However high your hopes were for queer women on TV this fall, they were not high enough. Let me help you adjust them. Climb up onto this box, and now up onto this ladder, and now onto the top of this building, and get in this helicopter and ride up into the sky and board that high altitude jet through the trap door, and strap yourself into the extraction rocket, and shoot yourself out space. Okay, now your hopes are high enough.
Last night, Shonda Rhimes’ TGIT line-up — Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder — returned to ABC, and brought with it six lesbian and bisexual characters (one black woman, one Latina woman, two white women, and a pair of heartbreaking teenagers). It also featured nearly a dozen female empowerment narratives and, as usual, made the Bechdel Test look like asking a calculus professor to count to ten. That last thing isn’t surprising. ABC and Disney finally gave in this year and decided to market TGIT for exactly what it is: The most diverse, female-driven night of television in history.
The extensive queerness, though? Well, that was a delightful shock!
McDreamy who? The season 12 premiere of Grey’s Anatomy makes nary a mention of Derek Shepherd. Instead, it focuses on Bailey fighting for the job of Chief, rightfully getting the job, and smiling out onto the hospital while Mr. Bailey stands behind her saying, “Behold, everything the light touches is yours!” It focuses on Arizona returning to her full Arizona-ness and realizing she’s some kind of mythical legend among the interns; most of them think she’s immortal (and some of them think she’s faking being an amputee for the parking space). It focuses on Amelia and Maggie and Meredith tag-teaming to tear down a literal and metaphorical wall in their house/lives.
Mostly, though, “Sledgehammer” focuses on Callie and two teenage lesbians who hurled themselves in front of a train.
When the teenagers arrive in separate ambulances, Callie notices right away that they have the same hearts drawn onto their arms. So, when Callie begins working on Jess, the one who is conscious, she strokes her hair out of her face and says, “Jess, I’m going to tell you something personal about myself, okay? I like men, romantically sometimes, and I like women, too. It’s a big, big part of my life. Can I ask you something personal about yourself? Do you like girls? Do you like Alia?” The look of relief on Jess’ face when Callie tells her she’s bi is so real and so wonderful. She tells Callie that she doesn’t just like Alia; she loves her.
Callie: What were you two doing out there?
Jess: It’s not that we wanted to die; it’s just that this was the only way we could stay together, forever.
Callie: No, Jess. No, there are so many other ways. Killing yourself solves nothing.
Jess: My parents are sending me away to a camp. They come and get you in the middle of the night and they take you to this place. They change you. They’re going to make me change my mind about Alia.
Alex: No, they won’t. There’s no way. Those places don’t work. They never work.
Jess: Please don’t call them. Please, you can’t call my parents. Please promise me you won’t call them.
Of course her parents have already been called and they’re a real piece of work. Her mom is a nightmare, accosting Alia’s dad when she overhears him talking to Meredith about how his daughter is there because she got hit by a train, and accusing Alia of preying on and contaminating Jess with her lesbianism. “You keep your damn daughter away from our little girl,” is a thing she spits into Alia’s dad’s face. And: “They think they’re in love. With each other. They want to grow up and get married!”
It pushes Callie right over the edge, hearing this mom talk like that. She is halfway up the stairs to prep Jess for surgery, but she whips around and stomps back and tells the mom a thing or two about how sending your kid to conversion camp is child abuse, that it’s torture, and that her horrific homophobia is the reason her daughter literally stepped in front of a train. The mom just screams at Callie then, like she’s the maid or something and this mom is some kind of Upper East Side WASPmonster.
It’s not smart. Nobody picks on Callie Torres.
While Callie is getting Jess ready for surgery, they talk about her relationship with Alia.
Jess: You know, Alia and I, we like to pass notes at school, the kind you fold in a million different ways. I kept them, every single one, in a box under my bed, so I could reread them when I had bad days.
Callie: Bad days?
Jess: Sometimes kids at school, well … people suck, you know? They like to tease us. Throw things. The other day I came home and my mom was in my room. She found my box of notes; she burned them in the fireplace.
During the operation, Alex and Callie talk about how they were bullied when they were teenagers, but they flipped it around and decided they only way to win was to fight back. “I didn’t look like the other girls, I didn’t act like them. I’ll tell you what, though, once you punch your first bully, the rest fall in line pretty quickly,” Callie says.
Maggie, though, had a different experience with bullying. She tells Alex and Callie:
People like you used to call me little maggot, because I was younger than you and smarter, and because of my lisp. They had a field day with my lisp. Little Maggot Pierce. It wasn’t cute when I was begging not to be pantsed in the middle of the quad. Really think about that, my pants were literally pulled off of me in front of other people. Or when I was screaming for help in the janitor’s closet until the police found me the next morning because I was locked inside. Bullies bully because they can, or maybe because they get bullied at home, but people like me, and like this girl on our table, are alone and small and vulnerable. And pushing us around makes you feel better about your sad, pathetic little lives.
