Saving Grace

“Tacos, Tulips, Ducks and Spices”

Season 1, Episode 13 (season finale) • First aired Tuesday, December 18, 2007

by Marguerite Krause
(originally published in the ORACLE newsletter)

Saving Grace is an hour-long drama that premiered on the TNT network in summer 2007, starring Holly Hunter as Oklahoma City Police Detective Grace Hanadarko. René was a guest star on the show, appearing in a couple of the last scenes of the final episode of the season.

Normally, if I were going to review one of René’s performances as a TV guest star, I’d give a bare-minimum summary of the premise of the show, then describe the plot of René’s episode in some detail, with an emphasis on the contribution of his character to the storyline and any aspects of his performance that were particularly memorable to me.

That approach isn’t going to work in this case. Numerous plot twists and the nuances of Grace’s evolution as a character throughout all 13 episodes combined to create a single, season-long story arc. In a very real sense, the entire season was one long preparation for the dramatic climax of Grace’s face-to-face encounter with René’s character, in the final scene of the final episode.

The Overall Story

Saving Grace is a cop show, set in present-day Oklahoma City. Grace and her police department colleagues, including her partner Ham Dewey (Kenny Johnson), fellow officers Butch and Bobby, and department criminologist Rhetta Rodriguez (Laura San Giacomo), investigate murders and robberies, solve mysteries, and catch the bad guys.

Saving Grace is also the story of Grace, possibly one of the most deeply dysfunctional female characters ever to occupy the leading role in a TV drama. TNT’s official website for the show describes Grace as “a tormented, fast-living Oklahoma City police detective who, despite being at the top of her field, takes self-destruction to new heights. After seeing tremendous tragedy in her life, both professionally and personally, Grace lives life hard and fast. She drinks too much, sleeps with the wrong men, and defies authority.”

If you reverse the gender pronouns in that description, it would be easy to say, “Ho hum, been there, seen that.” The tortured (male) anti-hero has been a staple of popular fiction for decades, at least as far back as the “hard-boiled detective” yarns of the early twentieth century. Just think of dime-novel crime stories, or picture Humphrey Bogart tossing back a scotch in a seedy bar in a classic film noir.

But this is the twenty-first century, and Grace is played by Holly Hunter. Yes, she’s tough, hard, cynical, smokes constantly, is almost certainly an alcoholic, and is physically courageous (or insanely reckless, depending on your definition of such things). She’s also petite (5’ 2”, according to and probably half the weight, or less, of any of her male colleagues or the criminals they fight. In one scene, her four brothers visit her at the police station, and for a few minutes, between them and her fellow detectives, Grace looks like a child surrounded by a forest of tall, broad-shouldered adults. As her brothers leave the station, each one gives her an energetically affectionate farewell—lifting her off her feet in a bear hug, socking her on the shoulder—and it’s easy to see how Grace might have first begun to acquire her rough and tumble approach to life as pure self defense to growing up with boisterous brothers. However, her younger sister is prim, proper, and stereotypically feminine (they also have another sister, killed in the bombing of the Oklahoma City Murrah Federal Building, whose personality is unknown), so Grace’s ferocious need to be strong, contrary, and self-sufficient can’t be entirely explained by family dynamics.

In addition to its standard cop show structure and the not-so-standard dichotomies of Grace’s personality—in any given episode we may see her enjoying passionate sex with her married partner, Ham (or with a stranger she picked up at a bar), then later leading a no-nonsense, completely professional police investigation, and later still having a laughing, loving conversation with her nephew (a survivor of the Murrah Building bombing) or getting sloppily sentimental with her dog—Saving Grace has one more essential element. It is a TV show about religion and spirituality.

In every episode, Grace and other characters have conversations about religious topics. They talk about the existence or non-existence of God, the nature of faith, why good and evil exist, how a person might find or create meaning in this life, whether God is merciful or judgmental (or both), the possibility of redemption, and a variety of similar subjects.

The end result is that Saving Grace is a show that will either fascinate you or be impossible to watch. You might like gritty cop shows, but find the religious subplot trite or irrelevant. You might value the exploration of spirituality but be offended by the graphic depictions of sordid sex, frequent nudity, and generally immoral behavior. In short the show is, as René often described DS9, “not everyone’s cup of tea.”

Yet the series has been renewed for a second season, so apparently it’s found an audience that appreciates its odd mixture of moral tone, flawed characters, and contemporary subject matter.

