It was certainly an emotional week in television. Thanks to some genuine honesty in storytelling and well-earned emotional payoffs, I shed tears in watching no less than three shows this past week. But admit it, if you watch these shows, you probably did too. No one’s judging, least of all me!
If you haven’t yet watched the most recent episodes of American Horror Story: Asylum, 30 Rock, and the US airing of Downton Abbey, don’t read on. SPOILER ALERT!
American Horror Story: Asylum – “Madness Ends”
What words come to mind when describing American Horror Story: Asylum? Certainly “shocking,” “disturbing,” and “grotesque” pop up. But surprisingly, so do “beautiful” and “moving.” Yes, the finale to AHS’s second horrific installment brought tears to my eyes. For all of the power that the series stripped of its characters, the finale presented a moving epilogue in which power was restored. Sister Jude, played by national treasure Jessica Lange, finally found the peace she deserved, thanks to Kit Walker’s compassion. He rescued her from Briarcliff, not for her sake or even his, but for his children. This act of forgiveness, along with the help of his half-alien children (this is still American Horror Story: Asylum, mind you), rehabilitated Jude back to sanity.
Behind all the blood and guts, the beating emotional heart behind American Horror Story: Asylum’s showed itself through its genuine empathy in concluding Sister Jude’s character arc. Jude began the season in a villainous light, stoking Briarcliff’s wretched fire by committing acts of wrongful imprisonment, electro-shock therapy, and the like. Through various twists and turns, she became the asylum’s prisoner, and took hold of the audience’s sympathies. By the end of the journey, she found redemption and grace, acting as the surrogate grandmother to Kit’s children, and reveling in her new-found purpose. Her final moments on her deathbed were deeply moving, as she parted one last piece of feminist wisdom to Kit’s daughter: “Don’t you ever let a man tell you who you are or make you feel like you’re less than he is.” As Jude passed away, her redemptive ending turned out to be even more gratifying than any vengeful arc could have been. Jude accepting the Angel of Death’s kiss was gorgeous, heartbreaking, and just about the classiest way to close her character’s ascent from madness.
30 Rock – “A Goon’s Deed In A Weary World”
When looking back at 30 Rock‘s seven seasons, it’s easy to recall such hilarious moments as Jack Donaghy’s role-play therapy for Tracy Jordan, Liz Lemon inadvertently parading around as the Joker, or Jon Hamm in blackface. The series prides itself on its pop-culture irreverence, but underneath its layers of self-aware cynicism lies a sincere fondness for its characters. At the end of 30 Rock’s penultimate episode, when the TGS crew members quit in front of the Kabletown board members for the sake of Liz Lemon’s happiness, I reached for a Kleenex. This honest gesture of support and sacrifice was a truly earned emotional moment, seven years in the making, and I shed tears of joy.
Many (ruth-filled) television sitcoms would end its series run with the big, happy wedding, but not 30 Rock. With Liz and Criss’ wedding occurring mid-season, the big, happy ending for 30 Rock and for Liz Lemon became motherhood. Liz has always struggled to find a balance between her personal life and her work life, wrangling her unruly, impulsive TGS crew as she might her own children. But in these final moments, her TGS crew finally stepped up to the plate, sacrificing themselves to allowing Liz to make it to the airport on-time to greet her new adopted children, an experience she would only have once in her life. Liz Lemon is finally getting everything she’s wanted, fully embracing her very own children, fittingly, a mini-Tracy and mini-Jenna (Liz: “That seems about right.”). Here’s to the final episode!
Downton Abbey – “Episode Five”
Judging by my Facebook and Twitter feeds, everyone, including myself, succumbed to the ugly cry when Julian Fellowes killed off Lady Sybil. This unflinching tragedy was the hardest emotional gut punch Downton Abbey has faced in its three seasons. But why the heavy sobbing, even if we can’t personally relate to lords, valets, and early 20th century England? It’s a testament to the series’ strong writing and acting (save for this season’s Batezzz storyline) that we have such a deep emotional investment in its rich, vibrant characters. Sybil’s strong moral compass and pure heart made the loss even more devastating, as her sense of humanity brought a refreshing ease to the Crawlely household.
Sybil’s final episode proved a fitting showcase for Downton Abbey’s SAG award for Best Ensemble in a TV Drama, which it won this past Sunday. All of the characters, both upstairs and downstairs, grieved in their own personal way. Each of these moments proved to be emotionally wrenching, from Branson holding his motherless child, looking out into vast empty world, to the Dowager Countess quietly soldering forward into Downton Abbey, about to join her mourning family, to Thomas’ breakdown outside the kitchen, acknowledging the loss, “In my life, I can tell you, not many have been kind to me. She was one of the few.” Narratively, Sybil’s death will prove to be a rich source of conflict driving the series forward, in pushing characters apart, especially between Lord and Lady Grantham, and sisters Lady Mary and Lady Edith. Emotionally, however, Sybil’s demise brought everyone together in a standstill from which the characters and we, the audience, are still recovering.