult, with many of them stemming from Darlene's mental capacity for handling her erratic and turmoil-filled life. Here's how showrunner Bruce Helford explained it to me:
Like in most relationships, they've both got points that they're right and wrong on. I mean, it was rightly pointed out that she needed something right now in her life, and she went to him for it. It wasn't like she was trying to go around him and all that. And he just wasn't there for that. But at the same time, she did make it just so difficult for him to trust that she would be there in the long run, and not all of a sudden find [reason to leave]. Because there were lots of moments when... Darlene's been on a very up and down path, I think mostly since she gave up her writing. I think that's when we kind of saw the cracks in her life is when she's realized that she had to get realistic about things and stop dreaming about this life as a writer, that that was going to be able to carry her financially and stabilize her family. Then she was finding herself at the factory and all these things; not necessarily what she wanted, but it worked out okay, and all of a sudden, she's got a better job at the factory. I think all this stuff is very confusing and difficult for her. The panic attacks were really the moment where you knew that there were things in in her psyche running contrary to the action in her life. So it's been a really interesting ride to this point.
With that being the case, I found it all the more heartbreaking that Darlene put the time and artistic passion into creating that little house, which should have meant a lot to Ben, only for him to merely see it as an "aw shucks" gesture. (I can't imagine why she would continue not living with this true Casanova, he said sarcastically.) Of course, while Ben obviously isn't able to get inside Darlene's head and truly appreciate all of her emotions and impulses, she's similarly unable to fully understand things on his level.
In Ben's mind, he will always take second place to whatever else Darlene has going on in her life with the rest of her family. And while I'm sure he does understand the value in that somewhere deep down, he's clearly not comfortable being put on the back burner. And EP Dave Caplan explained why that's a long-running theme for this show and its family.
There's also a series theme we're exploring here, which is that the Conners are able to survive the turbulent winds of life by banding together as a family. And that can make it hard for people trying to have a relationship with a Conner. We saw Darlene choose family over Ben a couple of times. When Dan needed help with the mortgage, and when Becky needs help with her sobriety, Darlene's there. But that can be hard for somebody like Ben trying to have a relationship with a Conner, so we wanted to explore that a little bit, too.
I know I'm not the only viewer out there who watched such a heartbreaking scene and came out of it with the mindset that Ben was being a total vindictive douche by letting Darlene go through her entire proposal spiel just so he could say no and spark the break-up. However, showrunner Bruce Helford explained that's not exactly the case, and that Ben was processing everything in the moment just as audiences were, saying:
No, for me, I thought that he was... Because when she said her big apology in the episode before that, he was clearly not totally accepting the apology, right? I mean, he was being a little snarky about everything, but I don't think he had made up his mind to stop the relationship. I think he would have let things continue and see if they get better, but when she puts the metal to the road there, I think he at that point had to be totally honest and was kind of forced to say what was on his mind, and not go further there. So I think for me - Dave, I think we talked about this at length - he was making a decision in that moment. When he sees the ring, he's making a decision in the moment: 'How do I handle this? What do I do? I'm not ready to get married to this woman, and yet, I don't know that I'm ready to let her go.' Because he says, 'I need time to think.' He says, 'If you push me right now, I will have to say now, but I'd rather have time to think about things.'
It's entirely possible that if Darlene had just given him the crafted house and the idea for saving money, Ben might have again handled things sarcastically, but he probably wouldn't have gone so far as to end the relationship for the time being. But seeing Darlene make such a giant (and, again, impulsive) decision with her wedding proposal just brought him over the edge, because it likely brought to mind all of the ways their engagement could backfire from Darlene's lack of 100% commitment. I mean, he brought up David (though without saying his name), so he's clearly got a strong pessimistic foundation to work from.
To that end, Dave Caplan explained another creative goal with Darlene and Ben's relationship was to explore how people react to emotional resentment, especially when it just keeps building without much relief. In Caplan's words:
Yeah, we wanted to see how resentments build sometimes to a breaking point. That, in a relationship, the little resentments seem like something that you can kind of forgive in the moment. But they build up, and they can build up sometimes to an explosion. And then you say, 'Well, how did we get here?' But with all the little things that you didn't talk about along the way. So I think Ben has been saving up a lot of the little resentments for things that Darlene has done, and tried to be a good guy and forget them. But you know, as the popular book says, the body keeps score of traumas, and eventually, the chickens come home to roost.
Could Darlene and Ben eventually get back together during Season 4 and beyond? It's entirely possible, especially if Darlene takes their break-up period to reassess her life and her priorities. If Dan and Louise are getting married, that may mean good things for the house's mortgage being paid in a timely manner. And then if Becky does indeed have her alcoholic instincts under control, then it frees Darlene up to worry more about Ben. At least, barring Harris having any major problems, or DJ and the returning Geena going through some shit, or another old friend returning from her childhood just to die a few days later. Darlene is just kind of surrounded by problematic people, isn't she?
The Conners secured its Season 4 renewal ahead of the Season 3 finale, so there's nothing to worry about on that front. Now it's up to the writers to figure out if Darlene is going to find ways to make things work with Ben, or if she's going to buy another couple of tickets to Hawaii so she and Brian Austin Green's Jeff can work on some major stress relief. While waiting for all the great 2021 Summer TV shows to arrive, all Season 3 episodes of The Conners are available to stream on Hulu.