Some of the Characters

Grace Hanadarko

After its description of her “self-destructive tendencies,” the TNT website continues, “Grace has a tender side with her 22 nieces and nephews, but that is a side that most of the world doesn’t get to see. It all catches up with her one night when, as she’s driving too fast after too many drinks, she hits a man who is walking along the road. In an uncharacteristic moment, Grace asks for help, and she gets it—in the form of an unconventional angel named Earl. Earl tells Grace that she is in trouble and running out of chances, but he wants to help lead her back to the right path. The journey, for both of them, will not be an easy one…. Grace is a complex character, deeply troubled but searching for the good, with a heart full of love and pain, and a surprising tenderness when you least expect it.”

Earl (Leon Rippy)

TNT website: “…often seen chewing tobacco or drinking a beer, Earl is not your typical angel. Confronting Grace with the idea of faith, he’s what is known as a last-chance angel. Earl’s challenge is to try to crack through Grace’s tough and defiant facade.” 

Rhetta Rodriguez

TNT website: “Rhetta, despite having strong religious beliefs, is the only one in Grace’s life who does not judge her. As her lifelong friend, Grace confides in her about Earl. Intrigued and hopeful to prove the angel is real and help her friend, Rhetta creates an Earl file to track all of the physical objects Grace brings her from her adventures with Earl.”

First Season Summary: The Basics

As described above, Grace is one complex and seriously screwed-up individual. She’s a good cop, in that she’s strong, smart, and fiercely devoted to protecting the innocent and bringing evil-doers to justice. But her personal life is a mess. There’s a constant tension between her and most of the members of her large and loving Catholic family. She seems to get along well with one brother, a firefighter, but she’s barely on speaking terms with her brother Johnny (a priest), her sister Paige, or her mother. Much of her wild behavior—the excessive drinking, swearing, smoking, adultery with her partner and sex with random strangers—seems specifically chosen to say, “Up yours!” to society’s norms of “proper” behavior and, in particular, the moral teachings of the Catholic church.

Everyone around Grace is aware of her fundamental unhappiness, but her family and colleagues seem clueless as to whether her defiance and cynicism and anger are simply her way of dealing with the tragedies that every police officer has to face—innocent people hurt by guilty people who sometimes get away with their evil deeds—or whether there are deeper, more personal issues involved. The only person who seems to understand Grace, accept her as she is, and perhaps have some knowledge of whatever it is that makes Grace so driven, is her life-long friend, Rhetta.

And then there’s Earl. On the night when Grace, driving drunk, hits someone with her car, she drops to her knees next to the victim’s body and, with true remorse, says/prays, “Please God, help me!” The next instant, Earl appears. He dresses in scruffy jeans and flannel shirts, drinks beers and spits tobacco juice into the empty bottles, and tells Grace he’s there to help her turn her life around. But he rarely gives straightforward answers to any of her questions, insisting instead that she work things out for herself.

At first, Grace assumes that Earl is simply an alcohol-induced hallucination (a perfectly rational and intelligent assumption, given her lifestyle). But as episode follows episode through the season, Earl gradually convinces her that he is the real thing…and that, by extension, God too exists. In fact, Earl tells Grace, “God has big plans for you.” Sometimes, when Grace pushes him too far, Earl reveals his wings, huge and glowing, and Grace is awed. And in many of the episodes, Earl leaves behind physical proof of his visits: among other things, a feather from his wing, a beer bottle with some tobacco spit in the bottom, the remains of a taco he was eating, a wooden duck that he whittled, a “Holy Redeemer” statue, and a t-shirt with a big letter “M” on the front. Grace gets in the habit of bringing these pieces of evidence to Rhetta, who collects them and analyzes them in her lab at the police department. Rhetta, raised Catholic like Grace, retains her faith in God, but she also has a scientist’s curiosity and is thrilled at the chance to study Earl, if only secondhand through the objects he leaves behind.

Grace’s Problem

A fundamental premise of the show is that Grace needs to be saved: it says so right there in the title. For me, and perhaps for most viewers, there was never much of a mystery regarding the source of all her troubles. Grace embodies many behaviors stereotypically found among survivors of sexual abuse, including her alcohol dependency, denial of deep emotion, self-hatred expressed through self-destructiveness, sexual promiscuity, and inability to form intimate, meaningful personal relationships. Additional hints are dropped throughout the season. In one early episode, Grace completely overreacts when she sees her young nephew talking to a stranger on the street. She refuses to discuss anything to do with the Church or religion with her brother Johnny, and she seems to loathe looking at him when he’s wearing his priest’s collar. In the very first episode, she and Rhetta refer in passing to someone from their shared past, “Father Patrick Satan Murphy.” René has told the story of how, before filming on the series began, Holly Hunter approached him and told him she’d love to have him guest star on her show. He watched the season premiere, and as soon as he saw that scene, his thought was, “That’s who she’s going to ask me to play: a priest who abused her character when she was a child.”

If the root cause of all of Grace’s problems is so obvious to us as viewers, some major questions remain. Why isn’t it obvious to her family and friends? And why, in all these years, has no one helped her?