It’s a Very Special moment, but it’s a good one. It’s real and the emotional punch lands right in your heart’s eyeball.
Ultimately, though, Maggie finds her fire and ends up slugging Jess’ mom right in the face. Callie calls Child Protective Services, which sets off the mom in a brand new way. This lady already assumed Maggie wasn’t a doctor because she’s black, and then she launches in on another homophobic tirade, and Maggie just wallops her! When Callie is bandaging Maggie up, she explains how to make a fist so you don’t break your thumb, for the next time Maggie gets into a fisticuffs with a bigot, and Arizona rushes in grinning with glee, talking about, “Is it true?! Did Callie punch a homophobe??” She tries to high five Maggie, but Maggie feels too guilty to celebrate. Everyone else high fives, though.
Jess’ dad bonds with Alia’s dad over how much they love their daughters and how much they don’t give a damn if they’re gay, as long as they’re alive. Jess’ mom doesn’t agree, and finally her husband comes unglued on her: “I don’t care if she’s gay! I care if she’s happy! I care if she’s loved! And that’s what you should care about! What is wrong with you that you don’t?” Jess overhears him yelling, and she knows it’s going to be okay.
At the end of the day, Alia makes it through surgery. Her dad comes to see her and he has a note; it’s from Jess.
“Dear my beautiful Alia,” he reads, and then he smiles at his lesbian daughter. “Oh,” he says, “I like her already.”
Welcome back, early days Grey’s!
How to Get Away With Murder
Annalise Keating is bisexual! This is not a drill! I repeat, Viola Davis just became the first black woman to win an Emmy for Best Actress in a Drama for a character who has now revealed herself as bisexual! HOLY CATS, Y’ALL!
The plot of this show is way too intricate and topsy-turvy for me to try to explain the central mystery (and subsequent zillion cover-ups and double-crossings) to you in a comprehensible way, so for brevity’s sake, let me just tell you that Annalise used to have a boring ass husband who was also an asshole who slept with students, and now he is dead. Before him, though, Annalise had a girlfriend! A law school lover! Her name was Eve and she looked like Famke Jansen. Eve returns to Annalise in the season two premiere because Annalise slyly convinces the guy she was sleeping with (and then set up to take the fall for her husband’s murder) to hire her as his defense attorney (because she wants him to be exonerated). (I told you it was complicated!)
At first, Annalise just takes a bite of a literal apple in Eve’s presence and Eve refuses to defend Nate, but then Annalise goes to Eve’s house in the middle of the night, crying about how she ruins everyone, and Eve confesses she’s been thinking about Annalise every single day since college. And so Annalise takes a bite of her metaphorical apple! They make out, do some scissoring, and Eve agrees that she’ll defend Nate after all — which means, among other things, that she’s going to be around a lot this season and probably smooching on Annalise some more.
I’ve always thought Bonnie was in love with Annalise. Now I think it more than ever.
Do you think Shonda Rhimes has a Time-Turner? I’m asking because how else could she do so much? And I don’t simply mean “so much” as in “make so many TV shows.” Obviously, that’s remarkable. I mean “so much” as in: How does she tirelessly, repeatedly shatter every boundary most showrunners in Hollywood wouldn’t touch with a 39-and-a-half foot pole? Fuck your token person of color. Fuck your token queer woman. Fuck the subtext. Fuck the tropes. And fuck the idea that Strong Female Characters are the unicorns of televisual Narnia. Shonda Rhimes writes Real Women. They’re not superhuman. They’re strong in the broken places.
Last night changed the way I’m going to think about TV from now on. I am 100 percent officially done forever with eating the scraps networks drops on the floor and try to pass off as acceptable meals. The most anticipated premiere night on broadcast crushed everyone in ratings, dominated social media, featured two black women headlining their own shows, and brought us six fully realized queer women.
When I interviewed Jasika Nicole earlier this year about her time on Scandal, she told me:
I don’t think the movements for racial equality and sexual identity are necessarily the same fights, but I think they tread a lot of the same ground. You’re right that Shonda didn’t just start doing this; she’s been doing it for years. Thank God she’s finally getting the acknowledgment from other people. But you know what? Even if she wasn’t getting the recognition, she’d still be doing it. She’s doing it because she believes in it.
I believe, too! Shondaland feels like Narnia, but y’all, this is real life.