SPOILER ALERT: This article contains details about tonight’s episode of Will & Grace.
Debra Messing reminded us tonight of just how strong a dramatic actress she can be, even in a Will & Grace episode that otherwise features Megan Mullally lip-syncing the Wicked Witch’s “I’ll get you, my pretty” speech and Eric McCormack doing his best “Leave Britney alone!”
Titled “Grace’s Secret,” tonight’s installment of the revived series (written by Suzanne Martin, directed by James Burrows) is a lesson in craft, a guide really for what used to be called – and not always so generously – “very special episodes.”
Tonight, Grace had her #MeToo moment.
Not that we don’t see it coming. The sitcom has gone serious before, and not just the usual “awwww” moments when characters bond after some combative silliness (tonight’s episode has plenty of that too). Earlier this season the show revealed Will’s college-age suicidal depression, the deepest dive the show has yet taken into Will’s youthful trauma.
Tonight, Grace got her turn, and if the storyline didn’t break new ground, Messing’s fine performance brought it home.
The set-up is this: While Will, Karen and Jack (Sean Hayes) remain in Manhattan for a dinner to celebrate Jack’s engagement – the jokes arrived in full when Will and Karen staged a lip-sync battle to determine best man – Grace reluctantly accompanied her father Martin (Robert Klein) on a car trip upstate, with plans to drop by the cemetery where Grace’s mom is buried. And where Martin’s lifelong best friend Harry is buried.
“I’ll visit Mom’s grave,” Grace warned, “but not Harry’s.”
“Oh, this Harry thing again,” said Martin, more clueless than the audience was likely to be at that point.
What’s worth noting wasn’t so much the surprise – you probably figured out Grace’s Secret well before the father and daughter hit the road – but watch how Martin and Burrows so expertly set up Grace’s response. At a roadside diner, the gregarious Martin casually flirted with a favorite waitress – old-fashioned, old-man harmlessness, calling her sweetheart and telling her she should be on the menu and such like that.
Neither the waitress nor the studio audience seemed offended – the comments got a few laughs – but Messing’s souring facial expressions told a different story. “Why do you do that?” she asked Martin, disgustedly and seemingly out of nowhere, only to be chastised that it’s all in fun, she needs to lighten up, waitresses love it. Snapped Grace, “They don’t love it.”
Then it was Martin’s turn to get angry, demanding to know why Grace still has it in for Harry, and why, all those years ago after Martin had secured a job with the friend for a teenage Grace, she embarrassed the family by stealing money from the boss. (Emergency cab fare, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).
“The whole summer that I worked for Harry I kept telling you that he was creepy,” she said. “What do you think that meant?”
But Harry was just flirty, a good guy deep down, protested Martin. Maybe Grace is misremembering.
“No. No. I remember. I remember every single thing that happened that day…It was hot, so hot I had to have my hair up, and it showed off the earrings I borrowed from mom that made me feel really grown up. At the end of the day, Harry called me in to his office….He pushed me up against the wall…pulled down my pants, put his fingers…I was 15.”
Messing’s delivery built in intensity without missing a beat of resentment, sadness, nervousness. And fury, as much at her father as at her abuser. Martin should have seen.
There are a few solid laugh lines sprinkled through the scene – “He’s dead to me!” Martin finally declared about Harry – but what sticks is Messing’s authority, her control over this material. There was even a sweet, vulnerable reference to the “best friend” who was there for Grace when she needed it most.
And no, the best friend wasn’t who you’d think. This episode got even that surprise just right.
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