The second question is answered by Earl more than once during the course of the season. It’s addressed again, and an answer to the first question revealed, in the season finale.

Tacos, Tulips, Ducks and Spices

TNT website, episode description: “Pictures of Grace’s sister, Paige, talking to an unknown man are found in a burned vehicle. At first, Grace suspects that Paige is having an affair, but later she uncovers a different story about the man in the photos. Rhetta tries to make sense of the various items Earl has left behind for Grace and soon discovers the shocking truth that devastates Grace and forces her to face her painful past.”

Paige’s storyline is the central cop show plot in this episode, interesting mostly because of the way it forces Grace to interact with family. In the beginning, Grace fears that someone may be stalking Paige with the intent to kidnap and rape her, so she enlists her brothers to help keep an eye on her. She also has to interview Paige to try to determine whether the man in the photos might be her stalker, or her lover, or what. Eventually it’s discovered that no one was taking photos of Paige; they were taking photos of the man, who is a scam artist who gets people to sign fake petitions for worthy causes and then uses the information to empty their bank accounts.

The subplot begins with Grace having a disturbing dream about a dog with an absurdly long tongue sitting on her patio, staring at her through the window. She tells Rhetta about the “mutant dog,” but her friend has no idea what it might mean. Later, Rhetta calls Grace into her lab and shows her a list of all the items she’s collected in her “Earl file.” Rhetta is convinced that the items must have some hidden meaning; Grace studies the list in apparent seriousness and then proclaims that she’s got the answer: Earl is a litterbug! Late that night, however, Grace returns to the lab alone to stare at the list. When Rhetta finds her there the next morning, Grace says she thinks maybe Earl wants her to think about something Irish that starts with “M.” Grace is still haunted by the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, so that’s one possibility. The other, she and Rhetta agree, could be Father Patrick Satan Murphy. Except as they remember it, he died, of tongue cancer, when they were 12 years old. So why would Earl bring him up now?

While Grace gets back to her police investigation, Rhetta does some research of her own. Then she arranges a meeting with Johnny, and asks if he remembers Father Murphy, who left their parish when he got cancer, and died soon after. Johnny, surprised, says the man never had cancer; he fell and bit his tongue, and shortly afterward was transferred to a parish in Vermont. He served in several other parishes over the years and just recently retired, and is now living in Tulsa.

Rhetta asks Johnny if, in his work for the Church as someone who investigates pedophile priests, Father Murphy’s name ever came up. Johnny seems truly astounded at the thought, and wants to know what makes Rhetta ask such a question. Rhetta urges Johnny to look into the possibility.

Rhetta then takes Grace for a drive, far into the empty countryside outside of town. Once they’re in the middle of nowhere, she parks her van, leads Grace out into an empty field, and delivers her news: Father Murphy didn’t die when they were girls, but is living in a home for retired priests in Tulsa. As Rhetta anticipated, Grace reacts violently, but Rhetta has hidden the car keys so there’s nowhere for Grace to go. Grace searches the van for the keys, flinging all of its contents into the grass, then kicking a plastic cooler across the field. Finally, after one more scream, she slumps down next to the van, and Rhetta comes to sit beside her. Rhetta points out that the only time they ever talked about what happened was one night when they were 16 and very drunk. At her gentle prompting, Grace tells the whole story, calmly and with brutal detail (much more than I’ll repeat here): how her parents invited Father Murphy to Sunday dinners; how he took all seven kids on outings for ice cream or a movie but always sat beside Grace, his “favorite;” how the abuse continued from the time she was 9 until she got her first period, at which point he stopped giving her presents… and started favoring Paige. Grace went to see him one last time, asked for a kiss, then bit his tongue so hard she almost bit it off, and threatened that she’d tell everyone what he’d done if he ever so much as looked at Paige again. A few days later, as she and Rhetta remember it, they first heard the rumor that he had tongue cancer and was moving to Vermont, and later they heard he had died. Grace says that the day she heard that news was one of the few times she’s believed that God was just.

Except now they know he didn’t die, but continued to be transferred from state to state to work in different parishes. Rhetta asks Grace what she’s going to do. Grace says she needs “to know how many kids he’s hurt.”

“And when you do?” Rhetta asks.

“He’s going to prison.”

Back in the city, Grace returns to work on her police case. Johnny comes to the station, agitated, and confronts Rhetta, demanding to know whether Murphy ever abused Grace. Rhetta, unable to lie but also unwilling to betray Grace’s trust, says, “I never told you that.” Johnny rushes off and, when Grace returns to the station, Rhetta takes her aside and says, “Johnny knows.” She insists that she didn’t tell him, but he’s figured it out, and she thinks he’s on his way to Tulsa.

