The Bitter Tragedy of Darlene Conner in the Roseanne Revival

Early in Roseannes original run, it was tough to predict what kind of woman Darlene Conner would one day become. The younger of Roseanne and Dans two daughters, Darlene was clearly smart and athletic—but she was also listless and rebellious. She barked—literally barked—at her teacher; she put more effort into mocking her older sister, Becky, than she did into her schoolwork; she didnt have much ambition beyond, perhaps, becoming a superstar basketball player.

Halfway through Season 2, however, things started to change. When Darlene agreed—mostly under duress—to read a poem shed written in front of her class, her future began to take shape. In the seasons to come, Darlene would eventually supplant Becky as the Conner child destined for greatness. Becky had school smarts, but Darlene was special; she had an artistic vision, and a fiery ambition to get out of Lanford, Illinois—to do something greater with her life. Over time she became, in many ways, an early emblem of a certain Gen-X malaise: her creative talents were undeniable, and often it felt she deserved so much more than the opportunities afforded her. But there was always a hope that shed make it.

Thats what makes Darlenes fate in the revival so tragic. Despite all her promise, the Conner familys great hope is now unemployed, scared, and lost, without a career, a home of her own, or a partner to help her care for her two children. (Though her ex, David, has sworn hell be more present in his familys lives, actor Johnny Galeckis ongoing gig on The Big Bang Theory is going to make that promise difficult to keep.) Like the rest of the Conner family Darlene is struggling with problems that face much of Americas working class: few opportunities and even fewer options.

“I thought Id be a huge success by now,” Darlene tearily tells her mother in the shows premiere. “I thought I could buy a huge house that I could hold over your head.” As Darlene cried and Roseanne gently joked, it was hard not to mourn the loss of what could have been—and this weeks installment of Roseanne drove home even further just how profoundly her dream has fallen apart.

This week, as the series reveals its title characters struggle with addiction, Darlene faced a crushing problem of her own. She found herself competing with Becky for the same job: a waitressing gig at a local casino, which comes with full benefits. Darlene passes on the opportunity at first, explaining to their father, “I still want to be a writer. I mean, Ive gone from novels to textbooks to menus. If I take this waitress job, Im just giving up completely.“ But as Dan pointed out, Darlene also has two children to think about—so in the end, she goes back to Becky and asks her sister to let Darlene take the position. When Becky protests, pointing out that Darlene at least has a college degree—unlike high-school dropout Becky—Darlene gets glum. “Unfortunately, Walmart has no more openings in their English-lit department,” she tells her sister.

Ultimately, Darlene gets the job—complete with a humiliatingly revealing uniform—temporarily giving up on her dreams in order to support her kids. As Sara Gilbert, who both stars as Darlene and executive produces the revival, pointed out in a recent interview with V.F., thats a reality many Americans face.

Before sitting down to plot out the revival, Gilbert had a slightly more optimistic view of how Darlene might have turned out. “I thought about her doing pretty well. I never thought shed be Bill Gates,” she said. Then Gilbert considered the reality of the struggle many people face as they age, even big dreamers—and “it became more important to represent that.” In general, Gilbert said, the goal in reviving Roseanne has been to depict what life is really like for working-class people—not some Hollywood imagination of what it might be.

“What does really happen to so many amazing people that come from working-class backgrounds is that they have families, and then they cant always pursue their dreams,” Gilbert said. And shes right: watching Darlene mourn the career she could have had is hard enough on its own, but what makes it truly tragic is the number of real people whom she represents.

Once, Darlene was a ray of hope for her family—especially when compared to her flightier sister. Toward the end of Roseannes fifth season, Darlene earned a spot at a Chicago writing program, meanwhile David was rejected from art school. Roseanne and Dan initially worried that without supervision, Darlene could succumb to a fate similar to Beckys; the elder Conner sister had already run away, married her high-school boyfriend, and forgotten all about her lifelong dream of attending college. Over the years, Becky became a symbol of dashed potential. Darlene, her parents insisted, had to be different. Ultimately, though, Roseanne—who had long ago given up her own dreams of becoming a writer—decided it was best for Darlene to seize the opportunity and go to college. As she told her daughter at the end of the season, “I love you, Darlene. And I want you to get the hell out of here.”

Fast-forward 20 years, and Darlene is right back where she started, cracking sour jokes in the Conner house. And its her story, perhaps more than any other in the series, that offers a heartrending glimpse at the insurmountable realities facing working-class families.

Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Laura BradleyLaura Bradley is a Hollywood writer for VanityFair.com.

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