Major spoilers below for the doubled-up airing of The Conners, featuring both “An Old Dog, New Tricks and a Ticket to Ride” and “A Fast Car, A Sudden Loss, and A Slow Decline,” so be warned!
Though Becky’s growing troubles with alcoholism were a major focus on The Conners during the back-to-back episodes airing Wednesday night, her drunk actions around her baby daughter somehow didn’t supply the most surprising disturbance the sitcom had in store for viewers. (Okay, so Jackie’s “joke” about Beverly Rose being stuck between the mattress and the wall probably wins that one.) In any case, The Conners welcomed Roseanne vet Danielle Harris back to reprise her long-absent role of Molly Tilden for Episode 315, only to turn around and kill her off in the beginning of the next episode.
Right offhand, I can’t think of any other Conners moments from these first three seasons that shocked me the way Episode 316 did when Molly’s mother calmly revealed to Darlene that Molly died of brain cancer, an ailment she didn’t bring up at all as she and Darlene were reconnecting. But as sad as that whole ordeal was, actress Danielle Harris shared a particularly hilarious behind-the-scenes story with CinemaBlend about being oblivious to her character’s eventual fate until midway through shooting the episode. Here’s what she told me:
So it was funny, because three days into the episode, Sara actually was the one [who told me what happens]. We were just about to do our network run through, and at the end of the day, we were doing that kitchen scene where we give her tickets to Hawaii. And I’d gotten some note about maybe being more vulnerable or something, and some of the notes were just not making the most sense to me. And Sarah said, ‘You know what your backstory is, right?’ It’s like, ‘No. My backstory?’ And she said, ‘Oh, you have cancer.’ And I was like, ‘What? Cancer? Oh, God! Now it all makes sense! I understand!’ So it changed the tone for me, for sure, and what was underneath a lot of the dialogue made more sense now. So I thought at first upon reading, it was like, ‘Oh, Molly’s back to serve trouble, and she’s trying to let Darlene let loose. And hey, she’s got a friend now.’ Then I went, ‘Oh, okay, she’s actually gonna die.’ So it was bittersweet and sad, but it was relevant and deep and real life. So let’s just say my kids are going to watch the first episode; they’re not going to watch the second episode.
Man oh man oh man oh man. Is there a worse realization to arrive at when it comes to guest-starring on a TV show than being in the middle of production and learning that your character’s death is hyper-imminent? Granted, Danielle Harris fully understood that she wasn’t signing on for the long haul or anything, so it’s not like she had far-flung expectations about her future on The Conners. But still, it definitely helps for an actress to know if her character has cancer and is standing firmly at death’s door. It sounds like Harris was rehearsing the material in a more naturally straightforward way, without grasping the meaning behind the subtext in the script. Ah, the power of hindsight.
Considering how Episode 315 ended, with Molly buying first class plane tickets to Hawaii to share with Darlene, Danielle Harris can’t be blamed for having an iota of hope that her character would have more of a presence in the future. In her words:
Because I was like, ‘Ooh, maybe we’ll go to Hawaii. We could shoot the episode in Hawaii!’ Which of course is fantasy. Then I was like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna die. Of course, I’m gonna die.’ Even when I don’t do horror movies, I still die. [Laughs.]
Danielle Harris is a bona fide scream queen seen in many different horror movies and franchise, so deaths and other foul-minded atrocities are definitely in her wheelhouse. She’s arguably most known for portraying Jamie Lloyd in the original Halloween films, and for returning as a new character in Rob Zombie’s reboots, but she’s also been in Urban Legend, Left for Dead, the Hatchet films, Chromeskull: Laid to Rest 2 and more.
When I asked if she thought the showrunner and producers had intentionally kept her out of the loop about Molly’s death in order to inspire a more natural performance, Danielle Harris said she believed it was all accidentally due to a missed connection somewhere along the line.
No, I think it was just an honest oversight. I really do. Because all of the notes were gearing towards the fact that I probably should have already known that. And I was like, ‘Wow, they want me to be really vulnerable. really emotional. Okay. All okay. I’ll dig deeper.’ And then it was like, ‘Okay, this is becoming…’ Because, you know, when the director says, ‘I want you to be really pissed at her,’ me being really pissed at her is a much different level. I mean, like, sitcom-pissed and Danielle-pissed is different. So I was like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna have to kind of bring it back in a little bit.’ But then once I realized the tone just needed to be kind of altered a little bit, then it all kind of made sense, and it worked. So, I think I definitely needed to know that note.
That whole experience is enough to inspire me to want to ask “Is my character going to die immediately?” right after getting a script. So I guess it’s lucky that nobody ever sends me scripts for anything where I’m included as a character, even if it doesn’t feel like luck.
With hopefully fewer deaths (either real or fictional) and crying babies involved in future episodes, The Conners airs Wednesday nights on ABC at 9:00 p.m. ET.