The episode is "Gloria the Victim", one of two during the show's history dealing with rape. Charles Durning does a fine job as a police detective investigating the attack, but its' series regulars Carrol O'Conner (Archie Bunker), Jean Stapleton (his wife Edith), Rob Reiner (son-in-law Mike) and especially...
...Sally Struthers (daughter Gloria) who really shine here.
Situation comedies are often criticized for presenting a problem, or series of problems, that gets solved in under 30 minutes, then is never mentioned again. This doesn't happen here, but what so intrigues me about this episode is that in 1973 there was still so much fear and shame surrounding rape that both Archie and an anguished Mike want it to play out that way. Solve it quick and have some hot dogs. Unfortunately, they solve it by not solving it. And as seen in concluding close-up of a devastated Gloria, they can't even take care of their own. A remarkable episode
The subject of rape was revisited in 1977, this time with Edith as the intended victim. Unlike the first episode, which came and went without much notice, this was an hour-long special (two parts in syndication) that was heavily promoted, and shown in advance to hospitals and police stations around the country. Titled "Edith's 50th Birthday", it's the better known of the two rape shows. In my opinion, it's also the inferior of the two. Jean Stapleton turns in an excellent performance, but the writing lets her down. As with the first episode, there's a fair amount of comedy. Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with that. I strongly believe comedy can be more than mere escapism, and, if you tell your story honestly, humor can arise out of even as serious a subject as rape. But some of the comic bits here (Archie dropping a bat on Mike's foot, Gloria pulling hairs off Archie's chest) seem better suited to a Three Stooges short. However, it's a key dramatic moment toward the end that I find really disappointing. More about that later.
Here's the set-up: Archie is over at Mike and Gloria's next door (the former occupants having moved to a deluxe apartment in the sky) helping them get ready for his wife's surprise party. Edith, though, found out about it ahead of time and in fact at her house alone baking the cake. She hears a knock on the door, and lets in a young man with a badge claiming to be a police detective. He locks the door and attempts to rape Edith:
Edith Bunker was a beloved television character by 1977. Some people found the above scene so disturbing, they sent death threats to actor David Dukes, who played the rapist.
After she gets away, Edith runs to her daughter and son-in-law's house, where Archie attempts to calm her down and find out exactly what went wrong:
Traumatized by the whole ordeal, Edith refuses to leave the house, runs upstairs whenever she hears someone at the door, and becomes obsessed with washing and ironing clothes:
I'm sorry, but I don't buy that ending.
It's not that Edith shouldn't go down to the police station and identify her attacker. Of course she should. It's the right thing to do. But people don't always do the right thing. You can have a character in a movie or TV show exhibit exemplary behavior, audiences can applaud that exemplary behavior, but then walk right out of the theater or away from the set, and do exactly the opposite. What's accomplished exactly, other than living vicariously through a make-believe paragon? Gloria, with the advice and consent of her father and husband, does the wrong thing in the first rape show, but we get to see the reasons why she does the wrong thing, the environment she's operating under, what she's up against. We can learn from that and try to change that environment, to make it easier on victims of rape. Make it easier to do the right thing.
To be fair, the second show did do a good job of showing the psychological toll from such an attack. That was, in the sense, the moral of the story. But they wanted an additional moral. Women should report their attackers. Unfortunately, if they're traumatized, as is clearly the case with Edith, they're less likely to do so. How to reconcile these two morals in less than a minute and a half? By resorting to that hoariest of dramatic devices: the slap-epiphany. Or the slapiphany, if you will. This episode did put a novel twist on the slapiphany by having the scales fall from the eyes of the slapper rather than the slappee. But is screaming at someone that you're ashamed of them, as Gloria did to Edith, really the most effective form of therapy? Actually, people do do that with loved ones who may be emotionally unstable. That it works in this case is where the false note lies. Also, hugging a person immediately after slapping them. Though it's not uncommon in movies or on TV, ever see it in real life? I know. It's just a sitcom. Pure fiction. But if you're going to insert reality--in this case, rape--into a sitcom, I expect people to act realistically.
Maybe they did. Maybe it was the first episode that was unrealistic. Maybe neither was. Maybe both were. Maybe it's an impossible subject for a sitcom, and we should just applaud the effort and not concern ourseves with the results. You can decide for youselves.
Just don't forget that it's the rapist, not the victim, who's really in the wrong.