Grace, too, drives to Tulsa. She parks down the street from the retirement home and observes a man working in the front garden. We find ourselves looking at Father Patrick Satan Murphy, portrayed by René as an utterly ordinary, gentle-looking gray-haired man, planting flowers. But we are also looking at him through Grace’s eyes, with the memory of every horrible thing we’ve heard about him during this episode, as well as the memory of all of Grace’s self-destructive behavior and pain-filled, angry rejections of God in previous episodes. The contrast between what we know about Murphy and the harmlessness that René conveys with his performance is deeply, profoundly disturbing.

As Grace watches, her brother Johnny arrives, gets out of his car, and walks up to Murphy. They exchange a word or two, Murphy extending his hand in greeting… and Johnny hauls back his fist and punches Murphy soundly in the jaw.

Johnny turns around, strides back to his car, and drives off. Grace starts to open her door, as if she intends to go confront Murphy, but Earl materializes in the passenger seat beside her, and they talk for a moment. As often happens, Grace starts to vent her anger at Earl, but he says, “I’m just FedEx, delivering the message.” When he vanishes again, she drives away, back to Oklahoma City.

Grace and her colleagues solve the case of the scam artist, and in the evening Grace and her family gather to celebrate her mother’s birthday. Grace and Johnny talk briefly; he tells her that she doesn’t have to bear this burden alone, but she is adamant that she doesn’t want anyone to know. Not their mother, not anyone. For the moment, at least, it appears that Johnny will respect her wishes.

Late that night, alone in her house, Grace finally addresses God directly. She shouts at God, outraged that He lets someone like Murphy move from city to city, raping how many children during his career—10, 20, more?—only to retire to a beautiful home with a beautiful garden. She hates a God who lets innocent babies die and gives Murphy roses. She demands an answer, but God doesn’t reply. Then she calls out for Earl, but he doesn’t appear, either.

Grace returns to Tulsa. It’s the middle of the night, quiet and dark. She sneaks into the retirement home, finds Murphy’s room, and approaches the bed, where he’s sleeping. She wakes him (rudely: see his February 2008 interview with fans) and starts throwing out accusations, all the while with her gun aimed steadily at him. He doesn’t recognize her at first, but she identifies herself, and he seems remorseful and says that what he did to her was a terrible sin, and that he prays for her every night. She says she doesn’t want him thinking about her at all, and has him get out of bed and kneel on the floor in front of her. She seems ready to execute him on the spot, but he pleads with her, “Don’t do this. Don’t put the mark of murder on your soul.” She presses the muzzle of her gun to his forehead. “I’m just FedEx,” he continues, “trying to deliver a message.”

This echo of what Earl had said earlier in the day stops Grace cold. Still pointing the gun at Murphy, she demands to know whether he knows Earl. He looks up at her, and it’s impossible to tell whether he’s puzzled by her question or surprised that she has mentioned the angel.

And then the screen goes black.

* * * * *

After this cliffhanger ending to Season 1, I’m intensely curious to see how Saving Grace will begin its second season!

René mentioned (in a note to the readers of the ORACLE newsletter) that it’s uncertain whether Saving Grace will be able to arrange for him to reprise his role as Father Murphy in a future episode. As a viewer, I certainly want to know how that confrontation between Grace and Murphy ended, and would be pleased if the show picked up at the beginning of the next season more or less exactly where they left off in the last one.

However, even if we don’t see Murphy on screen again soon (or at all), it seems to me that Grace’s past history with him, and how she deals with all of that in the present, will be essential to her further development as a character. I raised two questions earlier: why none of her loved ones ever knew that she was abused, and why no one has helped her. Throughout the first season, Earl regularly insisted that he couldn’t give Grace answers or solve her problems; she has to figure out the answers for herself. In other words, other people can’t help Grace. She must find her own way to healing and wholeness.

As to why Grace’s family and friends never knew what happened to her, it’s clear that she simply never permitted them to see the truth. Shame and a compulsion for secrecy are central aspects of the child abuse experience in many cases, and Grace’s story follows that pattern. She tells Rhetta that she wants Murphy to go to prison, but that can’t happen unless she or other of his victims are willing to step forward and testify against him. To avoid bringing the secret out in the open, it’s no wonder Grace is tempted to simply put a bullet between his eyes.

Saving Grace is an odd and uncomfortable show. René’s guest role in the season finale, measured objectively by how many minutes he was on screen or how many lines of dialogue he spoke, wasn’t very big. But measured by the importance of his character in the life of the central character of the series, and the repercussions that are likely to follow from his appearance, in Grace’s personal growth and the shape of the overall story arc for the coming season, this role was HUGE. Whether we physically see him again or not, Father Murphy’s (and by extension, René’s) presence is going to be felt on the show for a long time to come.